Losing postseason privileges and reducing scholarships hasn’t ended the big game eras at Penn State and Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions and Buckeyes meet tonight at Beaver Stadium with everything at stake besides a Big Ten title game spot or January bowl ticket.
The victors’ ransom: first place in the Big Ten Leaders Division, state pride and an opportunity to bedazzle what should be a large national television audience. The haul is hearty considering the programs’ current plights.
Penn State faces a fourth-year postseason ban, massive scholarship reductions and the possibility of losing more current players because of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Ohio State is banned from postseason play this year because of a cash-for-tattoos scandal that cost former coach Jim Tressel his job. The Buckeyes are operating with 82 instead of the NCAA-maximum 85 scholarships through 2014-15.
The total seems generous compared to Penn State’s upcoming numbers crunch. The Nittany Lions must cap their scholarships at 65 from 2014-17.
Players and coaches from both schools will escape the severity of the sanctions when tonight’s game begins at 5:30 p.m.. Penn State students started pitching tents outside Beaver Stadium on Monday. The campers, who received visits from Penn State coach Bill O’Brien and many key players, will be among the more than 106,000 fans inside Beaver Stadium.
“I would definitely say that these guys have earned the right to play in this type of game,” O’Brien said of his players. “They’ve put a lot of time in. They’ve been through a lot. Everything that we’ve asked them to do, they’ve done.”
One thing Penn State players haven’t done is dwell on the sanctions. The program has lost 14 players, most notably running back Silas Redd, wide receiver Justin Brown and kicker Anthony Fera, since the NCAA attached a penalty-free transfer waiver to the sanctions.
The defections led to many questions regarding Penn State’s ability to field a competitive team. Those questions increased after season-opening losses to Ohio University and Virginia. Behind a strong group of leaders, Penn State (5-2) has won five straight games to re-enter the big-game era. The streak includes lopsided victories at Illinois and Iowa and a comeback triumph over Northwestern.
“We knew if we were still playing football there would be big games, especially when you play in the Big Ten,” senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “There are always going to be big games.”
The opponent adds to this game’s appeal. At 8-0, the Buckeyes are one of 11 FBS programs with perfect records. They are coming off shaky performances against Indiana and Purdue. But they blasted Nebraska 63-38 earlier this month.
First-year coach Urban Meyer won two BCS titles at Florida and quarterback Braxton Miller is a Heisman Trophy contender.
Ohio State (4-0), Penn State (3-0) and Michigan (3-0) are the only teams undefeated in Big Ten play.
“This is the reason you play college football, to be in atmospheres like (tonight),” Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin said. “It’s a big-time game between two top teams in the Big Ten. We deserve it. They deserve it.
“It will be a great night for football.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.