There is no question that Saturday’s Penn State-Ohio State game will be high stakes for each team. Both teams are vying for a potential share of the Big Ten Championship, that is, if Iowa loses one game before the end of the season. Both teams are hoping for at least a New Year’s weekend, even a BCS, bowl, if they win on Saturday and the rest of the season.
It’s also November. That means that both teams have improved since the beginning of the season, and early mistakes or inconsistencies are being corrected through regular practice and more experience through playing games. Both teams have impressive defenses. Both teams have potent offenses led by talented quarterbacks. Both teams are also well coached.
The rivalry itself is intense. We’re tied 12-12 in the series. But some of that is old history dating back to 1912, and is misleading. The series with Ohio State since we joined the Big Ten is 10-6 in favor of Ohio State. The longest series streak since we joined the Big Ten was 2002-2004, when Ohio State won three times in a row. We have played Ohio State eight times at Beaver Stadium. On our home field, we hold a slight 5-3 advantage. At Ohio Stadium, our record is 1-7. We finally won last year, in a tight 13-6 defensive battle that was a sweet victory. But as a result of all those losses in Columbus, Penn State has never beaten Ohio State twice in a row! This year could be different. At least I hope so!
Seven of the sixteen games played during the Big Ten era have been close – with a final score difference of 7 points or less. The biggest score differential was the 63-14 Penn State win (one of my favorites) in 1994, our last undefeated season. The tightest score differential was a 21-20 Ohio State win, in 2003, when Penn State had a losing season. An all-time favorite game for most Penn State fans was Penn State’s 17-10 win in 2005! Another favorite game was the 2001 Penn State win – 29-27 at Beaver Stadium. It was at that game that Joe Paterno achieved his 324th win and finally surpassed Bear Bryant for the most Division I-A college football wins by an active coach. A great celebration occurred after that game. Who knew at that time that Joe Paterno would still be coaching and still hold the record? That 2001 game was the highlight of an otherwise miserable losing season.
So Ohio State is always a big game, especially this year with our Big Ten and BCS chances riding on a win. It’s the only home game left this year that my students are excited about. Their enthusiasm for Penn State football this year has waxed and waned. Mostly waned. They have complained about the loss to Iowa, too many twelve noon games, too much bad weather, and lackluster home competition. If they’re not complaining about that, they are complaining about the new ticketing system or how long it takes to get in their seats.
But now that Ohio State is coming, and our record is 8-1, this somewhat fickle student body is excited again. They promise me they will be in their seats on time for kickoff. The 3:30 game will help that cause, that is, if they’re not caught up with playing beer pong at their tailgate parties. Even for the Iowa game, there were some empty seats at kickoff. This Saturday, I’m hoping for no empty seats! We need that student section noise to carry Penn State at the beginning of the game, not halfway through the second quarter.
With the intensity of Saturday’s game also comes a big concern: the treatment of Ohio State fans at Beaver Stadium and elsewhere on campus and in State College. Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this because we travel to all away games each season. For the most part, Ohio State fans have been friendly to us. We have never had a seriously nasty encounter with an Ohio State fan, and have more often had an enjoyable time with them after a game at one of our favorite Columbus restaurants: the Buckeye Hall of Fame Café. Some other fans I’ve talked with, however, have had some bad harassing experiences in Columbus. I can’t speak to their experience, only our own.
Last year, the attitude of Ohio State fans towards Penn State fans was more friendly than usual. Even my students returned from Columbus last year gushing about how well they were treated by Ohio State students. They told me the student body was downright welcoming. We had the same experience. More Ohio State fans than normal greeted us and welcomed us to Ohio Stadium. It was a very noticeable change in fan atmosphere. As a result, Ohio Stadium is now #5 on our list of favorite college football atmospheres.
After that game, I emailed Joe Battista, former Executive Director of the Nittany Lion Club, Tim Curley, Penn State’s Director of Athletics, and Dr. Graham Spanier, Penn State’s President, describing our very positive experience at Columbus. The turnaround in fan behavior was due to an aggressive fan behavior social marketing campaign sponsored by the Ohio State Athletics Department. I suggested that perhaps it was time that Penn State should join Wisconsin and Ohio State in being more aggressive in promoting positive fan behavior at football games. For each of these schools, their fan behavior programs have been in existence for a few years now. It takes a while to have an impact!
Penn State’s appeal for good fan behavior is limited. There are standard announcements at Beaver Stadium – not the best time or place to reach fans. There are new appeals before the game through Nittany Lion Club emails, but not everyone who attends games is a Nittany Lion Club member, nor do we all read those emails. And a new initiative this year is students positioned at each entrance to Beaver Stadium who welcome each fan to the game. These are positive steps, but more could be done to encourage a safe and entertaining environment for all at the "Greatest Show in College Football".
Ultimately, though, the goal of a fan behavior program is to convince us fans to create a positive atmosphere for ourselves and for away team visitors. We’re not going to eliminate all the bad behavior that can happen among passionate sports fans at a big stakes game.
But each of us can help. We can help to offset any possible incidents that occur by being welcoming to those we meet who are in scarlet and gray. If each of us takes the responsibility to be good sports ambassadors, then the problem is reduced, if not solved.
The Nittany Lion Club uses the term “Common Courtesy and Mutual Respect.” If we all just applied the Golden Rule – treating opposing team fans in the same way we would hope to be treated if we all traveled to away games – then we will come a long way in creating a positive fan atmosphere for everyone.
Will you join us in doing that?
Go Nittany Lions! Beat the Buckeyes!
Then, after we win a close game – Go Buckeyes! Beat the Hawkeyes!