He was coy in the week leading up to the game. Just another week of preparation, said Noah Spence. But players usually aren’t surrounded by a horde of media on a Wednesday night. That was the scene, though, last Wednesday inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
A convoy of print and television media from Pennsylvania’s capital city and Spence’s hometown of Harrisburg descended upon Columbus to speak to the local football star who’d made it big at Ohio State while spurning Penn State in the process. Spence seemed uncomfortable with all the hullabaloo, but there was little choice.
The story wrote itself. Spence, a lifelong Penn State fan, was a shoo-in to play for legendary head coach Joe Paterno and the program of his youth. But when scandal rocked State College, Spence’s loyalties wavered. Suddenly, shockwaves rippled through the Eastern seaboard and it wasn’t just because of the Nittany Lions’ dire situation.
Five hours to the west, Urban Meyer was named head coach of the rival Ohio State Buckeyes. In less than three months on the job, Meyer convinced five would-be Penn Staters – Spence, Armani Reeves, Cam Williams, Tommy Schutt and Joey O’Connor – to play for the Buckeyes.
“Penn State was my team,” Spence said. “But I got that out of my system last year. I’m all Ohio State now.”
He had a nondescript zero tackles in a 35-23 Ohio State win at Beaver Stadium in 2012. One year later, Spence’s presence loomed large over the game. He finished with three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and a forced fumble in the 63-14 pasting of the Nittany Lions. For Bill O’Brien, it signaled what might have been. For Spence, still a teenager, it was an impressive display of strength and skill. He and the front seven punished quarterback Christian Hackenberg into submission.
When games have final margins of 49 points, there usually isn’t an “aha moment” where everything comes together for the victor. It’s usually already humming before they come to some sort of realization. But Saturday night’s victory for the Buckeyes did include game-changing moments. And Spence was the catalyst.
With the first quarter coming to a conclusion, Ohio State held a 14-0 lead. Penn State was in the midst of its most important possession of the game, attempting to put points on the board and slow the Buckeyes’ momentum. But that’s when Spence broke free and delivered a crushing blindside hit on Hackenberg, knocking the ball loose. Schutt couldn’t corral the football, but one play later, C.J. Barnett intercepted Hackenberg.
Schutt wasn’t able to forgive himself for not scooping up the fumble. He did have praise for Spence, though, declaring that he “came into his own.”
“We all needed to see some pass rush and pass defense, and guys stepped up and they certainly did,” Meyer said. “That was the most impressive part of the game to me. We caused turnovers and hit the quarterback a little bit. We haven’t been doing that. Some young talented players that haven’t played a lot of football are starting to come into their own a little bit, especially Noah Spence. He sticks out as a guy all over the place.”
Ohio State’s defense has been under fire throughout its 20-game win streak. It’s reached a fever pitch during the 2013 season. The Penn State game finally represented an opportunity seized to assert its dominance. The Buckeyes forced three turnovers after consistently applying pressure on Hackenberg.
Through all the boilerplate, Spence’s emotions proved that Penn State wasn’t just another game. And it wasn’t because of the primetime national telecast. It was the blue and white on the field, the family and friends in the stands and the Pennsylvania natives who tracked his celebrated prep career.
“I’m from Pennsylvania. Of course it was a special game,” Spence said.
What isn’t special, at least according to Spence, is his season to date. The former five-star recruit expects to live up to the hype that followed him to Ohio State. Many fans believe Spence is already achieving his potential, as do coaches. A chunk of Spence’s young career has been baptism by fire.
He might be bashful around the media, but that timidness disappears when he traipses into an offensive backfield.
“I think I’ve been doing pretty well. The team’s still undefeated, so I think we’re doing pretty good,” Spence said. “I’m learning different techniques, learning almost two positions. But it’s coming along. I’m getting better at it – I think.”