It has been almost exactly 20 years since a Penn State football team sat atop the college football world. The school that helped give the Nittany Lions the last shove upward to a No. 1 ranking, Ohio State, might be in position to boost their case for supremacy once again a generation later.
No. 2 Penn State travels to Columbus this week to face off against No. 6 Ohio State in what is shaping up to be the most pivotal Big Ten game of the year. These two programs are no strangers to high stakes when they cross paths. They have met 31 times since the Associated Press starting ranking college football teams, and at least one of the two teams has been ranked in 30 of those games. It might not be considered a traditional rivalry, but the annual game between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions has almost always delivered some drama.
"There was always a lot on the line," said former Ohio State running back Pepe Pearson, who took part in the halcyon days of this matchup in the mid-1990s. For the first seven seasons that Penn State was a member of the Big Ten (from 1993 to 1999), the winner of this game was ranked in the top five the following week. And usually, the loser wasn't far behind.
"We didn't do much trash-talking or anything, but we definitely knew about each other," Pearson said.
In those days, the top players in Ohio and Pennsylvania got acquainted before college ball through the annual Big 33 all-star game, which pitted the two states' best high school players against each other at the end of every school year. Several of the stars from those games ended up crossing state lines to play in college, none more famously than Ohio native and Penn State star running back Curtis Enis.
"That's when I first got to know Curtis. We were both at the Big 33, and I remember I gave him a haircut," said Pearson, now an assistant coach at Marshall. "He was big and strong and fast. We were two different types of backs."
Pearson got his chance to shine in the rivalry first. He ran for 141 yards as a junior in 1996, when No. 3 Ohio State blew away No. 4 Penn State 38-7 in Columbus. The win bumped the Buckeyes to No. 2 in the polls the following week and helped Pearson fully establish himself as a worthy replacement for Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George.
Enis, who was overlooked by his home-state Buckeyes, was distraught. He said he "choked" after running for only 34 yards in that big game. The resentment grew even stronger when he received a letter from an anonymous Buckeyes fan a week later. The equivalent of a mean tweet in the pre-social media era, it read, according to Sports Illustrated: "You suck. We wouldn't want you at Ohio State anyway."
Enis kept the letter for a full year. The night before the two teams met again in 1997, the story goes, he tore it to pieces in his hotel room. The following afternoon, he tore apart the seventh-ranked Buckeyes' defense for 211 yards and a game-winning touchdown in the Nittany Lions' 31-27 come-from-behind victory.
Sophomore fullback Aaron Harris -- another Big 33 participant, from Pennsylvania -- provided Enis with a major assist. Harris bounced off several Ohio State tacklers on a 51-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter that sparked the comeback.
"I didn't really hear the crowd 'til I scored," Harris would later say in the book "Game of My Life: Penn State."
"But that place erupted."
The following week, Harris tore his ACL against Minnesota. A close win over the then-lowly Gophers caused voters to rethink the top ranking. Penn State dropped to No. 2, then lost three of its last five games. They haven't reached the top of the polls since that 1997 campaign.
This time around, the SEC juggernaut keeping Penn State from a No. 1 spot is Alabama, and the Crimson Tide won't slip from that perch during their bye week, even if the Nittany Lions leave Columbus with their unblemished record intact. But a win against the Buckeyes would pad Penn State's résumé with the most impressive win among any of the College Football Playoff contenders who remain undefeated.
Either way, the history between these two programs is reason to believe that Columbus is in for an impressive show on Saturday afternoon, and most likely for several more years to come.