When Penn State traveled to Columbus to meet the Ohio State Buckeyes in 1956, it had been 44 years since the two teams met in a game that ended in a forfeit and all-out brawl. Not many of the 82,000 fans in attendence were there in 1912, but some of the Buckeye old timers remembered the disgraceful show the last time the Nittany Lions came to town. And you can bet they were looking for blood and revenge.
The Buckeyes were the defending national champions. They were undefeated, ranked fifth in the nation, and heavily favored to win the Big Ten. Penn State was coming off a 5-4 season. They were 2-1 with wins over two eastern cupcakes and a loss to Army. The Buckeyes were favored by two touchdowns, though few expected the impending massacre to be that close.
Assistant coach Tor Toretti wasn't one of them. Toretti predicted a victory at the Thursday night pep rally outside of Rec Hall saying, "You will be proud to be here when you join the thousands who will be here Sunday Morning welcoming our victorious team home." Toretti was confident of victory because he had personally scouted the Buckeyes and honestly believed the Lions were going to win. Toretti had noticed that Buckeye quarterback Frank Ellwood tipped off the defense by looking in the direction the play was going after he broke the huddle. This major find gave the defense a major advantage.
As the Penn State players dressed before the game, head coach Rip Engle held up local newspapers and read them to his players.
"Ohio State Practices Wisconsin Plays," read one article. (The Buckeyes were practicing their gameplan against Wisconsin, who they were scheduled to play the following week.) Another headline read "Buckeyes In for Easy Time". It was the exact same locker room strategy used by Bill Hollenback in 1912, and it had the exact same effect. The Penn State players listened, and they seethed. Nobody was giving them any respect, and they weren't going to go down like that.
It was an intimidating sight when the Penn State players took the field. The crowd of 82,584 was the largest crowd Penn State had ever played in front of to date, and they booed and taunted them mercilessly. Penn State had a small squad of 37 men against Ohio State's 75. They were grossly outmanned, and a long way from home.
The Lions opened the game with two long drives, but both of them ended in interceptions. The Ohio State offense struggled to move the ball, and when they did get into Penn State territory they wasted scoring opportunities as well. Late in the half the Buckeyes got a break and recovered a fumble at the PSU 45. They drove to the 25, but there Buckeye kicker Frank Kremblas missed a 25-yard field goal, and the first half ended in a 0-0 tie.
Penn State took their first drive of the second half down to the OSU 13, but once again a costly fumble and turnover ended the scoring chance. Ohio State responded with a drive of their own, and it looked like they were going to score when Don Clark caught a pass and was heading toward the endzone, but Bruce Gilmore made a saving tackle from behind at the five yard line. Three plays later Gilmore came through again with an interception to hold the game scoreless.
Penn State's quarterback, Milt Plum, also doubled as the punter, and midway through the fourth quarter he launched a beautiful 72-yard punt that pinned Ohio State at their own 3-yard line. Woody Hayes elected to go conservative and ended up punting the ball back to the Lions who took over at midfield. Penn State drove down the field with Plum hitting left halfback Billy Kane on a 12-yard pass to the one foot line. On the next play Gilmore plowed through the line, and the Lions had taken an improbable 7-0 lead with just over three minutes left in the game.
Without much time to work with, Woody Hayes was forced to open up his normally conservative run-oriented offense. Halfback John Roseboro hit end Leo Brown on option passing plays of 18 and 42 yards giving Ohio State the ball at the Penn State three yard line. Don Clark plowed off tackle for a touchdown, and it looked like the Lions were going to have to settle for a tie. But what happened next was nothing short of a miracle.
On the PAT, a mixup on the Buckeye sideline resulted in a substitution penalty for 12 men on the field pushing them back five yards. The ensuing attempt sailed wide, and the entire stadium stood in stunned silence as Penn State players did somersaults in the endzone and jumped up and down on the sideline. Ohio State's onside kick attempt failed, and Penn State ran out the clock for the 7-6 upset.
Back in State College the students filled the streets in celebration. Toilet paper hung from the trees as the students cruised their cars up and down the mall singing the Alma Mater. Noise filled the streets into the early hours of the next morning, but there was no violence reported.
The win was crucial for Penn State as a program. The Nittany Lions had been wandering in the wilderness and not very good since athletic scholarships were done away with in the 1920's. Penn State was far from the recognized football powerhouse it is today, and this win was a critical step on the path to becoming the elite program they wished to be.
"This will teach them a little respect for Eastern Football," Rip Engle said after the game.