Penn State Football: Will The Horseshoe Fit Against Ohio State? Why Not...?
Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien has been asking that question a lot the past week or so.
As in, “Why not beat Ohio State?”
Why can’t an unranked Penn State squad march into Columbus and beat the Horseshoe out of the unbeaten, highly-ranked Buckeyes?
It happened in 1956, when Ohio State was ranked No. 5. And in 1964, when OSU was No. 2. It was also a tall order in 1963, when the Buckeyes were ranked 10th. And in 1978, when they were No. 6. And in 2008, when they were No. 10.
That was even the case back in 1912, which came with a 37-0 thrashing by Penn State, and again nearly a century later, in 2011, when The Pennsylvania State University itself was being thrashed about -- and when the football team buoyed a floundering Nittany Nation with a narrow victory.
In 1956, Penn State entered Ohio Stadium a three-touchdown underdog, Ohio State having beaten Nebraska, Stanford and Illinois 92-33 in its first three games. An eastern school all the way, Penn State prepped by going 2-1 against Penn, Army and Holy Cross. The Nittany Lions won, 7-6.
So, why not?
In all, the Nittany Lions have gone to Columbus 16 times since 1912. And they’ve won seven times – including two of the last three games. Admittedly, it was nigh impossible for Penn State to beat the Buckeyes at The Horseshoe in seven straight trips over 14 years, upon joining the Big Ten, from 1993 to 2006. During that time, the Nittany Lions never scored more than 10 points in Ohio Stadium (to be exact: 6, 7, 9, 6, 7, 10, 6) and lost by an average score of 28-7.
When Penn State comes to town, it is always a Columbusite to see. The 1912 game drew 3,500. The 1956 contest drew 82,584 people, the largest crowd to see Penn State play in its first 70 years of football. The 83,519 in 1963, the 84,279 in 1964, the 88,202 in 1978 then became, at their times, the biggest crowds to see the Nittany Lions play – be it bowl, Beaver or beyond. Expect 105K or so on Saturday.
Now it’s 2013, and it seems like bad old times. The Buckeyes are riding a 19-game winning streak under Urban Meyer, own a 7-0 record and are ranked fourth in the nation. Ohio State is favored by 13.5 points against a Penn State squad that has won only every other game over the past six weeks, during which time it has yielded an average of 38 points against teams not named Kent State. Oh, yeah: OSU ranks seventh in the nation in points scored (45 per game) and 15th in total defense.
That, for starters, could be why not.
Five Lion Guys have a beef with that thinking. They’ve each been to Columbus, and often facing great odds each made the 329-mile journey home -- from Ohio Stadium at 411 Woody Hayes Drive to the site of 409, Beaver Stadium – as winners.
I touched base with all five this week. One has taken part in more of the 28 overall Penn State-Ohio State contests (OSU leads 15-13) than anyone else ever. Another was in the middle of two PSU victories at OSU but actually saw little of either. A third captained a shutout in Penn State’s only win at The Horseshoe over a 34-year period. The final two played big roles in the Nittany Lions’ most recent wins at Ohio Stadium and though never teammates, their prior – or is it Pryor? -- Buckeye-beating days are now crazily intertwined in Oakland.
Glenn Ressler. Tom Bradley. Paul Suhey. Mark Rubin. Matt McGloin. Ask them, “Why not?”
GLENN RESSLER: 1963, 1964
As a center with the Baltimore Colts, Glenn Ressler played in two Super Bowls – losing to the Jets in 1969 and beating Dallas in 1971. And in 13 seasons of college and pro football, he played in 167 games, winning 105. But after the two NFL title games, the sweetest of them all was beating Ohio State in the Horseshoe as a Nittany Lion in 1964.
That’s saying something for a guy who was an All-American and Maxwell Award winner as a middle guard and center, is in the College Football Hall of Fame and played for a decade in the NFL.
“We went out there and beat Ohio State (10-7) in 1963, so we knew what it was like out there,” Ressler said earlier this week from his home in Mechanicsburg. “The next year, we weren’t even ranked when we went out there. We had only three wins (and four losses) up to that point. We didn’t play well early in the season, with fumbles and things like that. But by the time we went out there we were a solid team.”
Ohio State looked much better, though. When unranked Penn State visited Columbus on Nov. 7, 1964, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the country and coach Woody Hayes’ team hadn’t lost in 51 weeks.
Penn State’s four losses were by a combined 22 points to Navy, at UCLA, Oregon and Syracuse. Take away those defeats, and Rip Engle’s squad had won 32 of its last 40 games. The coaches figured that Ohio State, which nipped Iowa by two points the week before, could be beaten. Why not?
“Our coaches were more confident about winning than we were,” Ressler recalled. “Joe (Paterno), who was an assistant at the time, told (sports information director) Jim Tarman he thought we could win. We knew they were good, though. When you go into a game like that, you always have incentives to beat a top-ranked team.”
Penn State shined on both sides of the ball in what Penn State football historian Lou Prato later wrote was “one of the greatest upsets in college football history,” as the Nittany Lions led 14-0 at halftime on their way to a 27-0 victory, Hayes’ worst loss in 13 seasons. Quarterback Gary Wydman completed 12 of 22 passes for 147 yards, while the Penn State defense held Ohio State to 60 yards and forced five OSU turnovers.
“It felt right for us going in,” Ressler said. “We didn’t make any mistakes and that’s what you have to do in that situation. In a game like that you can’t afford to turn the ball over (PSU didn’t fumble or throw an interception) or give up something like a kickoff return. That set the tone. They were never really in the game. They never really got going.”
Penn State’s students celebrated by pushing a Volkswagon into the pond next to University House, where Penn State president Eric Walker lived – and what is now the Hintz Family Alumni Center. By the time the plane Ressler and his teammates were on came back from Columbus, they missed seeing the victory celebration. And, to hear Ressler tell it, he didn’t see much of the game, either.
“There’s a lot made of the crowd noise, especially out there. It was the biggest crowd we had ever seen back in State College,” Ressler said. “But I didn’t hear a thing. There could have been one person in the stands, for all I knew. I guess it helped that I’m near-sighted, so all I could see was the guy in front of me. I never saw the people in the stadium.”
TOM BRADLEY: 1978, 2008, 2011
After facing Ohio State 23 times as a player, assistant coach, defensive coordinator and interim head coach from 1975 to 2011, Tom Bradley has literally seen it all in this series. His side is just 9-14 overall and 3-9 on the road, although he did experience victory as a player in 1978. And the last two times Bradley walked the sidelines in Ohio Stadium, his teams gave up all of 20 points – and, almost amazingly, just three combined in the second half – to win both games.
On Oct. 25, 2008, with an injured Paterno relegated to the press box throughout the game and even at the half, Bradley’s defense dominated the game and held the 10th-ranked Buckeyes to two field goals, OSU’s fewest points at home since 1982. Ohio State gained just 61 yards on 31 carries before a national night-time TV audience and a then-record Ohio Stadium crowd of 105,711. It was Penn State’s first win at Ohio State since joining the Big Ten in 1993. Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor threw for 226 yards, with one pick and one fumble – more on that later – while the Nittany Lions did not have a single turnover or penalty themselves.
Three years later, on Nov. 19, 2011, Bradley brought the Nittany Lions to town as interim head coach, just 10 days after Paterno was fired. Penn State had lost 17-14 to Nebraska in an emotionally-raw Beaver Stadium the week before. Although 8-2 and ranked No. 21 in the country, the Lions were not given much of a chance against a 6-4 Ohio State team that was also rocked by scandal. Luke Fickel was a one-season replacement for Jim Tressel, who resigned in May amidst an NCAA investigation. Bradley busted out the Wildcat offense as the Nittany Lions scored on four of their first five possessions then held on to win, 20-14.
That was Bradley’s last win in the blue and white. Now, 23 months later, he has left coaching and is as busy behind the mic as he was on the sidelines. He serves as a color analyst for CBS Sports Network’s college football coverage, often on Army games, and his rapid-fire wit and sharp insight fit in nicely with today’s up-tempo game. He’s also part of the Steelers Broadcast Network and has served as a football analyst for Clear Channel.
Allowing victories in his last two trips there – including his one win as the PSU HC – speak for themselves, Bradley deferred comment on series specifics earlier this week. Instead, he noted his respect for Ohio Stadium and its inhabitants, while making his loyalties to Penn State very clear.
“It’s an historic stadium with a program rich in college football tradition,” said Bradley. “After Penn State and the Beaver Stadium atmosphere, it’s the best place to play a game.”
And why not?
PAUL SUHEY: 1978
When Penn State met Ohio State in Columbus on Sept. 16, 1978, co-captain Paul Suhey actually felt sorry for Buckeye quarterback Art Schlichter, a true freshman who got the starting nod over veteran Rod Gerald. Schlichter, who had been recruited by Paterno, had never lost a high school game as an Ohio schoolboy. Then again, he never faced the Nittany Lions’ Salt and Pepper.
Penn State, destined to play in the national title game against Alabama, had opened with a pair of wins, albeit not very impressively – 10-7 over Temple and 26-10 vs. Rutgers. Ohio State, however, was playing its season opener against the Lions.
“It was a tremendous amount of pressure for a kid like that to step in against a defense like we had,” Suhey, a State College orthopedic surgeon, recalled earlier this week. “Going 60 minutes against guys like (Matt) Millen and (Bruce) Clark, maybe the best defensive tackles in the country, was incredibly difficult. I think he had three, four, five interceptions.”
Five it was, two by safety Pete Harris, an All-American that season. The Buckeyes also lost two fumbles, as Woody Hayes began his final year as head coach by having the greenest of Scarlet freshmen throw 34 passes.
Suhey’s brother, Matt, ran for 96 yards as the fifth-ranked Nittany Lions beat the sixth-ranked Buckeyes, 19-0, after leading just 3-0 at halftime. Kicker “Matt Bahr made a slew (four) four field goals for us, and we played pretty typical Penn State football -- tough defense, field goals and a good, steady offense.”
“We were hitting Schlichter every chance we got,” added Suhey. “Good, clean hits. But it was too much for him to handle.”
Why not, right?
MARK RUBIN, 2008
Let’s cut to the chase: Late evening, Oct. 25, 2008, in front of a then-record Ohio Stadium crowd of 105,711. Fourth quarter, No. 3 Penn State (8-0) vs. No. 10 Ohio State (7-1). The Buckeyes lead, 6-3, and are at midfield on a crucial third-down and 1. Dual-threat OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor takes the snap.
Penn State strong safety Mark Rubin, who would finish with a career-high 11 tackles (nine of them solo, including the one in the following paragraphs), takes over – this commentary and the game:
“I have run support and contain, from the outside in. We were expecting a quarterback sneak or a run up the middle. While most teams would have everyone cheat inside, I was fortunate to have three NFL-caliber linebackers (Navorro Bowman, Josh Hull and Tyrell Sales) man the middle. There was nothing I needed to do inside because we had talent everywhere on defense and guys who knew how to be responsible for their assignments.
“I was shocked as anyone when (Pryor) went outside (to the right). He’s 6-foot-6 and needs just three feet for the first down to continue the drive. So you’d think he would fall forward and get the first down. In big games, it only comes down to one or two big plays that make the difference. You just don’t know when they’ll occur.
“So, everyone is expecting him to go inside, and he bounced it outside,” Rubin continued. “I was there to fill the gap, square up and make the tackle. The ball popped out and it was a mad scramble from there on out. I dove for it first, then got flipped. (Ohio State’s) Beanie Wells almost got it, then I remember a lot of guys going for it. The ball finally popped out 15 yards downfield or so. Navarro, being an incredible athlete, came up with it.”
Penn State’s offense took over at the Ohio State 38 with 10:38 to play, down 6-3.
“Pat Devlin (subbing for injured starting quarterback Daryll Clark) comes in and leads our offense on a scoring drive," Rubin said. "It literally took our whole team to get it done.”
Devlin scored the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard sneak behind A.Q. Shipley, then a 35-yard field goal by Kevin Kelly and an interception by Lyell Sargeant sealed the 13-6 victory.
Rubin now works on Barclays’ futures trading desk in New York City, and is a two-time winner of the Wall Street Decathlon, a big fund-raiser. He also received his MBA from Penn State and was an Academic All-American. So he knows money plays when he sees them.
“When you’re on defense on the road, after a play you listen for the crowd,” he said the other day after trading closed. “If you don’t hear anything, you know it went well for your side. After that play, even though we had about 10,000 fans there, it got pretty quiet.”
Of course it did. Why not?
MATT McGLOIN: 2011
Matt McGloin has experienced the good and bad of playing in The Horseshoe. And how.
In 2010, he came out throwing, completing touchdown passes to Justin Brown and Derek Moye to give Penn State a 14-3 halftime lead – amazingly, the most Penn State had scored in any previous entire Big Ten Conference game in Columbus. The second half couldn’t have gone worse, though, as he threw interceptions for touchdowns and the eighth-ranked Buckeyes roared back to win 38-14.
McGloin helped make amends one year and six days later, on Nov. 19, 2011, in Penn State’s most recent appearance in Ohio Stadium. That’s when, under extreme national scrutiny, Penn State edged the Buckeyes, 20-14. Penn State scored just 153 seconds into the game, then held on behind a defense led by linebacker Glenn Carson, with a career-high 11 tackles and a forced-fumble.
Pryor, whose fumble led to Penn State’s big win in 2008, is now teammates with McGloin on the Oakland Raiders. Pryor is a starter in his second season in the NFL, while McGloin has worked his way onto the roster and up the depth chart to No. 2 as an undrafted rookie. With a 1-1 record under widely disparate circumstances on Pryor’s home field, McGloin holds the venue in high esteem.
“It’s a great atmosphere for college football – one of the best I’ve played in,” said McGloin from Oakland on Tuesday. “Games like those are the ones you dream of playing in.”
Having said that, McGloin has some advice for his former teammates: “Not many players have the opportunity to play in games like this. So the most important thing you can do is to enjoy it and play as hard as you.”
That’s what McGloin’s mentor keeps saying. Of course, O’Brien -- being an Ivy Leaguer and all that -- would tell you it’s just a rhetorical question not meant to elicit a specific response. Rather, it’s designed to encourage the listener to consider a message or viewpoint. Like winning.
So, consider this message to the 2013 Nittany Lions from a Penn Stater who won not once, but twice in The Horseshoe:
“If you do what you’re coached to do, things should turn out OK,” Ressler said. “That’s what happened with us then, and that’s what can happen to them now.”