The Penn State-Ohio State rivalry has been a riveting one the last three years, with the games decided by three points, one point and one point.
The winning team in all three has rallied from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter. The aggregate score over those seasons has been Nittany Lions 88, Buckeyes 87.
But the team that’s hurting the most during that stretch has been Penn State, which will try to break a two-game losing streak Saturday when it visits Ohio Stadium to take on the No. 2 Buckeyes as an 18-point underdog.
It won’t be an easy task.
The Buckeyes (10-0, 7-0), winners of 16 straight, lead the nation in points scored, points allowed and in total defense, while ranking fourth in total offense. Their average scoring margin is nearly 42 points per game, and includes a 38-7 win over No. 13 Wisconsin, their highest ranked opponent before Saturday.
It’s fair to say the ninth-ranked Lions (9-1, 6-1), with only seven seniors on their starting offensive and defensive units, have surprised observers this season. They’ve defeated three ranked teams -- Iowa (on the road), Michigan, and Indiana. A win over the Buckeyes puts them in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten East championship, and a possible College Football Playoff berth if they can win the conference title.
Big Ten Network commentator Matt Millen said they remind him of the 1977 Nittany Lions team he played on that went 11-1 and “didn’t know how good we could be.”
“At the end of the season we were like, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good. Wait till next year,’” Millen said Monday in a telephone interview. “But that’s the wrong cry. The cry is, ‘Hey, we’re good now, let’s do it now. And let’s do it next year.’ So that takes a level of maturity, I don’t know if they’re there yet.
“There’s a lack of belief that they’re as good as they really are, very common for young teams. When I watched Penn State in the spring game, I thought this team is fast, talented, and has no idea how good it can be. And as the year has progressed, I’ve seen the same pieces that I saw earlier.”
Millen said he felt the loss to Minnesota “straightened [the Lions] out a little bit” and prepared them for Saturday’s test.
The drama with Ohio State certainly has been rich, starting in 2016 at the Beaver Stadium “White Out.” Grant Haley picked up picked up the ball after Marcus Allen blocked a field-goal attempt and scored the winning touchdown with 4:27 to play in a 24-21 victory that propelled Penn State to the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth.
In 2017 at Columbus, the Lions coughed up a 35-20 lead in the final 15 minutes when J.T. Barrett threw three touchdown passes -- two in the final five minutes -- to give the Buckeyes a narrow 39-38 win over the then-No. 2-ranked visitors.
The next year in another Beaver Stadium “White Out,” the Lions held a 26-14 lead with eight minutes to play before Dwayne Haskins threw two touchdown passes to put Ohio State in front with just over two minutes remaining.
Penn State got the ball back in plenty of time, needing only a field goal to win. But a controversial fourth-and-5 call resulted in the Buckeyes’ Chase Young tackling Miles Sanders for a 2-yard loss with 1:16 to play, resulting in a second straight narrow loss, 27-26, this time despite a school-record 461 yards of total offense from Trace McSorley.
Penn State head coach James Franklin, who dropped to 1-4 in his career against Ohio State, gave a passionate postgame speech at which he felt his team was close to being an elite program and said that “we will no longer be comfortable being great.” He said a few days later that his team could get there if everyone got 1% better.