STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The morning talk wasn't so much about the third-ranked opponent but about the paths folks took to get here, the audibles called to make it to town in time for the Penn State-Alabama kickoff, the one lane that opened in one direction on Route 322 just outside Harrisburg early Saturday morning that smoothed the way for the late arrivals.
The radio chatter along the Susquehanna River valley was all about road closures and volunteers needed to clear debris, bridges open to residents only, ID required.
The game itself was more predictable than the river. The Crimson Tide proved to be bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter. They didn't use up all their first-half timeouts on their first drive as the Nittany Lions did. They held one of Penn State's two revolving quarterbacks to just one completed pass. The 27-11 final score at Beaver Stadium felt about right.
"When you play a Joe Paterno-coached team, you know you're going to get their best," said Alabama coach Nick Saban.
If true, that's a most depressing thought for Nittany Lions fans and presumably for Paterno, who was appropriately grumpy if not specific in his testiness.
"A couple of guys just got a little tight, I don't know," Paterno said.
On a day like this, it's hard to say Rob Bolden won Penn State's quarterback job over Matt McGloin since Bolden completed only 11 of 29 passes. But not looking bad seemed good enough to win a little more trust. It earned Bolden a few more series yesterday after a more even split in the opener. Paterno declined to address that issue and absolved both quarterbacks from too much blame, saying his receivers have got to catch the ball.
Paterno made it clear he hates watching the game from the press box, as he did for the second straight week after taking his preseason practice hit.
"Downstairs, you're in the middle of it," said Paterno, still using crutches. "You're ready to give and take."
Before the kickoff, equal numbers of fans dressed in red and white posed in front of the statue of Paterno just outside the stadium. This game mattered because of the history. If there were a Mount Rushmore of football coaches, the two no-debate faces up there would have to be JoePa and Bear Bryant. Crimson Tide fans were respectful, even applauding Paterno when they saw him in a golf cart right after the game. (Penn State fans also cheered their only sighting of the coach).
The current 'Bama coach is not a living legend, but he may be the top guy in the game today. Nick Saban's team didn't commit a penalty until late in the third quarter, an illegal procedure that didn't slow the Tide down a bit. About the only thing Saban could find to grump about was the bad 'Bama defense that allowed Penn State to complete a third-and-20 pass that led to the sole Penn State touchdown in the game's last two minutes. That and a first-quarter fake punt that worked and turned the momentum Alabama's way for good. Saban noted that despite the first down, the ballcarrier "missed a big hole on the outside." Even the blown plays worked out.
Thousands of Crimson Tide fans found tickets, and some had interesting arrival tales, like this one tailgating group of 11: Their hotel in Hershey was a no-go, flooded from all sides. The group of mostly present or former rocket scientists - really, they said, they were computer engineers at NASA, in Huntsville, Ala. - detoured north for 31/2 hours along the Susquehanna ("We saw Quakers and strip clubs, side by side, forever," said one of the group, Bill Haliman.)
They found a house for rent last minute on Craigslist after a New Jersey group canceled when their own house flooded. The homeowner had only a couple of ground rules for the Crimson Tide fans: "Feed the guinea pigs and the rabbit, and if you eat my food or drink anything, write it on the refrigerator."
Another group from Alabama said they stopped at Gettysburg and personally re-created Pickett's Charge. "We won this time," said one older representative from the Confederacy.
This weekend, it can be pointed out that sports does not heal, only divert. Here, water-weary Nittany Lions fans found no diversion. They booed Penn State's offense off the field when Alabama barely missed interceptions on four straight plays.
"We'll see how some [players] react to the fact that we got licked," Paterno said.
Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or firstname.lastname@example.org