Rob Oller | As Ohio State manages expectations, Penn State manages to struggle

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

Ryan Day was annoyed. At someone. At everyone. The Ohio State football coach was not sure who to blame, but he knew what to blame.

“Expectations,” he said, pausing. “Sometimes they are ridiculous.”

For a moment, Day let his guard down, confessing this week that the biggest challenge associated with keeping a program such as Ohio State on top is dealing with the daunting presumption that the Buckeyes will win. And win big.

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“You win 52-17 (against Nebraska) and some guys are walking around the locker room like, ‘What happened? We just won 52-17,’ ” Day said, sharing how players were confused by how fans, media and even some people around the program reacted to the Buckeyes’ season-opening win last Saturday. “I mean, 52-17 is a pretty good day.”

Only one point separated Penn State and Ohio State on the field in the Buckeyes' 27-26 win in 2018, but Penn State coach James Franklin, left, expressed frustration afterward that his program had fallen behind the Buckeyes under Urban Meyer.

At least the No. 3 Buckeyes are winning. Penn State only wishes victory margin was its biggest issue. The Nittany Lions lost to unranked Indiana last week, dropping them from the No. 8 spot to No. 18 and giving their fans another reason to compare the program with Ohio State, which on Saturday night visits Beaver Stadium and a “White Out” of another kind, where fans have been correction fluided from the picture due to COVID-19.

David Jones, who covers Penn State for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has no doubt that PSU fans would love to have the recruiting power and talent of Ohio State.

“If you want to delineate a time when the Buckeyes began to separate themselves (from Penn State), it begins in the mid-to-late 1990s when John Cooper began getting some serious talent in there,” Jones said. “That’s also when their quarterback coach (Walt Harris) updated the offense and Joe Paterno was still around just being Joe.”

Penn State fell behind as Paterno’s recruiting prowess began to slip, and then the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal further damaged recruiting. When the school fired Paterno in November 2011 the program had already lost some of its luster.

Getting it back has been challenging. The Nittany Lions are 87-42 over the past 10 seasons (.674), compared to 117-18 for Ohio State. Not that Penn State is Rutgers — the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten East and went to the Rose Bowl in the 2016 season, after all — but comments made by Penn State coach James Franklin after losing to Ohio State in 2018 still sting in Happy Valley.

“The reality is we’ve gone from an average football team to a good football team to a great football team … but we’re not an elite football team yet,” Franklin said following OSU’s 27-26 win. “We’re a great program. We lost to an elite program, but we’re close. We’re going to find a way to make that next step, because we’ve been knocking on the door long enough.”

Fast forward two seasons.

Knock knock.” … “Who’s there?” … “Still Penn State.”

Cementing your place among the elite takes elite talent on the field and sidelines. The Buckeyes began their nearly two decades of dominance shortly after Jim Tressel arrived in 2001, playing for national titles in 2002, 2006 and 2007.

As good a recruiter as Tressel was, though, Urban Meyer was even more successful, and the results showed as the Buckeyes won the 2014 national championship and have won the Big Ten East Division in four of the past six seasons, including three division titles in a row. Day stepped in last season and guided OSU to a 13-1 record and appearance in the playoff, where the Buckeyes lost to Clemson 29-23.

In other words, Penn State, which is a respectable 42-11 the past four seasons, still has work to do to reach OSU’s level of consistent excellence. And it begins with recruiting.

“The first thing is you have to recruit every day and recruit at a high level,” Day said. “If you don’t, that’s the first way to get your program going sideways.”

Penn State’s 2021 recruiting class is ranked eighth in the Big Ten. That’s known as sideways lean.

Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post has covered college football in Florida for almost 40 years, including writing about the Miami Hurricanes and Florida State Seminoles when both programs were humming along in the top five of the rankings.

D’Angelo sees similarities between Florida State and Penn State, two schools located in relatively remote areas — “Tallahassee is two hours from nowhere,” D’Angelo said — that were coached by legends in Paterno and Bobby Bowden. Both programs are operating below the "elite" line at the moment.

In the case of both Florida State and Miami, recruiting dropped off substantially. The Hurricanes made hay when Jimmy Johnson recruited south Florida hard, but a series of coaching misfires that led to recruiting losses sped up the Canes’ downfall. Ditto Florida State, where former coach Jimbo Fisher blew off recruiting once he determined the school was not going to pour money into facility upgrades. Fisher bolted for Texas A&M and FSU followed by making a mess of a hire in Willie Taggart.

“It’s a tough fix,” D’Angelo said of Florida State's situation.

It may also be a tough fix in State College. In Columbus, meanwhile, the Buckeyes’ biggest challenge seems to be those rascally expectations. Maybe a three-touchdown win against Penn State will do the trick?

Probably not.

roller@dispatch.com

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