UNIVERSITY PARK, Oct. 8–The Nittany Lions of Penn State, 2005 edition, even after cleaning Minnesota’s clock last week, still had some doubters, including one Nittany Turkey. Those who didn’t believe that Penn State could play at the same level with the best teams in the Big Ten had to be impressed with the Lions’ performance on Saturday night before 109,839 noisy partisans at Beaver Stadium, as they defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten), 17-10. Penn State improved to 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten. With six overall wins, they are the first Big Ten team this year to become eligible for a post-season bowl game.
This was not a dominating performance—by either team. The game could have gone either way and the final outcome was not decided until about a minute remained on the game clock. Ohio State had more first downs, more total yards, and more third down conversions. However, two huge turnovers by the Buckeyes made the big difference. The first, a second quarter interception by Calvin Lowry resulted in a touchdown three plays later, which increased Penn State’s lead to 14-3. The second turnover, a fumble with barely more than a minute left in the game, which was caused by a good, blind side hit by Tamba Hali on OSU quarterback Troy Smith and recovered by Scott Paxson, put an end to the Buckeyes’ hopes. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions offense protected the damn ball! For the second consecutive game, there were no turnovers. A non-dominating performance, yes, but one that says that Penn State can play on the same field with anybody in the Big Ten.
This Turkey has egg on his face. I projected a final score of 17-6, but with the Buckeyes on top. Well, at least I got the 17 right! It appears that my projection for the season’s won/loss record is similarly imperiled. In order to get to 7-4 now, the Nittany Lions would have to go 1-4 in the next five games. I think it is possible that they can win at least two or three of the remaining games. Thus, I’m sad to say that Blue White Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz’s 8-3 “minimum acceptable performance” challenge looks a lot better than my prognostication at this point. I’m sad because Phil might be closer to correct than I am, but I am happy that the Nittany Lions might do that well.
I’m certain that at least a few Penn State fans already will have started planning trips to Pasadena. Not this Turkey. Yes, the Ohio State game was a most excellent victory; however, Penn State plays in the Big Ten Conference. Please do not forget how difficult it is to win the conference. Already, pre-season favorites Michigan and Ohio State have been knocked off, as have Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Two of these, Michigan and Purdue, have been beaten twice. Both had aspirations of winning the conference title this year. But the Big Ten, with the exception of a couple of teams like Indiana and Illinois, is an “on any given Saturday” type of league. It is tough to run the table in the Big Ten. So, right now, Penn State looks great sitting atop the conference standings. That makes the Nittany Lions marked men—their remaining opponents will be gunning to knock the Lions off that pinnacle. And four of them—Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Michigan State—have a pretty good chance of doing it. (Many have already written off Purdue. The Boilermakers looked horrible in their loss to Iowa on Saturday, but Joe Tiller is an excellent coach, who might yet be able to whip his team into shape.) So, any Pasadena plans are absolutely, unequivocally premature.
The series with Ohio State has been a colorful one, with a great history. Penn State now leads the series 11-10. Now that Penn State is in the Big Ten, the teams will play each year for the foreseeable future.
My first exposure to the special nature of this game came on November 7, 1964, long before Penn State’s entry into the Big Ten, when I was a freshman at the PSU main campus. (Contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t around for the 1912 inception of the series.) In that 1964 classic, the unranked Nittany Lions went to Columbus to meet the #2 Buckeyes in the horseshoe. Rip Engle was still the head coach then—JoePa would replace him the following year. The legendary Woody Hayes was the Ohio State coach. We didn’t have cable or satellite TV sports networks back then. There was a TV in the lobby of the dorm, and on a clear day, it could receive the Altoona station. In that era, there were usually only one or two televised college football games on Saturday for the whole country—whichever ones the networks chose. The PSU-OSU game was not one of them. So, we listened on the radio. Penn State wound up winning that game, 27-0, holding the mighty Buckeyes to -14 yards in the first half. The Lions caught ’em with their pants down. Back in State College, we had no goal posts to tear down, so we tore up the town. The most significant events in the ensuing riot were a group of exuberant students carrying a Volkswagen beetle down to the pond behind President Eric Walker’s house (then on campus), floating it on the pond, and a student commando attack on a Pittsburgh-bound bus that had stopped outside The Corner Room, in which cherry bombs were substituted for hand grenades. The Lions finished that season at 6-4, while Ohio State finished theirs 7-2. Neither figured in the national title picture that year.
Penn State’s most recent victory in the series prior to this 2005 contest had been a historic occasion. On October 27, 2001, Jim Tressel was Ohio State’s new coach, but it was Penn State’s old coach that was making history. With a 29-27 win at Beaver Stadium, Joe Paterno earned his 324th victory as a head coach, cementing his hold on the most wins for any major college coach. (Alas, this mark was to be eclipsed and Joe passed by Bobby Bowden of Florida State.) The Lions, however, were mired in their 21st Century slump, finishing 5-6 in 2001.
So, enough history for now. Let’s get back to the present. The path forward, as mentioned above, takes a perilous course and nothing—nothing—should be taken for granted. When the euphoria and the hangovers die down in the aftermath of this supposedly defining game, we’ll remember that some big games remain. The hard work ahead begins next Saturday in The Big House, as the newly ranked #8 Nittany Lions face unranked Michigan on their home turf.
What can I say about Michigan? They’re talented but so far this year, they’ve underachieved. Who would have expected them to lose three games this year, let alone by mid-season? Who would have expected Michigan to be one of the “Others Receiving Votes” in the national ranking polls? Nevertheless, they are a dangerous, dangerous team.
Michigan (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) was ranked #21 as they took the field in Ann Arbor for their matchup yesterday with the unranked Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-1, 2-1). They left the field on the short side of a 23-20 score, the game being decided by a last-second field goal by Minnesota. Minnesota was able to execute long drives, mostly on the ground. They ran for 264 yards, with Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell splitting running chores, amassing 129 and 128 yards, respectively. Does this mean that the Wolverines are pushovers? After all, the Penn State defense bottled up the Gophers’ vaunted running attack. No, it means no such thing. Michigan, even with three losses, is dangerous, and we’re going to be invading their house.
The Nittany Lions will have to get to work quickly and not bask in their success with Ohio State. The Lions should consider no one on their schedule easily beatable. Just recall the Illinois game in the 1994 undefeated season. Only a miracle finish allowed the Lions to win that game–“The Drive.” Illinois was no great shakes in 1994 and isn’t very good this year. Penn State must count on strong opposition, no matter what. They must play all four quarters (and overtimes, perhaps) of every game.
This could get interesting this year. Beating Michigan will give me warm fuzzies. This Turkey had predicted losses to Northwestern, Ohio State, and Michigan this year. Obviously, I suck at predicting, and I don’t mind admitting it. A win for Penn State is always a win for me.