Long before anyone could have foreseen it carrying implications of Big Ten supremacy, Penn State vs. Ohio State was dubbed, “The Ineligibowl”. The moniker was college football’s answer to The Be Sharps — witty when you first heard it, but less funny each time you hear it. However, with a combined 13 straight wins between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, and their standing as two of only three teams with perfect conference records, there will indeed be a bowl atmosphere to Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
The crippling sanctions the NCAA handed Penn State in July bring years of uncertainty. If scholarship reductions and no allure of a bowl game impact the program as profoundly as most believe they will, there will be few big games for the Nittany Lions in the coming years. Saturday is undeniably a big game, one that serves as Penn State’s bowl game this season.
Ohio State’s success is a surprise to very few. The Buckeyes were ranked in the top 25 polls before the season, and the anticipated chemistry between quarterback Braxton Miller and new head coach Urban Meyer’s offensive philosophy has exceeded expectations. But Penn State going 5-2, and being a kicker away from 7-0, is downright shocking.
Where Ohio State’s NCAA sanctions equate to a blip – a speed bump on the fast track Meyer has paved for the Buckeyes to regain national prominence – Penn State is just beginning down a long, uncharted road.
The flood of transfers that began in the off-season and could continue in December was supposed to begin the crippling four years of sanctions in earnest. Yet somehow, the most glaring of the departures is kicker Anthony Fera and not last year’s offensive MVP, Silas Redd. Credit first-year head coach Bill O’Brien, who has performed a minor miracle with his development of Matt McGloin.
McGloin’s development is the most apparent of his successes, but every detail that has gone into a perfect Big Ten start is a testament to O’Brien’s performance. The Nittany Lions already knocked one conference mate from its perch of the unbeaten, when last week it blasted Iowa on the road.
This time, Penn State has the opportunity to replicate the feat in front of its devoted masses. Such an opportunity gives meaning to another otherwise lost. The Nittany Lions’ unexpected success actually lends itself to two such occasions the remainder of the season.
The second is when Wisconsin visits Beaver Stadium on the final week of the Big Ten’s regular season. PSU will likely be in the role of spoiler to Wisconsin’s conference championship game bid that weekend, and a trophy is on the line. But in Ohio State, PSU faces a bona fide rival.
Though no one’s commissioned a trophy, a championship would be at stake. It’s not unreasonable to suggest Saturday’s winner will finish with the Leaders Division’s best record, and possibly the top overall mark in the Big Ten. Moreover, Saturday could be a sneak preview into what the conference’s future holds some five years down the road, when OSU and PSU meet not for mythical titles, but real ones.
O’Brien was characteristically diplomatic in his assessment of Ohio State, saying in his weekly press conference: “We’re playing probably the best team in the Big Ten this week, with a great head coach in Urban Meyer. We’re just going to do the best we can in practice this week and try to make sure that we play a good game on Saturday night.”
McGloin was less hesitant to stoke the fire, expressing no empathy for Ohio State’s shared ineligibility.
“After what we’ve gone through, I don’t feel bad for anybody or any program. That’s it,” he said to reporters.
After what we’ve gone through is a subtext lingering beneath everything Penn State does this, and for the next several seasons. The athletes who remained at PSU despite having free tickets to move anywhere else of their choosing have few opportunities to transcend the darkness that shrouds their program.