The Ohio State Buckeyes and Penn State Nittany Lions meet on Saturday for the 36th time in a football rivalry that began in 1912.
Does that beginning date surprise you?
It shouldn’t because, though they met sporadically before PSU joined the Big Ten, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions were no strangers to each other either.
That 1912 game (Penn State won 37-0) was a one-off meeting. The programs only met a handful of times after that until the mid 1970s, when coaching legends Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno squared off three times in four seasons from 1975-78. All three times, the stakes were high because both teams were in the top 10 in the rankings.
Except for the 1980 Fiesta Bowl, the programs did not meet again until Penn State joined the Big Ten in the 1993 season.
But after that, and especially since the Big Ten broke into divisions, the meetings between the biggest programs from two football-crazy border states has only intensified.
And what a football history the states share.
The first professional football player was William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, who in 1892 was paid $500 to play in a game between two Pittsburgh area athletic clubs. But the Pro Football Hall of Fame? That’s in Canton, Ohio, where owners of four Ohio-based professional teams met in 1920 to form the American Professional Football Conference, the forerunner of the NFL. And for many years the best Pennsylvania and Ohio high school football players would meet in the offseason in the “Big 33” game.
Even before then and certainly since, Penn State and Ohio State have been trampling all over each others’ territory in pursuit of some of the best high school recruits in the nation.
Neither team owns more than a 4-game winning streak in series history. OSU won each game from 2012 to 2015 including a double-overtime classic in 2014 that helped propel the Buckeyes to the national championship.
This year’s game in Columbus (noon ET, Fox TV) marks the eighth time since 2002 that both teams have been ranked when they met. And in the past three years, the winner of this game has gone on to the Big Ten championship game. Just to spice things up even more, Nov. 23 is the latest in a regular season that these two teams have ever met.
Actually the date doesn’t even matter that much because, at least for Penn State, the past two games against OSU have to be burned into the memory 24/7 no matter the time of year.
In 2017, the Nittany Lions led the Buckeyes 38-27 with 5:42 left after a field goal by Tyler Davis. But J.T. Barrett threw two touchdown passes in the final 4:20, including a 16-yarder to Marcus Baugh with 1:48 left for the winning score in OSU’s 39-28 victory in Columbus.
Last year saw Penn State endure the same heartache from the same scenario. That time the Nittany Lions led 26-14 in Happy Valley after Miles Sanders’ TD run with 8:00 left. But again the Buckeyes had the comeback magic, again with two touchdown passes — this time from Dwayne Haskins — including a 24-yarder to K.J. Hill for the winning score with 2:03 remaining for a 27-26 OSU triumph.
Last year’s game was extra galling for PSU. Not only did that defeat come at home, but the Nittany Lions had more first downs, more rushing yards, more passing yards, fewer penalties and the same number of turnovers as OSU. But for the second year in a row the Buckeyes found a way and ended Penn State’s Big Ten East division hopes before they could get off the ground.
This Saturday the stakes are similar.
OSU can clinch a spot in the B1G title game and stay on track for a College Football Playoff berth with a victory. For Penn State, on the other hand, victory would mean tying OSU at 7-1 in the conference and the Nittany Lions would only need to beat Rutgers at home to clinch a division title.
That certainly is a recipe for a rivalry that only gets hotter ever season, even at a time of year when the weather in Ohio and Pennsylvania is getting cold.