Penn State may be the best team on Ohio State's schedule this year. It was in 1996 when the Nittany Lions visited Ohio Stadium and left with a 38-7 beatdown.
Expectations were as sky-high for the Buckeyes in 1996 as they were for the Buckeyes this year, notwithstanding the Week 2 loss to Oklahoma. The Buckeyes began 1996 as the No. 10 team in the country but quickly signaled they were poised for another run to glory when they opened with demolitions of Rice (70-7) and Pittsburgh (72-0). Proving its worth in South Bend was even more impressive as the Buckeyes suffocated "golden boy" Ron Powlus en route to a 29-16 win.
This catapulted the Buckeyes to the No. 4 team in the country, just in time for the No. 3 Nittany Lions to visit campus.
Penn State opened 1996 No. 11 and manhandled the Rose Bowl champion Trojans in the Kickoff Classic. It posted successive wins over Louisville (24-7), Northern Illinois (49-0), Temple (41-0) and had just scored a tough road win in Camp Randall (23-20). That set up a No. 3 vs. No. 4 matchup between the two Big Ten favorites.
It was clear what Penn State was wanting to do: spring Curtis Enis loose on his personal homecoming. The Union City native already had seven touchdowns and 565 yards on the season so far despite sitting out the Northern Illinois game with a foot injury. He had 146 yards in last year's contest between the two in Happy Valley. He was eager to do it again.
Enis' presence in Penn State's offense masked some limitations in the passing game. Joe Paterno was diplomatic in public about the passing attack captained by quarterback Wally Richardson but there must have been concern.
Penn State was the No. 70 passing offense in the country, averaging just 186.4 passing yards per contest. They would be facing the No. 6 passing defense in the country, which allowed just 68 yards through the air through its three contests. The Buckeyes had just stifled Ron Powlus to the tune of 154 yards on 13/30 passing, sacking Powlus four times in the process.
Still, No. 3 Penn State outranked No. 4 Ohio State and was objectively the best team on Ohio State's schedule the entire year before Pasadena. You would not know that by looking at a box score in which the Buckeyes obliterated the hapless Nittany Lions.
The rout that ensued that October Saturday serves as arguably John Cooper's best-ever win. That 1996 Penn State team was certainly the best opponent a John Cooper-coached team absolutely obliterated.
The scoring started on Ohio State's second drive of the game and was capped by a 42-yard bomb from Stanley Jackson to Dimitrious Stanley. Here, Penn State's corner was stuck on an island and bit on a hitch-and-go. There was no safety help. Stanley danced into the end zone.
Ohio State scored on the next three possessions from scrimmage. It capitalized on Penn State's ensuing three-and-out to set up a field goal drive. Its next drive after a Penn State punt resulted in a 24-yard touchdown pass to Matt Keller on an angle route.
A 53-yard Penn State punt returned 38 yards to the Penn State 45-yard line concluded the next drive. It only took Ohio State two plays and 12 seconds to find the end zone again. Pepe Pearson ran behind Orlando Pace for 11 yards on the first play. Stanley Jackson again found Dimitrious Stanley for a touchdown with a 34-yard toss.
Ohio State took a 24-0 lead to halftime and the halftime statistics portended no path forward for the Nittany Lions. The Buckeyes were up 24-0. It had a 19-5 edge in first downs over the Nittany Lions. The Buckeyes already had 328 yards of offense to Penn State's 74. Curtis Enis' 27 first-half yards gave little room for second-half optimism, as did Wally Richardson's 48 passing yards and six completions on 18 attempts.
The Buckeyes did their most spectacular damage through the air but astute observers noted how Orlando Pace had almost single-handedly put Penn State's valiant defensive front on skates. Pepe Pearson already had 97 yards rushing on just 19 carries. Most every rushing play involved Orlando Pace driving a defensive end to the turf.
This game, perhaps more than the others that season, won Orlando Pace the Lombardi and Outland trophies. It may have been his finest individual game.
The second half was more ho-hum with the game already well in hand. The Buckeyes' second drive of the second half was a 10-play, 72-yard drive that ended with a one-yard plunge by Pepe Pearson for a touchdown. Two possessions later, the Buckeyes scored again when Joe Germaine found Matt Calhoun in the end zone to pad the lead to 38-0.
Penn State at least managed to score behind backup quarterback Mike McQueary to avoid the shutout. A 10-play, 68-yard touchdown drive with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter helped Penn State avoid a shutout.
The loss was still grisly. The Buckeyes hung 565 yards of offense on Penn State, holding the Nittany Lions to just 211 yards. Enis was held in check, finishing with just 36 yards for the day. It was Penn State's worst loss since Notre Dame beat it 44-7 in 1984. Joe Paterno summarized the loss simply; "we got crushed."
The nature of the beatdown, in which Ohio State rendered Penn State hapless, belies how good the Nittany Lions were in 1996. Penn State had only one other blip on the radar the rest of the season, losing a curious home game to Iowa two weeks after the loss at Ohio State. It finished the regular season ranked No. 7 and beat Texas by 23 points in the Fiesta Bowl.
Ostensibly, this game stands out because it's the most convincing beatdown of an objectively great team that entire decade. It's one of John Cooper's finest moments as a head coach.
The 1996 game gives the kind of scenario Ohio State fans would like to see unfold on Saturday night. Penn State is the best team on this year's schedule, much like it was 1996. A similar win in 2017 would make Ohio State fans as happy pouring out the stadium as they were in 1996 when the Buckeyes reduced to Penn State a Nittany Lion in sheep's clothing.