There's no getting past it: Ohio State are still the kings of the Big Ten. That's why beating them matters so much.
If you watch SportsCenter, and I’m sure you watch SportsCenter, because even those of us who hate SportsCenter watch SportsCenter, then you have probably gathered over the past few months that these are exciting times for the good people of Cleveland, Ohio.
Back in April, the woefully incompetent Cleveland Browns scored a major coup when they managed to land a quarterback by the name of Johnny Manziel with the 22nd pick of the NFL Draft. The selection of this kid who because of his exploits at Texas A&M earned The Single Greatest Nickname In College Football History (sorry, Ironhead) set off wildly enthusiastic and somewhat embarrassing celebrations throughout Northeast Ohio. Season ticket sales soared, as did sales of Johnny Football jerseys, and as the Browns slog their way through another training camp that will almost certainly result in another losing season, enthusiasm for this eternally confused franchise is running at an all-time high.
It’s all kind of silly, of course, and though my loyalty to the Browns, and the NFL in general, died on a November day nearly 20 years ago, I’ll be honest: I am happy for those folks who still live and die with that franchise; Manziel, in my opinion, is a player who they can truly be excited about. Godspeed, Johnny.
Then, of course, there is the little issue of Lebron. Because we’ve established that you watch SportsCenter even though you would like to deny it, it is very likely that you have consumed roughly 4,000 hours of video content specifically related to the fact that the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan recently stunned the world by returning to his hometown, with the singular goal of winning a championship for a city that I am certain will never actually win a championship. It was a painfully overhyped story, but it’s a great story nonetheless. Lebron seems like a decent enough chap, and he’s at the very peak of his game, and Clevelanders have every right to feel downright giddy about the prospect of actually being good at basketball again.
So there is the Johnny Football thing, which is huge. And there is the Lebron thing, which is even more huge.
But despite what the airwaves coming out of Bristol might indicate, I’ll let you in on a little secret about my beloved home state of Ohio: While folks there are certainly excited about Johnny Football, and while they’re certainly excited about Lebron, the simple reality is that neither of those guys truly rule Ohio.
No, Lebron doesn't rule Ohio and Johnny Football doesn't rule Ohio.
The Browns don’t rule Ohio, the Cavs don’t rule Ohio, and the Indians and Reds and Bengals don't rule Ohio.
The governor of Ohio doesn’t even rule Ohio.
Because just one team rules Ohio. And that team is the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Spend any amount of time in the Buckeye State and you will quickly realize that it was not named the Buckeye State by accident. Because Buckeyes fans are literally everywhere.
They are everywhere in both a glorious and completely infuriating kind of way, and this all-encompassing passion for Ohio State football—this ubiquitous love for Woody Hayes and Rex Kern and Eddie George and Chris Spielman and David Boston and A.J. Hawk and Jim Tressel and Braxton Miller and Urban Meyer and all the rest—is precisely the reason why I both despise the Buckeyes as rivals and absolutely respect the hell out of them as peers.
That passion is also why, as an Ohio native and alumnus of Penn State, there is no debate about who My Favorite Opponent is. In any sport.
It’s Ohio State.
Only and always. Ohio State.
I was there in 1993 when Penn State played its first game in Columbus as a member of the Big Ten. I was a high school senior at the time, and had decided just a few months earlier that I would be attending Penn State University. I had considered Ohio State for a while, but one visit to Happy Valley was all it took to sell me on the blue and white. So that day in Columbus, I sat among the Penn State faithful.
Unfortunately, to say it was a memorable occasion would not be entirely accurate. Ohio State kicked the crap out Penn State from the opening kick and left us Nittany Lions fans to sit suffering in intensely cold and miserable conditions while enduring no small amount of verbal abuse from the Buckeye faithful. They told us before the game that we weren’t good enough for the Big Ten. And then we went out and proved them right. It was not a fun day.
I was there one year later, when Penn State avenged that 1993 loss with a beatdown of downright epic proportions—a 63-14 victory that left folks in both Happy Valley and Columbus wondering, "What on earth just happened?" The blank stare on John Cooper’s face during the second quarter that day—that look of bewilderment and confusion and utter defeat—pretty much said it all. He had no answers. Because there were no answers to be had against that '94 Penn State team. They were perfect.
I was there in 1995, when Eddie George and gang came into Happy Valley (yes, due to scheduling quirk, the Buckeyes had to play at Beaver Stadium two years straight) and battled past a Nittany Lions team that, while certainly talented, was sadly unequipped to deal with the pressure of being The Team That Came After The 1994 Team. They never had a chance.
And while I wasn’t there in 1996, when the Buckeyes absolutely dominated a pretty darn good Penn State team that would go on to crush Texas in the Fiesta Bowl, I was there in 1997, when the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions played a game that remains, to this day, both the greatest sporting event I have ever seen and an event that is fully emblematic of the importance of this great new Big Ten rivalry. I could write thousands of words about that game—honestly, I could—but instead, I will simply say this: It was college football perfection, from start to finish, highlighted by drama and big plays and huge performances and two teams of immense talent playing not just hard-hitting football, but beautiful football.
And, yes, Curtis Enis.
They all put on a show that day. They all played their asses off. They all made plays.
But in the end, it was Enis who was just that much better; at his best, he was the best tailback Penn State ever had—a lethal combination of speed and size and power and, most importantly, heart. The guy had incredible heart.
Things ended badly for Enis, yes, but I knew the guy well enough to know that he really, really cared. He wanted to win so very badly. He wanted his team to succeed. He wanted the best for Penn State. And more than anything else, he wanted to beat Ohio State. He was an Ohio boy, after all, and he grew up in that same stifling environment that I grew up in—an environment where the Buckeyes were The Only Team That Matters.
But he turned his back on the Buckeyes, and you can believe he got an earful because of it. Then he went out and beat them on the biggest of stages, with one of the single greatest individual performances in Penn State football history.
It was probably the pinnacle of Enis’ football career.
And you know what?
He might be OK with that.
In the end, that’s what this is all about.
I love playing Ohio State because I grew up loving Ohio State and then I went to Penn State and I learned to hate Ohio State. But I never really hated them. I just respected them too much. I still do.
They are the college football team that made me fall in love with college football, and if we are being completely honest, they are one of the few college football programs that can actually boast a tradition of success that surpasses that of Penn State’s. For the vast majority of the modern era, the Buckeyes have been the kings of the Big Ten, and for the vast majority of our time in this conference, the Buckeyes have been better than us. They just have been.
But you know what?
That’s why playing the Buckeyes—why beating the Buckeyes—matters. That’s why that beautiful 1997 win ultimately set off wild celebrations (well, OK, riots) in Beaver Canyon. That’s why the Zack Mills-fueled win in 2001 was so staggeringly unbelievable, and why the 2005 triumph stands as one of the greatest days in Penn State football history, and why the 2008 victory in Columbus—finally, a win in Columbus—felt like a championship in itself.
Because Ohio State has been (but won’t necessarily always be) just a little bit better than us, every win over Ohio State means something in a way that every win over, say, Purdue simply doesn’t.
Beating Ohio State means legitimacy. Beating Ohio State means regional bragging rights. Beating Ohio State means an advantage on the recruiting trail. Beating Ohio State means being one step closer to the Big Ten title. Beating Ohio State means all of that stuff, and a whole lot more, to the Penn State program and Penn State Nation as a whole.
But to me, there is something else.
To me, because of where I'm from, beating Ohio State is personal.
To me, beating Ohio State means this: I made the right choice.