There Was A Time When Penn State Had Ohio State’s Number
It’s hard to imagine a college football world where Penn State isn’t Ohio State’s little brother.
Last December, Ohio State got the benefit of the doubt and the College Football Playoff berth without a conference championship. All preseason, the Buckeyes resided near the top of the rankings ahead of Penn State. Heading into Saturday, they are favored by nearly a touchdown over a Nittany Lion team that is four spots ahead of them in this week’s AP Poll.
While the Nittany Lions upset the Buckeyes a year ago, won the Big Ten, and now stand as the No. 2 team in the country, the pro-Ohio State perception isn’t exactly gratuitous. After all, Ohio State has dominated college football as a model of consistency since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, going 253-58 and winning 10 conference titles and a pair of national titles since 1993 amidst a revolving door of coaches and scandals.
In the last six years alone, while under Meyer’s tutelage, the Buckeyes are 65-7, having outscored the Nittany Lions 188-95 in five meetings. Comparatively, while Penn State has strung together a few special seasons as a member of the Big Ten, the last 25 years have included both some of the worst seasons of Joe Paterno’s career and the sanctions era. The Nittany Lions are 210-96 since joining the Big Ten — not too shabby, but not Buckeye-esque.
Ohio State leads the all-time series 17-14.
Before they joined the Big Ten, however, the Nittany Lions had the Buckeyes’ number. Of course, the two teams only met eight times between 1912 and 1980, but Penn State strung together a notable 6-2 record during that span, regardless of what success was had across state lines.
Interestingly, six of those eight out-of-conference games were played in Columbus, where the Nittany Lions will travel Saturday. Penn State managed to go 5-1 in those games.
In 1912, Penn State kicked off what would one day become a major rivalry with an ugly thrashing in Columbus that the Buckeyes forfeited after falling behind 37-0. The two blue-blood programs didn’t meet again until 1956, when Rip Engle edged out a young Woody Hayes 7-6 to escape Ohio Stadium and its 80,000+ crowd with a win over the defending national champions and No. 5 team in the country. After a scoreless first three quarters, running back Bruce Gilmore put the Nittany Lions in front with a touchdown run to start the fourth quarter. Ohio State’s Don Clark answered with what would’ve been the tying score, but kicker Frank Kremblas missed the extra point, costing the Buckeyes the game.
Sixty years later, special teams plays would continue determine the outcomes of Penn State games against heavily favored Ohio State teams.
The two teams met again in 1963 in the first of a two-year series played at Ohio Stadium with Penn State winning an unexciting game that lacked the offensive firepower both teams flash by the unassuming score of 10-7. The second half of the series, however, ended up being one of the most iconic games in Penn State history.
Facing a 3-4 Penn State team, the Buckeyes entered the game as the No. 2 team in the country and walked off the field at The Shoe as a “stumbling, fumbling giant.” Penn State notched a shocking 27-0 win on the road, holding the Buckeyes to 63 yards of offense and five first downs and riding the back of running back Don Kunit, who ran for two touchdowns.
The next time the two teams met, Ohio State swept a home-and-home series with a pair of one-possession wins in 1975 and 1976, the only times Paterno and Hayes, arguably the biggest names in conference history, ever coached against each other. 1976 marked the Buckeyes’ first trip to Happy Valley, where they are 7-6 all time.
The final time the two teams played each other before becoming conference rivals came in the 1980 Fiesta Bowl when the No. 10 Nittany Lions’ balanced rushing attack held off the No. 11 Buckeyes for a 31-19 win. While possibilities abound of what the College Football Playoff picture will look like this winter and some have predicted an all-Big Ten semifinal, the 1980 Fiesta Bowl remains the only time the teams have met in the postseason.
Even after the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993, the two teams played pretty comparably. Penn State was 4-5 through its first nine seasons in the conference, and it led the series as recently as 2005.
But between 2002 and 2016, the Buckeyes won 12 of their meetings with Penn State, including a run where they won seven out of nine from 2002-2009. Three of the four games Penn State officially won during this period (2010 was a vacated Ohio State win) came during the Nittany Lions’ signature seasons: 2005, 2008, and 2016. The other Nittany Lion win came in 2011, during what looked like what could’ve been another signature season for Penn State, but was ultimately derailed once the Sandusky Scandal surfaced.
2011 also marked the beginning of another era as Paterno’s legendary run came to a close. After a rare off year for the Buckeyes, when they finished 6-7, Meyer took the helm in Columbus, kickstarting another period of Buckeye dominance. Penn State’s win in 2011 evened up the all-time series, but the Nittany Lions are 1-4 and have yet to win at Ohio Stadium since then.
Saturday marks the biggest meeting since the late ’90s, when both teams hovered around the top ten seemingly every season. As lopsided as this rivalry has seemed at times, Penn State’s ascent back to the top of college football signifies the return of one of the sport’s most contentious annual matchups, complete with headline upsets, nail-biters, national implications, and no shortage of excitement, fanfare, and drama.