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‘The Prettiest Block of Wood’: PSU Captains, Franklin Weigh in on Land Grant Trophy

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 26: Penn State's Tyrell Chavis (56), Sterling Jenkins (76), S Marcus Allen (2), CB Amani Oruwariye (21), and S Malik Golden (6) celebrates with the Land Grant Land-Grant Trophy after the game. The Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Michigan State Spartans 45-12 to win the Big Ten East Division on November 26, 2016 at Beaver Stadium in State College, PA. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire)

On paper, this year’s Penn State-Michigan State game is a mismatch. 

Neither team is playing for a Big Ten East championship like Ohio State and Michigan will be Saturday.

It won’t have any impact on the College Football Playoff picture like Ohio State-Michigan will and Notre Dame-USC could. 

It won’t feature Lane Kiffin like Thanksgiving night’s Egg Bowl will. 

Penn State (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) has had a good year. Michigan State (5-6, 3-5) hasn’t. As a result, Saturday’s game, scheduled for 4:00 in Beaver Stadium on FS1, is expected by many to be a slaughter. Penn State is an 18.5-point home favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

There’s a good chance other rivalry games played over Thanksgiving weekend will be closer and more compelling.

But they won’t have the Land Grant Trophy. 

The signature of the Penn State-Michigan State rivalry is, in the words of Penn State linebacker Jonathan Sutherland, “a big block of wood.”

Some people don’t care much for the block of wood.

Others love it. 

“I think it’s the prettiest block of wood I’ve ever seen in my life,” Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford told reporters via Zoom Tuesday. 

The teams started playing for the “block of wood” in 1993. Most fans know that Joe Paterno was Penn State’s coach back then. They might need help answering who Michigan State’s coach was.

George Perles is the correct answer, and he’s the man who designed the famous block of wood. 

The Land Grant Trophy is named to honor the heritage of both schools for being critical land-grant institutions. 

A land-grant school is an institution that falls under 1862’s “Morrill Act.” 

The trophy pays tribute to a pair of landmarks each from both schools, with color photos of Penn State’s Old Main and Michigan State’s Beaumont Tower. It also has miniature versions of Penn State’s Lion Shrine and Michigan State’s Spartan Statue. Atop the block of wood is a golden statuette of a football player, nobody specific. Tributes to both schools decorate the block of wood. But the feature that players from both teams care most about is the names of the trophy winners.

A BIG DAY FOR JAMES

There’s a plate for every game Penn State and Michigan State have played since 1993. The school that wins gets its name engraved for that year. Penn State has won 16 Land Grant games to Sparty’s 10. Although one of the best Saturdays of James Franklintenure happened when Penn State clinched the Big Ten East against Michigan State in 2016 at Beaver Stadium, the annual game has ended in disappointment for Franklin more often than not. 

Since Franklin became Penn State’s coach in 2014, Penn State is 3-5 against Sparty. 

Nonetheless, Franklin feels the Land Grant is “maybe the most beautiful trophy in all of college football.”

“If you guys haven’t seen it or anybody listening to this hasn’t seen it,” Franklin told reporters this past Tuesday at his weekly press conference, “look it up.” The Land Grant Trophy is just a sight to be seen. It’s just beautiful.”

It will be more beautiful for Franklin if his team wins this weekend. 

Michigan State currently owns the trophy, beating Penn State, 30-27, on a snowy day in East Lansing last November. 

Beating Sparty would do more than give Penn State bragging rights. For Franklin and the program, it would end a bounce-back regular-season with a bang. A win would give Penn State a final record of 10-2 after winning 11 games total in 2020 and ’21. That should be enough to quiet some of Franklin’s many critics… for now, anyway.

THE ‘BIG RED DOG’S” LAST TRIP TO THE PARK

Franklin’s quarterback also has his share of detractors. A 2-1 record against Michigan State as a starter has hardly inspired fans to ease up on Clifford. Now, a college football career that feels like it started before the Y2K scare is in its proverbial two-minute warning. Clifford has been at Penn State for nearly six full seasons and has been the team’s regular QB since 2019. In that time, he’s won some games, lost some others and become possibly the most polarizing quarterback in school history. 

Saturday might be the last meaningful football game Clifford plays. 

Yes, Penn State will be in a bowl game, but bowl games don’t mean what they used to due to players opting out and other factors. Sure, Clifford could get a chance with a pro team, but that’s not a lock. 

We don’t know what the future holds for Clifford. We do know that Saturday is his last game in Beaver Stadium. Winning a third Land Grant Trophy would be a fine way to go out. 

“It’s something that we definitely want back in our locker room,” Clifford said, “and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get it here.”

1 MORE FOR NO. 0

Like Clifford, Sutherland will be wrapping up an extra-long college career Saturday. Sutherland and Clifford have been at Penn State since the 2017 season. Neither were key contributors in their first two years when Michigan State ripped Penn State’s heart out. In 2017, Michigan State upset Penn State in East Lansing on a last-second field goal, killing any realistic hopes Penn State had of a Big Ten and national championship. The following year, Michigan State did the same thing, this time in Beaver Stadium and this time on a touchdown pass with 19 seconds left. That loss also killed any realistic championship dreams.

After 2018, Sutherland and Clifford became captains, positions they’ve kept for four seasons. Clifford became QB1 in 2019. It took Sutherland longer to find a starting role. Sutherland cut his teeth on special teams and as a reserve safety before finding a home as a starting linebacker this year.

Saturday will be Sutherland’s last game in Beaver Stadium, and like Clifford, it might be the final regular-season football game he plays in at any level. 

Although Sutherland described the Land Grant Trophy as a “block of wood,” he sees it as more than that. 

“It’s really about two programs and the history between us two battling it out,” Sutherland told reporters Tuesday. “So I’m all for taking that trophy. It doesn’t look the best, obviously, appearance-wise, but obviously, this game’s really important for this team this weekend.”

PJ WILL PLAY

PJ Mustipher was on his couch eating Chick-fil-A during last year’s Land Grant game.

Because of a season-ending injury suffered the previous month, all Mustipher could do was watch as his teammates played in the snow.

It’s not supposed to snow in State College this year, but the fifth-year senior is supposed to play for a trophy he describes as “cool.”

“I’m glad to be back out there,” Mustipher, a fifth-year senior and team captain, told reporters Wednesday. “(Michigan State is) a great team. We went up there; we didn’t get the job done. They have to come to us (this year), and it’s going to be a great battle. Love playing those guys, and I’m glad I can be out there back with my guys and helping us get to victory again.

“Can’t wait to line it up again. And not be on my couch.”

TIG’S KIND OF TROPHY

Ji’Ayir Brown is another team captain. Brown hasn’t been around the program as long as Clifford and Sutherland, having transferred from Lackawanna Community College before the 2020 season. Penn State beat Michigan State in Brown’s first season, but overall, the year wasn’t what Brown or anybody else wanted. Brown spoke this past Friday, the night before Penn State’s game at Rutgers, during the team’s shares, which are private for the most part.

Franklin, saying little else about what Brown told his teammates and coaches, mentioned during his press conference that Brown touched on 2020 in his share.

“Just talked about how bad it was,” Franklin said. 

It was bad. Beating Michigan State couldn’t save Penn State from having its first losing season in more than 15 years. Brown and Penn State had to celebrate the win in a largely-empty Beaver Stadium and, most importantly, COVID-19 was raging all through the 2020 season.

Brown’s last two seasons at Penn State have gone much better. Last year, he established himself as one of the team’s best players, finishing the year with six interceptions, tying for the national lead. The problem with 2021 was that Penn State went just 7-6. One of those six losses was to Michigan State. This year, Penn State will likely beat Michigan State and finish 10-2. Much better. 

Like Clifford, Sutherland and Mustipher, it will be Brown’s last game in Beaver Stadium. Brown likely won’t be done playing competitive football after this year. He’s a good bet to get drafted, perhaps in the first three rounds. Brown’s potential NFL career also means he could forgo Penn State’s bowl game, which would make Saturday his last college game ever. 

If that’s the case, he’ll go out playing for a trophy he adores. 

“It’s a little outdated,” Brown said, “but that’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of it. The culture, the history of that trophy. The battle. Just being a part of something that great, a rivalry that great, is the most important thing about the trophy. So I love everything about the trophy. The meaning behind it. The competitive attitude behind the trophy.”

Penn State is 1-1 in Land Grant Trophy games against Michigan State since Brown’s been with the program, 2-2 since Mustipher’s been there, 2-3 since Clifford and Sutherland have been there and 3-5 under Franklin. 

Without the Land Grant Trophy, Penn State and Michigan State would still be a rivalry. 

But it would be less fun.

“It’s been a great battle these last couple years playing Michigan State for that trophy because it brings more than just playing a regular game,” Brown said. “It’s playing for a prize.”

 

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