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Drawing Comparisons: The History Of The Penn State-Ohio State Rivalry

Ohio State fans view Penn State the same way Penn State fans view teams like Rutgers: “You’re unworthy of a rivalry,” but the history of matchups against an opponent can easily determine whether or not that team is a rival. In Rutgers’ case, its last win against the Nittany Lions in 1988 and its 2-24 overall record don’t support a valid case for a rivalry. With Penn State and Ohio State, however, things are a lot closer than the Buckeyes give credit for.

Since the first time the two programs met in 1912, Ohio State leads the overall series, 16-13. While the matchup has looked one-sided in the past decade, competition with the Buckeyes has been tight over the 103-year span. With close games and similar history, there’s enough evidence to consider Penn State a rival of Ohio State.

1912-1980: Pre-Big Ten Era

Penn State football wins its first National Championship in 1982 (Photo: Penn State Athletics

Penn State and Ohio State met seven times before the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993. In the rivalry’s first-ever bout, an independent Nittany Lions squad, led by head coach Bill Hollenback, traveled to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes in their inaugural year in the Big Ten in 1912.

The first of many games against the Buckeyes ended in an Ohio State forfeit after trailing 37-0, thanks to the merciless play of the Nittany Lions — a team that only allowed six points the entire year. This game would be only one between the two schools for a substantial period, as the next matchup came more than 50 years later.

The next five regular season meetings came under two more recognizable head coaches for Penn State, Rip Engle and Joe Paterno. Engle led the Nittany Lions to two straight wins over the Buckeyes in 1963 and 1964, both in Columbus. Once Engle retired and placed the team into the hands of Paterno, the Buckeyes got revenge and beat the Nittany Lions on back-to-back occasions in 1975 and 1976.

The last independent meeting for the Nittany Lions against the Buckeyes came in the 1980 Fiesta Bowl, a game Penn State and Ohio State came in ranked Nos. 10 and 11, respectively. All-American running back Curt Warner was the catalyst for the Nittany Lions as they won 31-19 over the Buckeyes.

Before becoming a part of the Big Ten, Penn State won two National Championships — 1982 and 1986 — compared to Ohio State’s six at that point. The next bout wouldn’t come until 1993, the first Penn State-Ohio State game as Big Ten rivals.

1993-2010: Big Ten Era (Pre-Sanctions)

Joe Paterno and Jim Tressel were catalysts in the intensity of the Penn State-Ohio State rivalry. (Photo: Michael Stein Photography)

After Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1990, it lost many of the rivalry games that it had as an independent program. Games against Pitt and West Virginia, against whom Penn State played a combined 145 games before entering the Big Ten, became less frequent. Besides finding new rivalries against Michigan State and Minnesota, Ohio State became a very frequent opponent in its new conference. Both teams have played each other every season since Penn State’s inclusion into the Big Ten.

The first Big Ten matchup between the two was a primetime game on Oct. 30, 1993, where No. 12 Penn State traveled to Columbus to take on No. 3 Ohio State. The Nittany Lions, led by Kerry Collins, turned the ball over five times and didn’t find the endzone as they fell to the Buckeyes, 24-6. The next seven years provided a back-and-forth series, with Ohio State only winning one more game in that span. Penn State’s largest margin of victory against Ohio State came in 1994 on Homecoming. Kerry Collins led the No. 1 Nittany Lions, going 19-for-23 with two touchdowns, to a 63-14 rout of the No. 7 Buckeyes. That 1994 season concluded with an undefeated record and a Rose Bowl victory.

Ohio State faced Penn State as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time in 1998, and won 28-9. The programs split the two games before the 2001 season, as Penn State still led the series 9-7. Once the 2001 season arrived, the rivalry began to swing far in the Buckeyes’ direction with the hiring of head coach Jim Tressel.

At this point, the rivalry between the two teams combined with a rivalry between two coaches. Paterno and Tressel became easily recognizable as the best coaches in the Big Ten, and it translated on the field. In the first five years of Tressel’s tenure, every Penn State-Ohio State game was decided by ten points or fewer. Paterno and the Nittany Lions took the first meeting against Tressel’s Buckeyes, winning 29-27 in 2001 at Beaver Stadium.

However, the next three years were dominated by the Buckeyes and set the trend for the rivalry that we know today. The following season, No. 4 Ohio State barely sneaked by No. 17 Penn State in a late October game, 13-7, and eventually won the National Championship in 2002 (which, a decade later, became par for the course).

Tressel’s impact on the Buckeyes was a key factor for Ohio State’s success against the Nittany Lions since 2001. During Tressel’s time at Ohio State, the Buckeyes were unranked only once, and were out of the Top 10 just three times when it played Penn State. Entering games against Penn State in 2006 and 2007, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in the country, and rolled the Nittany Lions in both games. Penn State won three games — 2001, 2005, 2008 — against Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes, but Ohio State took the lead in the series, 13-12.

2011-present: Programs Hit By Sanctions 

2015 Football Team Photo
The 2015 Penn State football team hopes to jump start a new era of the program. (Photo: Alex Bauer)

Along with their play on the field, the similarities of both programs shifted off the field at the start of the new decade.

At the end of the 2010 season, it was found that members of the Ohio State team gave autographs and memorabilia in exchange for tattoos. It was reported that Tressel knew about the incident, and didn’t address the situation. After the NCAA realized the violations, all players involved were suspended along with their head coach. Jim Tressel’s punishment worsened as the offseason progressed, and he eventually resigned in May 2011. The Buckeyes also vacated all wins from 2010, including a 38-14 win over the Nittany Lions in Columbus.

The 2011 season was a very down year for the Buckeyes, and Penn State took advantage. The crippled program fell to the No. 21 Nittany Lions 20-14 en route to a 6-7 season. The week before this game, Tom Bradley took over as interim head coach in place of Joe Paterno after the coach was relieved of his responsibilities mid-week. Penn State finished 9-4 that season with a TicketCity Bowl loss to No. 17 Houston. From there, both programs saw dramatic changes to their teams for the next few seasons.

Both programs entered the 2012 season under NCAA sanctions with brand new coaches. Penn State began the year sanctioned with newly hired Bill O’Brien at the helm, while Ohio State entered 2012 with a one-year bowl ban under new head coach Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes defeated Penn State in Happy Valley that season, 35-23, with the help of Braxton Miller’s three combined touchdowns.

Since each program received its NCAA sanctions, the Buckeyes have won three straight against the Nittany Lions while also winning a national championship in 2014. While Ohio State continued its tenure with Urban Meyer, Penn State started a new era in 2014 with the hiring of James Franklin. After Franklin’s arrival, the sanctions were lifted, and the Nittany Lions played the eventual national champions close before eventually falling 31-24 in double overtime.

But with new coaches, and no NCAA sanctions hampering them, both programs began to look toward very bright futures ahead.


The Buckeyes have taken control of the series since Penn State’s Big Ten arrival, but Franklin and this Nittany Lions team aspire to bring this program back to the top of the conference. Penn State has its chance to make waves when it takes on Ohio State this Saturday, Oct. 17 at 8 p.m.

Ohio State has never lost to Penn State as the No. 1 team in the country. Penn State hopes to add another chapter to the intriguing history of this relationship by finally defeating the No. 1 Buckeyes this Saturday night.

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About the Author

Jacob Abrams

Jacob Abrams is a sophomore from Oxford, PA, majoring in Management in the Smeal College of Business. Jacob is the President/GM of The LION 90.7 FM along with being a play-by-play commentator and sports talk show host. He is a sports fanatic, and strongly supports the Philadelphia Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, and the New Orleans Saints. He is a first-generation Penn Stater, and in his free time he likes to play sports and sing. You can follow him on Twitter @jake_abrams and contact him at [email protected]


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