Is Penn State A Buckeye Rival?

MarkC's picture
January 29, 2014 at 8:49a

Sports fans across the country can name the biggest rivalries.  Yankees-Red Sox in baseball.  Lakers-Celtics in basketball.  Pirates of the Caribbean versus The Fast and the Furious for Movie-Franchise-that-Should-Have-Ended-After-One-Film-But-Just-Keeps-Going.  But, what makes a rivalry?

Is it a long-running series of evenly matched games?  Certainly, that plays a part.  Wisconsin and Iowa played football every year since 1936, the year Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals, metaphorically flipping Hitler a much deserved bird.  (Every year, that is, except 2011-12, when Mark Rudner botched the schedules)  Over 87 games, Wisconsin leads 43-42-2.  While the historically evenly matched Iowa is certainly a rival, Wisconsin fans would tell you Paul Bunyan’s Axe foe Minnesota is their primary rival.

Rivalries can be based on proximity to one another.  This is often due to the fight over resources, from recruits to fan allegiance to donations from wealthy boosters/corporations in the area.  A major component of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is the importance of Ohio men (both players and coaches) to TSUN’s success.  Many would argue North Carolina-Duke is one of the top rivalries in college sports, due in part to the two schools being separated by a scant 9 miles.  Texas and Texas A&M dominated Thanksgiving days in Texas (along with their beloved Cowboys) for decades.  The allure of in-state rivalries is obvious, with fans of both teams living side-by-side.

I would argue two state flagship teams in neighboring states can provide a rivalry based on state pride in a way that trumps in-state rivalries like USC-UCLA and Florida-Florida State.  This is especially true in college athletics, where major schools represent entire states in a way few professional teams outside of Green Bay do.  As such, rivalries like Oklahoma-Texas, Kansas-Missouri, and Florida-Georgia strike a more personal chord in fans across multiple sports.  When Ohio State plays TSUN in any sport (especially football), you have the state of Ohio opposing the state of Michigan.

A major event between programs (be it cultural, prank-based, or within the competition) can often serve as a rallying point from which a rivalry is born.  Think the Scottish Premiership rivalry between the traditionally catholic Celtic club and protestant Rangers, aka: Old Firm.

“From the beginning, Celtic was identified with working-class, Irish Catholic immigrants. Rangers soon came to represent a contrasting (and depending on your viewpoint, reactionary) vision of a Scottish identity that was conservative, middle-class, and Protestant. Matches between the two were frequently interrupted by pitch invasions and fighting. In 1909, a Scottish Cup final contested by Rangers and Celtic had the distinction of hosting what historian David Goldblatt calls the first "full-scale football riot." (It was a doozy—fans lit the stands on fire, and when the fire brigades showed up, the crowd hurled stones at them.)”

Army and Navy have a tradition of stealing each other’s mascots.  In fact, Navy mascot Bill the Goat (hey, nobody accused the Navy of being creative) spent the 2012 Army-Navy game just chillin’ on a road in front of the Pentagon.

<Have you seen this goat?>

Any of those the three could form the basis for a rivalry, but I would say a history of teams competing for the same thing is generally the catalyst for the biggest rivalries in sports.  For the Cincinnati Reds, that was the Los Angeles (nee Brooklyn) Dodgers.  The two teams combined to win 18 NL pennants and 6 World Series before both were placed in the National League West.  From 1969-1993, the teams combined for 14 division championships and 5 World Series titles.  Eleven times the two would finish 1-2 in the NL West and the duo combined to win all but one division championship in the 1970s.  That rivalry ended in the strike-shortened season of 1994, when the teams were split by division realignment (although the Reds and Dodgers led their respective divisions at the time of the strike).  Once these two clubs were no longer competing for the same title, the rivalry fizzled.

The rivalry between the states of Ohio and Michigan began with the Toledo War in 1835.  However, the reason Ohio State and Michigan form the greatest rivalry in sports is due to a century of competing for Big Ten (and national) championships.

The question of whether Penn State is a rival of Ohio State’s has been raised by a few recent events: OSU’s hiring of beloved longtime Penn State assistant Larry Johnson, new Penn State coach James Franklin’s opening press conference and previous SEC experience similar to Urban Meyer, and Penn State selling tickets to the 2014 Ohio State game for the rivalry price of $200.

<The sight of LJ Sr in scarlet and gray boils the blood of Nittany Lions fans everywhere>

Prior to Penn State joining the Big Ten for football in 1993, Pittsburgh was the Nittany Lions’ unquestioned archrival.  The two played all but 3 seasons (1932-34) from 1900 until Penn State joined the Big Ten, nearly always to close the season.  Penn State won 50 games to 42 victories for Pittsburgh.  The game generally had national implications and was as relevant as any intrastate rivalry in the country.  But that rivalry was put to rest with Penn State’s admittance to the Big Ten.  Ohio State and Michigan State were installed as permanent conference matchups.  They have only played Pitt four times since, with another four game set coming up to close the decade.  Many (but far less than half) Penn State fans would still rank their rivalry with Pittsburgh at least on par with that of Ohio State.  Which leads to another question: can a school have more than one rival?

Most arguments against Penn State’s status as Ohio State’s rival seem to go something along the lines of, “Michigan is such a big rivalry we do not have time for another.”  Obviously, Ohio State and TSUN’s biggest rivalries are with each other.  There has been an HBO special about it and everything.  BTN made its first feature-length documentary, Tiebreaker, about the 1973 game.  One cannot measure other rivalries against that one because there is no other rivalry like that one.  State versus neighboring state in a multi-generational series of highly competitive games with championship implications in America’s most popular sport between schools who are central to the identities of two of the most powerful political states in the Union and had militias literally taking aim at one another 178 years ago?  Is it even possible to have another rival after everything that was just mentioned?

Well, Michigan considers Michigan State to be a significant rival.  Is Buckeye Country more obsessed with the Michigan rivalry than its Wolverine counterparts?  That sounds an awful lot like how some Buckeye fans make fun of Penn State fans for their one-sided rivalry with Ohio State.  It sounds like how Texas fans treated Nebraska toward the end of their stay in the Big XII.  If Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, USC, and Alabama have time for a second rival, so do the Buckeyes.  Are the matchups with Penn State as heated/intense/emotional/etc as the one with Michigan?  Of course not.  Perhaps nothing this side of Celtics v Rangers is.  Then again, what makes a rivalry?

Another viable argument against the existence of an OSU-PSU rivalry is the relatively small sample size.  It is true the teams have only met 29 times in football, as opposed to the 110 meetings between the Buckeyes and TSUN.  However, there is some impressive historical context to these matchups.

  <Actual pregame conversation between these two in 1975: Joe - “Woody, you look great.” Woody - “Well, what did you think I would look like?”>

Iconic coaches from both programs have squared off to produce some great games.  Woody Hayes faced Joe Paterno three times.  In Archie Griffin’s senior year (1975), #3 Ohio State took a 10-9 lead over #7 Penn State into the 4th quarter before Pete Johnson secured the 17-9 win with an 11 yard run.  The following season in State College, #2 Ohio State capitalized on a couple turnovers by #7 Penn State deep in Buckeye territory to pull out a 12-7 victory.  In 1978, #6 Ohio State’s offense struggled behind freshman QB Art Schlichter and #5 Penn State won 19-0 in Columbus.

Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno had a mini Ten Year War from 2001-2010.  Again, nothing compares to the actual Ten Year War between Woody and Bo in which the teams shared 6 Big Ten titles, each team won two other conference titles outright, neither team finished below 4th in the Big Ten, and Ohio State or TSUN attended every Rose Bowl between 1969 and 1978.  This was still a highly competitive series between coaches with career winning percentages* of 82.8% (Tressel) and 74.9% (Paterno).

* Winning percentages are pre-NCAA adjustments

Coach Tressel controlled the series, OSU 7 – PSU 3.  However, in Senator Tressel’s inaugural campaign, Penn State rallied from a 27-9 second half deficit behind freshman QB Zach Mills to win 29-27 for Joe Paterno’s 324th win (passing Bear Bryant).  In fact, all three of Penn State’s wins were significant.  OSU won Big Ten titles from 2005-2010.  But, in 2005, Penn State beat us to share the conference championship and finished the season ranked #3 by the AP while we finished #4.  Both teams won BCS bowls that season, Penn State over Florida State in the Orange Bowl and Ohio State over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.  In 2008, Pennsylvania native Terrelle Pryor’s freshman season at #10 Ohio State, Pryor fumbled on his own 38 yard line to set up #3 Penn State’s game winning TD in the 4th quarter.  The win gave the Nittany Lions a share of the conference title and the Rose Bowl bid.

<In all fairness, if he gets around that DE, Pryor pulls away for a game-clinching TD>

The #15 Buckeyes returned the favor the following November in State College as Pryor threw for 2 TDs and ran for another to knock off #11 Penn State.  Ohio State would go on to win the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champs while Penn State would have to settle for beating LSU in the Capital One Bowl as conference runners-up.

The first seven seasons Penn State was in the Big Ten (1993-1999), both teams were ranked at the time of the game, including matchups of AP top-7 teams from 1996-98.  Ohio State held a 4-3 advantage in those first seven matchups, with only Eddie George’s 1995 Buckeyes winning on the road.  The two teams played in the 1980 Fiesta Bowl, with Joe Paterno’s #10 Nittany Lions besting Earl Bruce’s #11 Buckeyes.  This past season, Ohio State delivered Penn State’s worst defeat (63-14) since the Duquesne Athletic Club beat the Nittany Lions 64-5 on 25 November 1899.  In Penn State’s second season in the Big Ten, they gave Ohio State our worst defeat (also 63-14) since an 86-0 loss at TSUN on 25 October 1902.

 <A sight any Buckeye fan who experienced the 1994 matchup can appreciate.>

Some people mention Wisconsin as Ohio State’s secondary rival.  Seriously, Wisconsin?  Based on what information is Wisconsin our rival?  They almost never beat us (Buckeyes are 55-18-5 vs them all time), are not nationally prominent nor historically relevant.  They are not geographically close and we don’t often compete for the same recruits.  Aside of the past four years, we don’t compete with them for conference titles.

Wisconsin has beaten us once in the last 9 years.  You know who else has beaten us as many times in the last decade?  Illinois.  Know who has beaten us more?  Penn State (3), Michigan State (2), and Purdue (2). 

We have beaten Wisconsin three times in a row now, and 6 of the last 7.  Do you know when Wisconsin last beat Ohio State three times in a row?  Here’s a hint: it was the first three times we played (1913-15).  Indecently, the 1910’s was the last (and only) decade in which Wisconsin had a winning record against Ohio State (4-3).  There has never been a stretch of ten straight games in which Wisconsin has a winning record against us.  We have a better all-time winning percentage against Wisconsin than we do against Illinois or Purdue.  We won every single game between 1960 and 1980.

Do we really consider Wisconsin to be our second rival?  They don’t consider us their first (Minnesota) or even second (Iowa) rival.

 < #Karma #FAT >

Simply put, Wisconsin does not meet any of the criteria for a rival any more than Purdue does.  They are not good enough for a competitive rivalry.  They do not border Ohio and there has been no cultural event to spark a rivalry.  The closest thing to a catalyst for a rivalry is our fanbase’s hatred of Arkansas’ current football coach.

When Penn State joined the Big Ten, the conference assigned two permanent opponents to each school.  Rivals Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin would play every year.  Indiana would play Purdue and Illinois.  Ohio State would clearly play Michigan.  We would also play Penn State.  What makes an attractive rivalry?

You have two national powers in adjoining states.  Both have multiple iconic coaches and multiple national championships.  The schools compete directly for recruits due to overlapping footprints.  The Big 33 game was a high school all-star game between Ohio and Pennsylvania between 1972-76 and 1994-2012.  From Ki-Jana Carter to Curtis Enis to Mike Zordich, Penn State has a history of nabbing big time players from Ohio.  Ohio State has picked up ten 4-star and 5-star recruits from Pennsylvania since Rivals began tracking classes in 2002, including Pryor, Noah Spence, Rory Nicol, and both Corey Browns.  Ohio State and Penn State play in enormous stadiums in front of the second and third largest average attendances in the country (arithmetic mean of 2009-12), respectively.

This is a rivalry that can stretch across the entire athletic department.  Penn State finished sixth in the 2012-13 Learfield Directors’ Cup standings, an event in which points are given for a school’s success in every sport.  Ohio State has been the Big Ten standard bearer in the competition, finishing as high as second in 2010-11.  But over the past five years, Penn State has the 14th best average score, trailing only the Buckeyes (#5) and Wolverines (#11) in the Big Ten.  So far this year, Penn State is tied for 6th after yet another national championship in volleyball.  We are tied for 69th, scoring points only in football and women’s soccer.

As Hodge pointed out on 22 Oct 2013, “Penn State is our Sparty”.  They do not rise to the level of our biggest rival, but then again our biggest rivalry is the biggest in all of sports.  It doesn’t have to rise to that level to be a good rivalry.  They have finished the season ranked in the AP top-10 six times since joining the conference.  They are one of the top 15 all-time college football programs in the country and are well positioned to be nationally relevant in the future.  Unlike Wisconsin, Iowa, and Purdue, this is a program with the resources and history to compete on nearly equal footing with our Buckeyes.  Penn State is a great option for a secondary rivalry, much better than most schools have.  Penn State is A rival.  Just not THE rival.

School Primary Rival Secondary Rival
Texas Oklahoma Texas A&M
Oklahoma Texas Nebraska
USC Notre Dame UCLA
Florida Georgia Florida State
Alabama Auburn LSU
Wisconsin Minnesota Iowa
Michigan Ohio State Michigan State
Notre Dame USC Michigan State
Ohio State Michigan Penn State

*A quick sampling of some major college football programs with more than one rival.  While some may debate the placement of a few of these rivals as Primary or Secondary, the point is most major colleges have more than one relevant rival.

View 55 Comments