STATE COLLEGE — The first answer is exactly what you’d expect. American football has a sizable following in Ireland, and when it comes to the college game, Notre Dame is the first school to come up.
The second one would be tougher to guess.
“You’d be surprised the brand awareness of Penn State in Ireland,” said Páraic Duffy, the director general of the Gaelic Athletic Association. “If you ask Irish fans to name a college football team, Notre Dame and Penn State would be the first two they come up with.
“So Penn State was an easy choice for us.”
Indeed, that’s one of the reasons the Nittany Lions will be opening next season in Dublin, facing Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic.
“I think they were our first choice, to be honest,” Duffy said.
Duffy and a delegation from the GAA flew into Philadelphia on Thursday and made the trip to Beaver Stadium on Saturday for this year’s showdown between Penn State and UCF.
They were joined Saturday by former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney to promote next year’s game.
Ticket sales for the Croke Park Classic, which will be held Aug. 30, won’t begin until the turn of the year, but Duffy fully expects the game will be a sellout of 82,500-plus.
With the help of Rooney, the GAA had been seeking to get an NFL regular season game at Croke Park, but when the NFL remained committed to playing games in London, the group turned its attention to Penn State.
“The Irish are a great sporting nation and Dublin is a great sporitng city,” Duffy said. “There’s a much higher awarenss of American college football in Ireland than you might expect. We see many of Penn State’s game on ESPN.”
Rooney honored by trophy
And the Irish arrived in Happy Valley with a little something to show off.
The GAA brought along the Dan Rooney Trophy, which will be awarded to the winner of next year’s game.
The football-shaped trophy is crafted from ancient Irish trees with a dash of Pittsburgh steel. The wood is verified to be 4,200 years old and the laces are made from the remnants of old Three Rivers Stadium in honor of Rooney, who recently finished his service as ambassador.
“I didn’t really understand how they named the trophies, but it’s a common thing in Ireland,” Rooney said. “I said, ‘I don’t deserve that. Get an Irishman,’ but they said, ‘No, we definitely want it to be you because we’re playing American football and you’ve done so much.’
“It means an awful lot to me now. Once I heard what it means and how it came about and how old it was, it’s a real honor for me to do this and have the trophy named after me.”
Mike Hull was right at the front of the line coming out of the tunnel for warm-ups. The junior linebacker was going to play, the only question was how much.
That was apparent right from kickoff as Hull was replaced in the starting lineup by senior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong for the second straight week.
Hull, who suffered a sprained knee early in the opener against Syracuse, sat out last week against Eastern Michigan and was considered probable to face UCF. He sported a black brace and some heavy padding on his right knee and did not see the field until the Lions’ third defensive series.
The injury appeared to be hampering him as he was erased on the edge to set up Storm Johnson’s 58-yard touchdown run. He was quickly replaced by Obeng-Agyapong and spent the rest of the first half on the sideline.
Streak finally snapped
Sam Ficken managed to extend his streak one more time before having it come to an end.
Ficken nailed a career-long 47-yard field goal in the second quarter to make it 15 straight makes dating back to last season. No. 16 was attempted from 57 yards out at the end of the first half and landed short in the end zone.
Penn State looks to have found its full-time kick returner. Former Wyoming Valley Conference star Eugene Lewis showed some of his best moves on a 44-yard return to midfield in the second quarter, Penn State’s best of the season.
Lewis also made his first career start, lining up at wide receiver on the Lions’ first offensive play.