There’s a certain electricity that has come from Penn State-Ohio State in recent years that cannot be matched by any other team on the Nittany Lions’ schedule. There is the obvious, surface level reason as to why this is the case — over the last few years, these have been the two-best teams in the Big Ten, with the winner ending up going to Indianapolis and easily disposing of the flotsam that comes from the West. (This is the first time that “the flotsam that comes from the West” has ever been used in reference to the Big Ten and was not a way to say “Michigan.”)
But there’s a reason that lies beneath all of this, one that everyone subconsciously knows but might not like admitting: Penn State is playing catch up against Ohio State. The world of college football has a few truly elite programs. The Buckeyes are one of them. The Nittany Lions are fingertips away from getting to that point, but they haven’t been quite able to grasp and hold onto the metaphorical brass ring, despite coming so infuriatingly close over each of the last two seasons.
In 2017, Penn State went to Columbus, had a fourth quarter lead, and lost by one. In 2018, the same thing happened in State College. James Franklin then went in front of the media and gave an impassioned speech about the need to make the jump from being a great football team to an elite football team. It's been a little more than a year, and I still do not know if the Nittany Lions are an elite team, but I do know that they, at the bare minimum, have the ball in the red zone, and the only thing standing between the program and ascending to that point is a potentially historically great football program, one that happens to share a division with them.
All of this is to say that playing Ohio State, in recent years, has become the measuring stick for where Penn State is and what needs to happen for it to join the tier of college football programs that compose the best of the best. It's exciting, it's a burden, and also, it would not have been possible if not for the block.
A 2016 refresher, for those who need it (none of you do, but come on, you like reminiscing): Penn State lost to Pitt, got thrashed by Michigan, and were potentially one well-timed Irvin Charles touchdown against Minnesota away for a GoFundMe being put together to raise money so the athletic department could pay James Franklin's buyout. Back-to-back wins over the Gophers and Maryland had the team sitting pretty at 4-2 as it entered its bye, which was nice.
What was not nice was what came after that bye. Ohio State, then ranked No. 2 in the country, rode a 6-0 record into town. Penn State was a 19-point home underdog, and while covering the spread wasn't out of the question, you'd have been hard-pressed to find anyone who thought they'd get the job done on the field.
The Nittany Lions trailed at the half, 12-7, and were in a 21-7 hole as the fourth quarter started. The defense put on their hard hats and did what they had to do, but the offense was just not quite able to get off the ground. They started the final 15 minutes with a touchdown, and on the ensuing Buckeye drive, Cam Brown blocked a punt to set Penn State up on Ohio State's 28. The team had to settle for three.
The Buckeyes moved the ball well on their ensuing possession, getting down to the Penn State 28. Facing a fourth-and-7 with a four-point lead and 4:27 left in the game, Urban Meyer needed to make a decision. He rushed to put his kicker out there for what would have been a career-long kick, which is always a bad idea. It was a rare special teams tactical error by Meyer, both because of [see last sentence] and because the Nittany Lions knew what they had to do to block a kick.
"They did it before and I jumped over," Marcus Allen said after the game. "It was a call for me to block the kick. I jumped over, clean, nobody touched me or anything but I missed it. It was a little left for me. I went back to the sideline, this was the first quarter, and I was talking to Coach Huff. I said, 'where am I supposed to be to block the kick,' and he said, 'if they are on the right hash they are going to try to kick it onto the defense's left guard because it is on the uprising.' So, me going to him during halftime, because I knew it was going to come again and I just did the same thing I did. I came clean. I went with the adjustment that Coach Huff gave me and I blocked it."
Allen blocked the kick, Grant Haley scooped it up, and despite the fact that Ohio State boasted the only kicker in America that apparently ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, the cornerback scored.
I was in the stadium for this, plopped down in section NCU, row 69 and doing whatever I could to stay warm amid the kind of cold and crappy conditions that are a fixture of falls in Happy Valley. With where I was in relation to the end zone, it seemed like Haley was running towards me and the thousands of Penn Staters tucked away in that corner of the gigantic metal monstrosity we call home a few weekends every year. When he scored, it was bedlam. There was no way they could lose the game after that, and following a limp Buckeye drive that ended with an Evan Schwan and Kevin Givens sack on fourth-and-24, the Nittany Lion offense took a few knees and pulled the upset.
They turned into a buzzsaw in the aftermath, winning the Big Ten in stunning fashion before falling in the Rose Bowl. But none of this happens without beating Ohio State, which does not happen without the block. It was a win — and a moment — that fundamentally changed the course of the program, and without it, we're not talking about the Nittany Lions as a team with legitimate aspirations of becoming a College Football Playoff participant and a potential national champion.
The block was a blessing and a curse in a way. The blessing was obvious, the curse is that the bar has been set, and over the last few years, Penn State has come so maddeningly close to clearing it with another victory over Ohio State. College football is a place where the authors of stories are presented annually with the opportunity to pen a sequel, and while 2016's was jubilant, 2017's and 2018's have ended in tragedy.
Saturday provides another opportunity for Penn State to gauge where it is compared to Ohio State, another chance to write a story that has had more unhappy endings than A Series of Unfortunate Events. The game opened with the Nittany Lions once again as 19-point underdogs — it's since moved a tick in the direction of the good guys — but somehow, compared to 2016, this week's outcome feels a bit more inevitable. Penn State looks like a very good squad that could make a New Year's 6 game, but Ohio State looks like one of the best teams of the last decade or so. Add in a potentially K.J. Hamler-less offense (please, god, no) and there aren't a whole lot of reasons to be optimistic about this.
To win, the Nittany Lions need to create a moment of magic that turns the game on its head, just like they did in 2016. It doesn't have to be a blocked field goal that leads to a 60-yard return in which a future NFL cornerback barely outruns a kicker — seriously, where on earth did Ohio State find that guy? — but for an outmatched group of underdogs that need to go on the road to keep their conference title hopes alive, they need something magical to happen.
Odds are slim that they'll win on Saturday, and odds are we'll all have to sit and wait for a proper sequel to the block to come sometime in the future. But odds were slim that they'd end up winning the Big Ten three years ago, and with this weekend serving as a play-in game for the chance to go to Indianapolis, the Nittany Lions know what they have to do. The difficult task of keeping the game close throughout will be paramount. Doing that still might not be enough, and as such, Penn State needs a new Marcus Allen or a new Grant Haley to emerge. Considering the stakes, that play would be bigger than the block, although it's hard to imagine anything being more unforgettable.