Just like it did seven years ago against the very same opponent, Penn State has the opportunity to show the nation what its football program is all about.
When rival Ohio State comes to Happy Valley on Saturday, the Nittany Lions will have the chance to do exactly what they did in 2005.
The Nittany Lions started that season 5-0, but many pointed to the looming matchup with Ohio State on Oct. 8 to see if Penn State had really returned to national prominence. Penn State came into 2005 with losing records in four of the past five seasons and calls for Joe Paterno to step down grew louder with each passing campaign. The game had passed him by, the offense was too predictable and the talent was not good enough to compete with the best teams in the country.
This past July, Penn State faced another daunting challenge when the NCAA slammed its football program with sanctions never seen before in college sports. As a result of the Freeh Report’s findings on the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the NCAA banned the Nittany Lions from postseason play for four years, cut scholarships to 65 players starting in 2014 and limit them to just 15 recruits starting with this class, stripped all victories dating back to 1998, slammed the school with a $60 million fine and allowed players the ability to transfer and play immediately.
Many, including myself, thought this was the beginning of the end for Penn State football. How could they compete with teams that had 20 more scholarship players or could sign 10 more players with each recruiting class? Who would want to be associated with a program some had said was part of the biggest scandal in sports history? Which players would leave and how would they be replaced?
Back in 2005, many had wondered why Paterno continued to stay and why he was allowed to stay. He was coming up on his 80th birthday, an age, many said, when no person should be in charge of a Division I football program. The top recruits weren’t coming to Penn State anymore and the players who were on the team were making more news off the field than on it.
With the arrival of Derrick Williams and Justin King, two of the nation’s most sought-after high school players, and the emergence of a dynamite defense led by linebacker Paul Posluszny, the Nittany Lions quieted some with five straight victories to start 2005. It was the victory over Ohio State, with Williams scoring the game’s first touchdown and Posluszny racking up 14 tackles in front of nearly 110,000 screaming fans at Beaver Stadium, that showed that Penn State was back.
With sanctions looming over his program and some of his best players gone, Bill O’Brien continued to push forward in his first year as a head coach at any level. He said all the right things, did everything the way it should be done and had a powerful presence about himself that couldn’t be ignored. Still, O’Brien’s Lions got off to an 0-2 start and many wondered if this was the beginning of another dramatic fall by Penn State.
Not so fast said the Nittany Lions, though, as they rebounded to win their next five games, including a comeback at home against a ranked Northwestern team and a blowout at Iowa last week. Now comes the biggest test, Ohio State at home Saturday. Leading the Buckeyes will be Urban Meyer, who earned the signature of four recruits in February who initially committed to Penn State only to jump ship when the Sandusky story broke last fall.
The Buckeyes are also ineligible for the postseason, thanks to the tattoo scandal that cost Jim Tressel his job in 2011, but Ohio State was still able to recruit top-notch talent and has been just fine this season. The Buckeyes have won their first eight games, are ranked ninth in the country and boast one of the nation’s top talents in quarterback Braxton Miller.
Penn State is led by quarterback Matt McGloin, a former walk-on who has taken the reigns of O’Brien’s offense, and linebacker Michael Mauti, who has battled back from two severe knee injuries to play at an All-American level. Mauti, along with tailback/fullback Michael Zordich (both of their fathers played for Paterno) were the face of the program when the sanctions came down in July. They pledged their allegiance to Penn State and the mission to show all that hope was not lost.
This year’s team will play for no titles, go to no bowl game and be done playing just after Thanksgiving, but make no mistake they will be one of the most talked about team in Penn State history. That argument will only be strengthen if they can do Saturday what the Nittany Lions did seven years before.