Most agree that the annual Ohio State-Penn State game has the makings of a rivalry, but the game carries different weight for the schools and their respective fans.
When Ohio State and Penn State convene Saturday at Ohio Stadium to play again, they’ll do so in nationally televised night game for the second time in as many seasons — more evidence that a feud exists between the border-state rivals.
But the week leading up to Ohio State-Penn State has again sparked the discussion regarding the esteem with which the schools and their respective fans hold this rivalry.
How relevant is this rivalry to the two programs and their fans, and why does the emphasis on this game vary depending on which side of the rivalry you’re on?
After all, there’s history in the series between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, which dates to 1912.
It has spanned the lengths of the historic coaching careers of Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno, and far beyond. It’s competitive, with Ohio State holding a 14-13 edge and an equally slim 8-7 lead in games played at Ohio Stadium. And in recent years, the teams have been perennially at or near the top of the Big Ten.
When Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, the Big Ten's two easternmost programs were matched up as teams that would play every season by the conference. Since then, there have been 18 games between these schools in which one or both of the programs were nationally ranked. On four occasions, both schools were ranked in the top 10 nationally (1996, 1997, 1998, 2008), and in 1996, both teams were ranked in the top five (No. 3 Ohio State defeated No. 4 Penn State, 38-7, in Columbus).
On the other hand, only twice in the Big Ten era of the rivalry have the teams met as unranked foes (2001 and 2004).
It seems as though the necessary ingredients are present for a bitter rivalry with a shared hatred to be touched off, but something is definitely missing. My investigation into why Ohio State seems reluctant to engage Penn State in the rivalry started with the way the actual competitors talk about the game.
“A” Versus “The”
The competitors reveal the divergent views of the rivalry when they talk about it. It’s a matter of syntax — “a” versus “the,” as in “a rivalry” versus “the rivalry.”
The word “the” is a sacred word to Ohioans, and it is most often applied when saying the full name of its flagship university and when discussing the unquestioned rivalry with hated Michigan — “The Game” as some prefer to refer to call it.
Across the border in Pennsylvania, though, citizens of the Keystone State tend to attach special meaning to the matchups with Ohio State. It’s still that way today, as Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien confirmed.
"When you're playing teams like this, you just think about - I'm not very good at articulating this, but Penn State versus Ohio State, and you think about what that means in the history of college football and these two teams playing each other and the tradition of both schools and two great coaching staffs with a lot of good players on both sides of the ball," O'Brien said.
Four years in the Buckeyes State has a notable Pennsylvanian on the Ohio State roster downplaying the rivalry talk now that he’s on the other side.
“It’s not really a game I mark on my calendar,” Ohio State receiver and Upper Darby, Pa., native Corey “Philly” Brown said of playing Penn State. “(They give us) everything they got, but we expect that from everybody. It’s Ohio State.”
Subtle slights against the idea of a Penn State rivalry also came from linebacker Ryan Shazier, who said the game is “like a rivalry,” and quarterback Braxton Miller, who said Ohio State, not Penn State, makes Saturday’s prime-time game one to watch.
“Every game is a big game,” Miller said. “Everybody wants to take down the guys that are on top.”
The Fan View
My childhood friend Kevin Deak is a 2012 graduate of Penn State, but he also has deep ties to the state of Ohio, too. His parents, Rick and Maryanne, are native Ohioans, and Deak’s grandfather, Joseph O’Connor, is a former sports editor for The Toledo Blade. On game day, Deak’s loyalties lie in Happy Valley, but his perspective on Penn State’s complicated relationship with Ohio State is a balanced one.
“For Penn State fans, Ohio State is the game that we circle,” Deak told me. “Ohio State is kind of viewed, in our opinion, as the golden child of the Big Ten, so for us, Ohio State is the team that we want to play. They’re also usually our highest-ranked opponent every year, so we look at it as a huge rivalry.”
The feeling isn’t mutual in the Buckeye State.
I tried to take the temperature of Buckeye Nation via social media, posting this question to my followers: “What separates Ohio State-Penn State from OSU-Michigan? And is Buckeyes-Nits even No. 2 on your list of OSU rivals?”
The responses were slanted against the idea of Ohio State having a significant rivalry with Penn State. They ranged from outright dismissal of rivalry talk to fascination regarding Penn State’s love for hating the Buckeyes.
- @TimShoemaker: Been to two OSU-PSU games in Happy Valley. It's mind blowing how much more PSU fans hate OSU than OSU fans hate PSU.
- @TheLastDon24: PSU hating OSU is like the lil bro hating the older bro
- @BCCory: They only seem to beat OSU when we are down. Can't think off the top of my head of true upsets. Almost plays as expected.
- @GJNecko: Since tOSU was closest in proximity it became manufactured rivalry based on location. tOSU has other much older rivals.”
- @DWismer: PSU thought they would dominate B1G when they joined. Hasn't worked out. The teams that have became "rivals"
For the players, it almost seems like there’s the Michigan rivalry and then the rest of the conference is just there. Deak said he accepts that this is the current state of the rivalry but conceded that it’s frustrating when Ohioans balk at Penn State’s passion and desire for a bitter rivalry.
Deak said he’s optimistic that Ohio State will acknowledge Penn State’s distaste for the Buckeyes and reciprocate. He also appreciates that Penn State holds up its end of the bargain through efforts like the Beaver Stadium “White Out,” often reserved for when the Buckeyes come to town.
But for now, no amount of White Outs or vitriol has been able to stir the Buckeyes to make an equal investment in this rivalry, and Deak said he thinks he knows why this is the case. The answer, he said, lies up north.
“For Ohio State fans, when the Penn State game comes up they say, ‘Yeah? But Michigan’s in two weeks,’ ” Deak said with a chuckle.