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Nebraska, Penn State renew rivalry

The sex abuse scandal in State College has completely overshadowed this weekend's Nebraska-Penn State game. It wasn't that long ago when few things would have seemed bigger than a meeting of these two teams.

The Cornhuskers and Nittany Lions have only played each other 13 times, but in the 1980s and 1990s in particular, the two programs could measure themselves against one another.

"For a lot of years, we certainly were both very prominent in college football," Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne said.

The schools played each other every year from 1979-83, and both usually brought high rankings into the game. The series came to a head in 1982, when No. 8 Penn State hosted No. 2 Nebraska in what many Nittany Lions consider the greatest game ever played in Beaver Stadium.

Osborne's Huskers had some major star power, especially in the backfield. Mike Rozier, who would win the Heisman Trophy the following year, and future NFL star Roger Craig were the running backs, while Turner Gill was the quarterback. Nebraska also had future No. 1 pick Irving Fryar at wideout and legendary center Dave Rimington snapping the ball.

"In '82, in some ways, we had our best team," Osborne said. "We were pretty good on defense and very good on offense. The '83 team was an excellent offensive team but was not very good on defense."

A Gill touchdown run gave Nebraska a 24-21 lead with 1:18 left. But Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge led his team on a game-winning drive. The march was greatly aided by a long pass to Mike McCloskey to set up first and goal at the 2-yard line. The referees awarded McCloskey the catch though he clearly looked to be out of bounds. Penn State would go on to win 27-24 and win its first national championship under Joe Paterno despite losing their next game to Alabama by three touchdowns. Nebraska would finish 12-1 and ranked No. 3.

"Certainly they deserved to win the national championship because they beat us head to head," Osborne said. "People still talk about [that game], and they still remember it. It's a different game today with instant replay and so on, and I think the margin for error is much less today. But I'm not questioning the officials -- we just didn't make enough plays in the game when we needed to."

The Huskers got revenge of sorts in 1994. Both Nebraska and Penn State finished the season unbeaten. But after Osborne's team defeated No. 3 Miami in the Orange Bowl and Penn State beat No. 12 Oregon in the Rose Bowl, both The Associated Press and coaches' poll voters awarded Nebraska the national title.

"We would have given anything to play them, but at that time they were obligated by the Rose Bowl contract," Osborne said. "We had to go down and play Miami at Miami, which is never a piece of cake. Just like the end of '82 season, you accept the vote. It's part of the deal."

The two teams' first meeting since 1983 happened in 2002. Penn State fans themed it a "settle the score for '94" grudge match, and the Lions whipped then-No. 8 Nebraska 40-7. The Huskers won the following year in Lincoln.

So there is some interesting history here, and the Big Ten is hoping this series becomes a rivalry by making Penn State and Nebraska into a protected annual cross-division matchup. Both programs are also the most recent additions to the league, with the Nittany Lions joining in 1990 and the Huskers now competing in their first year of Big Ten play.

"It's such a traditional, longstanding league that I'm sure we'll be seen as the new kids on the block for the next 10 years, whereas a lot of leagues aren't even 10 years old," Osborne said. "So there is that similarity."

The other similarity is this: both programs had their storied moments, and both are trying to recapture those days. Between 1970-99, Nebraska and Penn State finished in the top 10 of the AP poll together 17 times. It hasn't happened again since 2000. Nebraska has no top-10 finishes since 2001.

The Nittany Lions have had trouble consistently matching their previous success since joining the Big Ten, though they are in first place of the Leaders Division with a two-game edge. The Huskers have gone a decade without so much as a conference championship, and their hopes of winning a Legends Division title were dealt a body blow by last week's home loss to Northwestern.

So when the two meet again on Saturday, they will be rekindling a bit of shared history. And they can hope that the future will mean many more high-stakes games between them.