Much as the Gophers’ showdown with Wisconsin on Nov. 30 figures to decide the Big Ten West title, Saturday’s Penn State-Ohio State clash in Columbus will play a major role in determining who wins the East.
Gophers fans anticipating a trip to Indianapolis for the Dec. 7 Big Ten Championship Game might want to flip channels, with the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions kicking off at 11 a.m., right when the Gophers play at Northwestern.
The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have been through this before. In October 2016, Beaver Stadium shook, vibrating from the cheers of 107,280 fans clad in white as Penn State overcame a two-touchdown deficit, outscoring second-ranked Ohio State 17-0 in the fourth quarter.
The Nittany Lions, unranked since 2011 at the time, stunned the Buckeyes 24-21. The two teams ultimately shared the Big Ten East title, but Penn State held the head-to-head tiebreaker and reached the conference title game. It won in Indianapolis and from there went to the Rose Bowl.
Not to the College Football Playoff semifinals, though. The selection committee somewhat controversially usurped Penn State in favor of the Buckeyes, whom Clemson destroyed 31-0 en route to the national championship. Throw in the following offseason, when current Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields decommitted from Penn State, and there are many layers to this heated rivalry.
Penn State has lost to Ohio State every year since, by just a combined two points the past two seasons with the Buckeyes turning the tables for late comeback wins. Going into Saturday’s showdown, No. 2 Ohio State is 10-0, while No. 8 Penn State has lost just once, at the Gophers two weeks ago.
Penn State would love to repeat the 2016 performance to steal the East crown from Ohio State. But the Buckeyes are 18-point favorites, and their FBS-best defense allows just 216.4 yards per game.
Ohio State has a lopsided win against Wisconsin, but this looks like the toughest two-game stretch on its schedule. It plays at No. 13 Michigan next week.
Penn State finishes vs. Rutgers.
“Our team knows what’s at stake,” first-year Ohio State coach Ryan Day told reporters this week. “… We all know we have been in some games that we have had more talent than some of the other teams we have played. This is a [Penn State] team that talent equates.”
Penn State coach James Franklin wasn’t sure about the talent equality after last year’s loss.
“The reality is that we have gone from an average football team to a good football team to a great football team,” Franklin said in reference to the 27-26 loss. “We have worked hard to do those things, but we are not an elite football team yet.”
Franklin might have picked up that term from friend and Gophers coach P.J. Fleck. But the Nittany Lions have a chance to prove the coach wrong Saturday. And if the Gophers reach the Big Ten Championship Game, Penn State will have yet another chance at redemption.
Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org