Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Destiny Can Wear A Funny Dress
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
So Penn State is favored. Or at least they were for moment.
The oddsmakers installed Ohio State as a one-point dog for its Leaders Division showdown with the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley on Saturday evening (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) and surely there will be those out there who would find it poetic if Penn State does, in fact, prevail.
After all, Ohio State already seems to be just about over its tumult (sorry, Gov. Romney, I like the word, too) after landing jelly-side-up this past winter with the hire of Urban Meyer as head coach and the ushering in of a topflight recruiting class.
No one is looking around for Jim Tressel or Terrelle Pryor or Jim Bollman or, for heaven’s sake, Nick Siciliano.
The ninth-ranked Buckeyes are the nation’s only 8-0 team and coming off a rather improbable victory over Purdue that included a 61-yard, 44-second drive that produced eight points, a dominant overtime session, and heroics from the likes of backup quarterback Kenny Guiton, forgotten wideout Chris Fields and developing tight end Jeff Heuerman, among others.
The Buckeyes rank 101st in the nation in passing offense, 105th in passing defense, 109th in tackles-for-loss, have no depth of which to speak and their one, true standout player, quarterback Braxton Miller, has been thrown around like a rag doll of late.
They are doing it the hard way, surviving instead of thriving. You can see the glaring flaws and Meyer’s agita set in just about every week.
There is the national perception out there that OSU is an unable-to-fail football factory and that a handful of lost scholarships, a few taps on the wrist and the erasure of one mere postseason aren’t going to stop The Ohio State University from imposing its football might on the rest of the Big Ten and others.
Poor Penn State, on the other hand, is dealing with crippling sanctions that would make Iran blush. Never before even connected to a hint of off-field scandal, the program just got socked with a lifetime of it when the Jerry Sandusky criminal case reached to lookaway tactics by top school officials and the late Joe Paterno, PSU’s longtime and legendary football coach.
Instead of being able to lure in Meyer or someone else with a first-rate college football resume, the school dipped into the professional ranks to bring aboard no-nonsense Bill O’Brien. The program had to weather the mass exodus of several players – 18 since the spring. Lane Kiffin and Tim Beckman apparently were hanging around campus like Kardashians in courtside seats.
Then, it appeared the harsh reality Penn State fans tried to avoid by flipping over media trucks and keeping vigil at a doomed statue of Paterno finally arrived: The Nittany Lions lost their season opener to Ohio University and then were tripped up at Virginia in a heartbreaking 17-16 loss.
Since then O’Brien has been able to get quarterback Matt McGloin on page with his offensive system, more or less the same one he employed as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. It doesn’t look like Tom Brady to Wes Welker, but it’s working – 34 points in a win over Navy, 24 in a triumph over Temple, and 35, 39 and 38 in Big Ten victories over Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa, respectively.
Like Ohio State, the Lions can’t go to the Big Ten title game or a bowl game but they are 5-2 overall and just a game behind the Buckeyes in the Leaders Division standings at 3-0.
After hosting OSU, Penn State still has plenty of challenges ahead – roadies to Purdue and Nebraska and home games with Indiana and hard-charging Wisconsin.
It’s all set up for the Nittany Lions and their fan base, who are desperate for some sort of glorious return to prominence on the gridiron instead of embarrassment and shame off of it. Dozens upon dozens of football recruits are supposed to be on hand for the game, and if Penn State manages to knock off Ohio State before a packed crowd and national television audience there’s no telling what a winning performance could do for the sake of the program.
Do I expect it to be on life support again soon? Yes, I do, but O’Brien at least has an outside chance to win over quality recruits in the near future, which certainly would stem the tide. This is no upstart trying to ruffle the league standings. This is Penn State we’re talking about, with an outstanding football tradition and an expectation of excellence.
Meyer admitted earlier this week he has always been fond of the program. His assistants see an offense that will be difficult to slow down with an efficient McGloin at the helm and a Nittany-like defense that is solid up the middle and led by a linebacker, in this case all-Big Ten standout Michael Mauti.
Add in that the Nittany Lions were able to win in Columbus last year just nine days after Paterno, then the all-time winningest coach in college football history, was fired, and it’s more apparent that they cannot be counted out in a pride game.
So that is the set-up. A Penn State squad that has kicked the dirt away that so many people are trying to shovel onto it, and an Ohio State outfit that appears to be on the brink of defeat but still somehow parries it.
The country may go ahead and root for the Lions. After all, America likes a good comeback tale. No doubt there are those out there who believe the Buckeyes have been lucky to this point, perceive the Big Ten as weak and certainly don’t want Ohio State foiling the system with a 12-0 record.
The bookies, of course, don’t care about all that and are basing their one-point or pick’em spreads more on the recent play of the two teams and PSU’s decided home-field advantage.
But there’s no question that favoring Penn State at least in part represents the idea that the viewing public just wants to see OSU go down and believes it’s time for that to happen.
Slighting the Buckeyes or refusing to believe they have gotten to this point via anything other than prestidigitation doesn’t take into account how they went from 7-0 to 8-0. It brushes aside the good will that now emanates from an emotional come-from-behind win which required the derring-do of lesserlights and just why Meyer was pumping his fist like a madman in the south end zone a couple minutes after the 29-22 triumph over Purdue.
Meyer knows this team is battered, mortal and downright questionable in some areas, but he’s trying to build a refuse-to-lose mentality and toughness that can carry through for perhaps several years. He has an opportunity to put together one of the most unlikely undefeated seasons anyone has ever seen and then be able to point to the will of that group when motivating future teams.
“I don’t want to hear complaints. Kenny Guiton never complained when Braxton Miller was knocked out against Purdue and we told Kenny he has to go win the game. I don’t want to hear doubts. I want to see you ram through there like Carlos Hyde did in 2012 every time we needed him to. Don’t tell me you’re going to get open, go do it and make the play, just like Devin Smith did against Cal and Michigan State and Purdue.”
Saturday’s win in the Horseshoe wasn’t just crowd-pleasing and it wasn’t a masterpiece. Instead, it was a visual definition of clutch, got-to-have-it football, the kind that can propel a good season into a great one.
When I think of the undefeated regular seasons I’ve seen Ohio State produce, I think of the nerve-wracking 10-10 tie with Michigan in 1973, the Ray Griffin interception at UM in 1975, the narrow road win at UCLA and the blocked punt in Ann Arbor in 1979, the 17-10 survival at Illinois and the epic 42-39 shootout with the Wolverines in 2006.
Then I have to reserve a lot of memory for basically the entire season of 2002. I can picture a game-winning TD in the hands of a Cincinnati receiver at Paul Brown Stadium, the fright that accompanied the 19-14 victory at Wisconsin and Chris Gamble taking a pick back to the house in a crucial 13-7 win over Penn State.
November brought more big-time drama, including the 10-6 win at Purdue, the 23-16 triumph at Illinois in overtime the following week, and, of course, the nail-biting 14-9 win against the Maize and Blue at the Horseshoe, which set off the largest fiesta I have ever seen.
Just as Craig Krenzel opted not to target the tight end, put destiny in his own hands and launched a deep pass for Michael Jenkins at Purdue in ’02, the Buckeyes had a similar “Holy Buckeye” moment against the Boilers on Saturday, only this time Guiton’s soft toss to the end zone was a two-point conversion and the play went exactly as offensive coordinator Tom Herman had planned.
“I tip my hat to the guys that call plays from the sideline, but the sterility of the press box allows you not to get caught up in the emotion,” Herman said. “It allows you not to get caught up in the moment or how big the moment is, and say, ‘Guys, I’ve got it right here, we’ve been practicing it for three weeks, and it’s right here in front of me, it’s our two-point play.’
“I don’t care if the offensive line wants to run it, I don’t care if Carlos Hyde wants to run it, this is what we all agreed upon as a staff on Thursday for the last four weeks.”
Those words may live on if the Buckeyes can continue to scrape out games and, as Meyer has proclaimed, never let go of the rope. More defining moments could be ahead. Destiny just may show up in Happy Valley this weekend, even if she is unwanted and not all that pretty.
*This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.