The Big Two and the Little Eight—this was the Big Ten’s reputation historically. Ohio State and Michigan so dominated league championships and their rivalry so trumped other rivalries in the league that the other eight teams were often afterthoughts.
Until Penn State joined the league.
While Penn State would never have the long-lasting rivalries with either of the Big Two, the Big Ten put Michigan on Penn State’s schedule for the first decade—a span that featured undefeated seasons and numerous top-ten finishes for both schools—but went one step further with PSU/OSU. Ohio State would play their eastern rival every year, boosting the competitive animosity between the schools one notch further.
Ohio State then, in theory, would have the most difficult schedule in the Big Ten each year, with both superpowers Michigan and Penn State on its conference slate. In 1997, Ohio State hoped to defend its Big Ten crown and snag a three-game winning streak over Penn State, but the Lions—toggling between a No. 1 and No. 2 ranking all season long—and the Beaver Stadium crowd would have something to say about that.
Since Ohio State’s earliest years, winning at football wasn’t a hobby; it was an obsession. A passion for winning grew through the World War II era (featuring star QB Les Horvath and RB Vic Janowicz), and so few coaches could satisfy the fan base’s need for it that OSU became known as a graveyard for coaches. They finally found a man who could give them what they want in 1951, the year they hired Woody Hayes.
Hayes understood a “win at all cost” mentality, drawing probation in his fifth season for giving “loans” to players. In his sixth season, he won a share of a national championship, the first of five he’d win in Columbus over the next 28 seasons.
Hayes’ success waned after two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin graduated following the 1975 season, losing three straight to Michigan and tarnishing his legacy forever by punching a Clemson player in the 1978 Gator Bowl. Hayes was fired after the season but lives on as the greatest Buckeye coach in history. OSU wouldn’t win another national title until 2002.
Earle Bruce replaced Hayes and after a Rose Bowl year in 1979, he did the unthinkable—he went 9-3 for six straight years. When his team fell out of bowl contention in 1987, the school fired him before the Michigan game (even though OSU came from behind to win “The Game”). John Cooper followed Bruce and actually did far worse than his predecessor, even though he kept his job far longer. Cooper didn’t get the Buckeyes back to the top 10 until 1995 (No. 6), but by 1997, coming off of a Rose Bowl year and a No. 2 final ranking, Ohio State seemed to be back where they wanted to be. Undefeated and ranked No. 7 heading into their Happy Valley matchup with No. 2 Penn State, Cooper knew another Rose Bowl berth could be on the line in early October.
Penn State’s schedule started off favorably as they cruised to a 4-0 mark. Enis hadn’t yet played in a fourth quarter. Penn State’s No. 1 pre-season ranking held until No. 4 Florida handled Peyton Manning and No. 3 Tennessee in week 4; PSU then fell behind the Gators to No. 2.
The Beaver Stadium crowd was energized for their No. 2 Nittany Lions; the enthusiasm spilled onto the team. PSU received the opening kickoff and set the tone when Curtis Enis exploded for a 14-yard run on the game’s first play. Paterno wanted to capitalize on the momentum and so he rolled the dice on the next set of downs. With a 4th-and-inches in their own territory, QB Mike McQueary followed the line’s push to sustain the drive. Later, a 15-yard scramble by McQueary set up an Aaron Harris 5-yard touchdown rumble.
Things went from bad to worse for Ohio State. After giving up an opening touchdown, running back Pepe Pearson couldn’t handle Stanley Jackson’s option pitch, and the Lions recovered on the OSU 21. Penn State took shots to the end zone but ended up with a Travis Forney field goal to go up by 10 early.
Jackson swung some momentum back towards the Buckeyes when he hit Dee Miller on a 45-yard bomb. Penn State allowed them no farther; kicker Dan Stultz hit a 27-yard field goal to get Ohio State on the board.
The teams traded punts, but Ohio State pinned PSU all the way back at their 1 with their kick. After stuffing PSU on a 3-and-out, John Cooper switched quarterbacks for their next drive. Joe Germaine—known more for his arm while Jackson was more of a scrambler—led his team 70 yards to start the second quarter, capped off with a 35-yard heave into double coverage which WR Dee Miller pulled in for a touchdown. The Buckeyes evened things up at 10.
Three touches by Enis tallied the Lions a quick 26 yards, and then McQueary hit Jurevicius for a 21-yard reception. Aaron Harris plowed ahead for 16, setting up a McQueary-to-Nastasi touchdown toss. OSU—fueled by the running of Michael Wiley—marched downfield but wound up with only a field goal, this time a 26-yarder by Stultz. Ohio State trailed 17-13 at halftime.
Turnovers by both sides started the second half until Ohio State called a reverse to Dee Miller (19-yard gain) and then a halfback pass from Michael Wily to TE Steve Wisniewski (30-yard gain) to set up a 1-yard, wide-open pitch to David Boston from Germaine. The Buckeyes had their first lead of the game, 20-17.
Penn State almost had the Buckeyes stopped on their next possession, but after bobbling the snap on 3rd and 5, Germaine dialed up Ken-Yon Rambo for a 30-yard strike. Three more completions put OSU at 1st and goal from the 8. Pepe Pearson took it from there, bolting up the middle 8 yards and giving Ohio State a comfortable 27-17 lead with 1:42 left in the 3rd.
With a defense as prolific as Ohio State’s and with a college linebacker as good as Andy Katzenmoyer, a ten-point lead seemed extremely safe for Cooper and his Buckeyes. But Penn State wasn’t lying down. After two first downs brought Penn State to midfield, Aaron Harris took an off-tackle handoff, spun and bounced off a defender, and sprinted 51 yards for an inspirational touchdown. The Lions stopped OSU’s 17-straight points and narrowed the lead to 27-24.
On Penn State’s next possession, they flew down the field, but a poor decision by Mike McQueary almost ruined the drive. Flushed out of the pocket deep in OSU territory, McQueary chucked a jump ball towards WR Chafie Fields that was about to be intercepted by a Buckeye cornerback. Fields outjumped Ahmed Plummer and disrupted the catch just enough to make him drop it when he landed. Two plays later, Harris sealed off Katzenmoyer with a block as Enis gashed the Buckeye back seven for a 26-yard touchdown run to regain the lead with 10:40 remaining in the game.
Ohio State drove into PSU territory on their next drive, but Joe Germaine overshot his receiver on a long post route and was picked off by Shawn Lee. The teams punted back and forth, setting up a crucial drive for Penn State with less than seven minutes left and a 31-27 lead.
Enis got the Lions some breathing room when he bolted 27 yards on first down. Penn State ate three minutes off the clock and then Pat Pigeon deftly buried Ohio State back on their own 3-yard line with his punt.
Germaine led the Bucks on the long crawl from their end zone (with the help of Big Ten official Dave Witvoet, who inexplicably kept stopping the clock and adding time back on throughout the 4th quarter). Finally, two key deflections by defensive backs David Macklin and Shawn Lee forced a turnover on downs.
Due to problematic play clock management all day, Ohio State only had one timeout remaining with 2:24 remaining. All Penn State needed to run out the clock and defeat the reigning Big Ten champions was a first down. Curtis Enis gave them two. Penn State took a knee on the 4-yard line to seal the victory. His 33 yards on the final drive gave him 211 on 23 carries for the day (9.2 ypc); if he wasn’t a household name before October 11th, he was now.
The Rest of the Story
The win over Ohio State was huge; the team played great on both sides of the ball against a legitimate top-10 foe. Top-ranked Florida’s loss to LSU in Death Valley a few hours after Penn State’s convincing win meant that the Nittany Lions re-ascended to No. 1. Unfortunately, the OSU game was also the climax for the 1997 Lions. The next week, PSU squeaked by sub-.500 Minnesota at home before a bye. Then, they escaped a weak Northwestern by 3 in Evanston. What happened on November 8th shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.
Nebraska had stolen the top spot from PSU two weeks earlier, but Michigan—Penn State’s guest on the second Saturday in November—was flying up the rankings and hoping to end a three-game skid against PSU. The Wolverine defense stymied Penn State on their way to a 34-8 drubbing. Penn State righted the ship the next two weeks, trouncing top-25 teams Purdue and Wisconsin, but inexplicably faltered at Nick Saban’s Michigan State—just a 7-5 team in ‘97—by the scored of 49-14 on the closing weekend of the regular season.
Penn State landed in a great bowl game, drawing the ’96 national champion Florida Gators. Unfortunately, Paterno had to face Steve Spurrier without his top offensive weapons. Curtis Enis, after finishing 6th in Heisman voting, accepted a suit from an agent and was suspended by Penn State without prompting from the NCAA. Paterno had never drawn an NCAA investigation and even the playing status of his top running back wouldn’t jeopardize that mark. To make things worse, Joe Jurevicius was ruled academically ineligible after the first semester and couldn’t play in the Citrus Bowl. Again, academics trumped football in the Paterno system. Penn State lost handily to the Gators, 21-6.
The 1998 Penn State team had plenty of talent, particularly on defense, but couldn’t find enough leadership on offense. Junior Kevin Thompson and sophomore Rashard Casey—two quarterbacks who couldn’t be more different in style—battled for playing time, and the running back position was in turmoil due to no clear-cut stars and numerous injuries. In the end, the defense carried the team over less-talented foes, but the team faltered against the best of the Big Ten’s best (No. 2 Ohio State, No. 5 Wisconsin, and No. 12 Michigan). An Outback Bowl victory over Kentucky gave Penn State a 9-3 record and No. 17 final ranking, but most importantly, Penn State picked up the extra experience to make a run as title contender in 1999.
Ohio State in 1997 was still in the middle of Cooper’s glory years (finishing second nationally in both the ’96 and ’98 seasons) but saw a rebuilding year in 1999 (missing a bowl game) and then had a mediocre year in 2000. The school grew jealous of Michigan’s rising star (coach Lloyd Carr) and tired of Cooper’s lack of national titles, so they went to a champion of a different sort, hiring a four-time Division 1-AA championship coach from Ohio’s own Youngstown State—Jim Tressel. Tressell’s decade in Columbus would be marked by more success and more scandals than any era since Buckeye legend Woody Hayes’s tenure.
"The Games of Our Lives" series by Ryan J. Murphy is excerpted from the book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-Two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Generation (due for release by Father's Press, summer 2012).
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