Penn State vs. Ohio State turning into new-age football matchup


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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When it comes to the oldest rivalries in college football, hate is cyclical. Think Alabama-Auburn.

Alabama children learn to hate Auburn before they learn multiplication. Later on, they tailgate at games in ties and cocktail dresses, Walton-family polite until the subject of Auburn arises, then anything goes. Then, they procreate, teaching their children to hate equally and unapologetically. Circle of life, completed.

It is the same way for fans of Oklahoma-Texas, Ohio State-Michigan and a handful of other traditional rivalries that started in a barely postbellum America and continue today.

Saturday, Penn State plays Ohio State at the Horseshoe in Columbus. There will be 100,000 fans, something called a “Scarlet-Out,” two high-profile coaches and two storied programs recovering from NCAA sanctions. But will it be a matchup of true rivals?

Ask Penn State fans if they consider Ohio State a rival, and they will say yes, almost unanimously. Ask them if it hurts more to lose to Ohio State than another talented Big Ten team, they’ll think about the question for a second and say no, almost unanimously. The roots aren’t planted that deep. Ohio State-Penn State might be the best example of a rising modern rivalry, embraced by younger fans.

The later Generation X and the millennial college football fan didn’t grow up with 1 p.m. kickoffs and regional conferences. Instead, they’ve come of age having to deal with the depressing realities of realignment, TV timeouts and NCAA chief Mark Emmert. In fairness, they do get Twitter, but college football isn’t the same.

History and tradition are given little thought. Rivalries like Kansas-Missouri, Pitt-West Virginia and Texas-Texas A&M are now extinct. In this age, newer ones must blossom and be cherished like those from the past. This is where Ohio State-Penn State is sliding in.

While Penn State and Ohio State didn’t become perennial competitors until the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993, they first played in 1912. A vaunted Ohio State team didn’t even complete a forward pass in a 37-0 loss against the Nittany Lions. The Penn State Daily Collegian reported, “Never had such open-field running been seen on Ohio Field.”

But the result wasn’t that simple. Ohio State coach John Richards was so angered he took his team off the field with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and forfeited. Seemingly everyone in Columbus hated Penn State.

“At intermission, the players went over to the side of the field and the police had to keep the Ohio State fans away from them,” says Lou Prato, author of several Penn State books, including the new “We Are Penn State: The Remarkable Journey of the 2012 Nittany Lions.” “Instead of going back to the hotel and showering, [Penn State] got the hell out of town. It left so much bad blood they didn’t want to play for decades.”

It was 1956 before the two teams met again, and Penn State won as heavy underdogs. They played occasionally from then until 1993. Prato and the rest of the greatest generation and baby boomers were raised having oranges and apples thrown at them by Pitt. They hated Pitt.

When that series petered out in the 1990s and ended in 2000, children born in the 1980s and 1990s were left with a void. Who could they call a rival?

Michigan beat Penn State every time from 1997 to 2008, and Penn State offensive tackle Adam Gress vividly remembers his family hating the Wolverines when he grew up. But the shine wore off.

“It’s an ebb and flow; Ohio State-Michigan hasn’t been an ebb and flow,” Prato says. “Generation after generation after generation. That’s why, when the Pitt series ended, I kept telling people that it was never going to be the same.”

Kevin Arnaud of Scranton graduated from Penn State in 2007. He was born into a Nittany Lions-obsessed family and attended many games as a child. One of his early college football memories is seeing the Buckeye mascot and not particularly liking him.

Technically, Ohio State leads the series, 14-8. But results of six other games were vacated by various NCAA rulings, and five of those wins belonged to Penn State.

Ohio State won the first Big Ten game against Penn State in 1993, and Penn State responded with a 63-14 victory the next year. From there, Ohio State won seven of the next 10 games. Then 2005 happened. The attendance was 109,000, but all 616,000 living Penn State alums will swear they were there for the Nittany Lions’ 17-10 victory.

Penn State had struggled the previous few seasons. The Nittany Lions proved their resurgence was official, and it was attached to beating Ohio State.

“That kind of put some pep back in your step, and that brought some of the competitiveness,” Arnaud says.

For a rivalry to be a rivalry, though, the dislike must be reciprocal.

Troy Smith, Ohio State’s best millennial quarterback and a Heisman winner, was sacked by Tamba Hali with a little more than a minute left in that 2005 game and fumbled, sealing the victory for Penn State. Just recently, Smith said, his CFL teammate for the Montreal Alouettes and Penn State graduate Scott Paxson ribbed him about the play and told him how Penn State posted a blown-up photo of it in the Lasch Football Building.

Smith acknowledged the obvious in that Ohio State wanted to beat everyone. Penn State was special, though.

“There was an added emphasis from them to — excuse my French — kick Penn State’s [butt],” Smith said.

The portrait of Smith and Hali is more than a photo on a wall. It’s a sign of petty in-fighting, the fun, illogical twists needed to spice up any rivalry. Penn State and Ohio State fans contend plenty of this goes on between the two schools.

“Trying to be politically correct, I think their fans may be more aggressive than other Big Ten schools,” Arnaud says. “It’s weird. You’ll talk to Wisconsin fans, and they’re phenomenal, and Nebraska, ‘Come to our tailgate.’ And Ohio State fans will be the ones screaming [at] Penn State.”

Joe Beale, a 1989 Ohio State graduate and blogger for the Ohio State website Eleven Warriors, loves Penn State as a rival and considers them a second rival for the Buckeyes behind Michigan. He remembered the ostentatious manner in which Penn State celebrated a 2008 victory against Ohio State. Fans in Happy Valley were rioting and burning couches, and the image of a woeful Terrelle Pryor sitting on the bench went viral.

“When you lose to Penn State, it’s hatred,” Beale says.

Unlike many teams, the Penn State-Ohio State rivalry survived the latest batch of realignment. They’ll continue to play every season. Should they remain top teams, that kind of scheduling could create a lot of animosity, maybe enough to pass on to generation after generation.

Beale has seven children and is ready to share plenty of hate. “I find that Lion roar to be real annoying.”

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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