Amid loyalists to Joe Paterno is a faction that shudders to hear, but inherently believes, the notion that Penn State will never beat Ohio State on the road. Evidence of future defeats to support such a charge does not exist, of course, but those that understand don't need it. It is just one of those things. Conversations about Paterno's third national title usually include factoring in an odd-numbered year when State would face the Buckeyes at home.
Tacit certainties are not exclusive to Penn State, which holds a similar home-field advantage over another Big Ten team. Is it fathomable that Michigan State will ever be victorious at Beaver Stadium?
Ohio State has not made it easy. John Cooper consistently produced high-ranked teams but failed miserably in the annual endgame against "that school up North". Jim Tressel, who inherited Cooper's talent but not his misfortune in mid-November, has continued the incredibly strong in-state recruiting that Ohio State enjoys and returned the Buckeyes to perennial national title contender status. Since Tressel was hired prior to the 2001 season, only five head coaches have a higher winning percentage. Tressel and three of those five – Pete Carroll, Larry Coker and Mack Brown – all have a national title during that time.
If you consider the Buckeyes' ranking entering each of their home games against Penn State, it is not difficult to find the origin of Paterno's struggles.
1993 marked not only Penn State's inaugural season in the Big Ten, but also its first visit to Columbus as a conference member. That year, heavy snow, Raymont Harris and the No. 3 Buckeyes rolled to a 24-6 victory. The field conditions were awful that day, as were four interceptions thrown by Kerry Collins that consistently thwarted any chance for a comeback in the second half.
A scheduling snafu during State's first few years in the conference led to consecutive visits by Ohio State to State College in 1994 and 1995, much to the chagrin of Cooper and his genial southern brogue.
Enter 1996, a season which began in spectacular fashion when Curtis Enis gained 241 yards to lead Penn State to a 24-7 win over USC in the Kickoff Classic. Following three cupcake victories, the Lions slipped past Wisconsin and went to the Horseshoe as the fourth-ranked team in the country.
Once again, as they were in '93, the Bucs were No. 3 in the polls. But the difference between the border rivals was far greater than one ranking position and it certainly showed on the field. Those Buckeyes clobbered Penn State 38-7 in one of the most anticipated games in Paterno's young Big Ten existence. That was State's worst loss in the conference up to that point.
Two years later, the Buckeyes were the top-ranked team in the nation when Penn State came to town. A touchdown from the OSU defense and another from its special teams paved the way to an unspectacular 28-9 win on a soggy early October afternoon. Ohio State was the best team in college football that season, but stumbled late against the Spartans and failed to earn a berth in the first-ever BCS title game.
The first meeting of the new millennium was categorically awful. Penn State was destroyed on the scoreboard 45-6, but the real story of the game was a tragic career-ending injury to Adam Taliaferro, one of State's most heralded defensive recruits in a decade. That was the last time Paterno faced Cooper, who again handed the Nittany Lions their worst conference loss to date. That was also Penn State's worst defeat since a 55-14 setback versus Navy in 1944.
Penn State rebounded with a strong senior-loaded team in 2002 and a great defensive battle nearly brought the Nits a victory. PSU scored an early touchdown, but critical interceptions by Zack Mills led to several Ohio State scoring drives and the No. 4 Buckeyes won 13-7 on the way to a perfect season and a national championship.
Finally in 2004, Ohio State (4-3, unranked) was in the midst of a mediocre campaign, but Penn State was winless in the conference and 1-11 in its last 12 league games dating back to 2003. Another visit resulted in another loss, 21-10.
So now it's 2006 and lucky chance number seven is pending.
From top to bottom, this is the most talented team that Paterno will take to Columbus. It is not the best team – these Lions haven't played together long enough yet to gel into a firing-on-all-cylinders unit – but the speed and raw ability that can be utilized on this roster bests any former group. Sure there have been better individual players in the past, but based on pure talent at the skill positions as a whole, the horses are in place to put points on the board and win.
Tony Hunt was custom-made to play in this game. His durability and lower-body strength, if used correctly, can wear down a defense over the course of four tough quarters. Larry Johnson was incredible as a senior tailback, but Hunt, who may end up as the toughest inside runner to ever play at Penn State, has other weapons that Johnson and Enis did not. Anthony Morelli is a thoroughbred with arm strength that overtly trumps the heart and field savvy of Zack Mills. Collins had not reached his senior peak yet in the '93 game, and it would be silly to compare Morelli's talent level to Wally Richardson, Kevin Thompson and Rashard Casey. Move outside to wide receiver and the debate is immediately over. The foursome of Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Chris Bell is more talented than any prior corps. Add Rodney Kinlaw and A.J. Wallace to the mix and this is the fastest team in Penn State history.
Why is offense so crucial to this game?
Because the numerical recap is frightening at best. Ohio State has entered the six games with the following rankings: 3, 3, 1, 14, 4, and once unranked. The total score over those games is Ohio State 169, Penn State 45.
But here's the kicker. In six trips to Columbus, Penn State has reached a double-digit point total only once. That was accomplished with a whopping 10 by the 2004 team that is regarded as one of the worst offensive clubs of Paterno's regime. Penn State's point totals, in chronological order, are 6, 7, 9, 6, 7, and 10 for an average of 7.5 points per game.
Quite sobering, isn't it?
Every sports streak eventually reaches an end. On Monday, the New York Mets officially fractured the axiom that the Atlanta Braves will win the National League East every season. For several years, it looked like USC would not lose a game until Pete Carroll retired, but Texas put a stop to that. The Boston Red Sox hadn't won a World Series since 1918, but finally overcame the New York Yankees in a playoff series and ended their exasperation in 2004.
The remaining number of times that Paterno will be the head coach when Penn State visits Ohio State is known only to Paterno himself, who joked during the summer that his doctor gave him 10 more years of coaching health. What is known to everyone, however, is the competitive fire that burns within his body. The legend does have one victory (197 in Columbus to his credit, but winning there as a member of the Big Ten – even if it only happens once – is an episode he surely craves when his storied career is finally complete.
And so it goes for the Nittany Lions, who face the No. 1 Buckeyes in this latest chance to end the frustration. Paterno finally has enough speed to win in the only stadium that has yet to yield him a Big Ten victory. In a game featuring two rosters with very similar talent levels, the result will likely stem from the winner of the chess match on the sideline. Paterno will celebrate his 80th birthday in December, and although he must delve into his old bag of tricks to win this one, those that know him best also know it would be unwise to count him out just yet.
If success is not found, though, the dejection won't last very long. During his 20-minute walk to practice on Monday, Paterno will regroup and focus on the upcoming chance to end the losing streak that bothers him the most.
At least that one is a home game.