When James Franklin looks over the history of Penn State’s series against Ohio State, he examines more than just the six seasons he has patrolled the sideline as head coach of the Nittany Lions and his 1-5 record in those meetings against the Buckeyes.
“I look at the whole spectrum of it,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I look at scores that Ohio State puts up against people. I look at some of the scores before we got here, and I look at how our games have gone.”
While the duels between the teams have been a bit lopsided, it’s difficult to dispute that Penn State has played the Buckeyes better under Franklin than any team in the Big Ten, even Michigan, which has lost eight straight to its archrival.
The Nittany Lions won their 2016 meeting, 24-21, on Grant Haley’s 60-yard return of a blocked field goal attempt by Marcus Allen. They lost back-to-back one-point heartbreakers (39-38, 27-26) to the Buckeyes the next two seasons, and in 2019 gave them a strong contest before losing 28-17, the smallest margin of victory that Ohio State had in the regular season. There also was a double overtime loss in 2014, Franklin’s first season.
While Franklin certainly wants to win, he likes the way his team has competed, and he hopes the Lions will do that again in Saturday night’s game at Beaver Stadium.
“We’ve found a way to beat them when very few people have, and we have played them to the wire,” Franklin said. "Sometimes those games to the wire, they’re probably the most painful on everybody – the coaching staff, the players, the fans – but I wouldn’t trade that obviously. We’ve had the opportunity to win some of those games right down to the wire.
“In one year we were able to step up and get it done, and other years they were able to. We’re going to continue to build on that, and we look forward to having a tightly contested game on Saturday. But it’s a challenge. There’s no doubt about it. I’ve got a lot of respect for their program.”
Ohio State clearly has been the Big Ten’s most dominant football program over the last six seasons, going 75-8 overall and 49-4 in conference play with four Big Ten championships, three College Football Playoff appearances, and one national title.
After a pair of 7-6 seasons at the start of his Penn State tenure, Franklin has established a consistent winning program. The Nittany Lions are 42-11 with one Big Ten championship in 2016 and two victories in New Year’s 6 bowl games.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day expects another good game Saturday night from the Nittany Lions and said that they’ll be even hungrier after a disappointing 36-35 overtime loss last week to Indiana.
“Like I told the guys, the last few years here, it’s taken us to the last play of the game to win, and that’s going to be the expectation,” Day told reporters Tuesday. “If you look at the last couple of years, we’ve had too many turnovers, too many fumbles. We’ve got to do a good job of that this year, something that’s got to be hammered until we kick the ball off.”
Former Penn State player and current Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen has enjoyed watching the teams compete against each other in recent years.
“If truth be told, Ohio State probably has more talent on that side than Penn State does,” Millen said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I know James wants to win, but I also know that his teams he’s putting out there are very competitive, and they’re right there.
“In a series like that, the difference in talent is pretty negligible. If there is a guy who can change the balance, then you win. There’s been a guy like Ezekial Elliott or Justin Fields in the last few years, and then Saquon Barkley was there, and [the Lions] were able to do something. So it’s just a really competitive game, a fun game to watch.”
This time, however, close isn’t going to satisfy the players, particularly quarterback Sean Clifford, a native of Cincinnati.
“It’s not something that really goes through my mind like, ‘Oh, we can hang with them,’ ” Clifford said. “I’m not here to hang with Ohio State. I’m here to beat Ohio State. I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t have that mentality.”
The Buckeyes got off to a relatively slow start last week against Nebraska but outscored the Cornhuskers, 28-3, in the second half for a 52-17 victory. Justin Fields completed 20-of-21 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 54 yards. Running backs Trey Sermon and Master Teague managed just a combined 86 yards on 23 carries, an area that Day wants to see improved. Another area of concern was Ohio State’s rush defense, which allowed 217 yards on the ground.
The Nittany Lions outgained Indiana by 277 yards last week but still lost, 36-35, in overtime mainly because of 10 penalties, three turnovers and three missed field goals. Their defense held the Hoosiers to 41 rushing yards, which could be a significant area of concern for the Buckeyes.
The key is containing Fields, with whom the Lions had trouble last season. Offensively, the Nittany Lions need more chunk plays after recording only two last week. And fewer penalties and no turnovers would be nice.