COLUMBUS — The rites of autumn are alive and well for the program thought to be given its last rites.
At Penn State, the makeshift city that sprouts outside Beaver Stadium before home games is bustling in anticipation of ninth-ranked Ohio State’s visit Saturday night.
By Tuesday, more than 1,000 students hoping for close-to-the-action seats occupied 140 tents — surpassing the previous record turnout leading up to the Notre Dame game in 2007.
Doesn’t exactly fit into the expected narrative, huh?
In a less-than-desired scenario for the Big Ten, two programs barred from the postseason will play the conference’s most anticipated game to date.
Call it what you will — The Ineligibowl and The Battle of the Banned appear the two leading preferences.
Just don’t question the stakes.
Leaders Division rivals OSU (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) and Penn State (5-2, 2-0) will play for nothing, and yet perhaps everything.
For the Buckeyes, a win extends their improbable perfect season and entrenches them on the inside track for a division title — one of the few tangible carrots to play for this season.
For the Nittany Lions, who will be hosting their highest-ranked conference opponent in five seasons, a win would offer the most resounding validation yet of their feel-good season.
“For me to sit up here and say it’s not a big game, that’s crazy,” first-year Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said in his weekly press conference. “This is Ohio State.”
How big? O’Brien said his focus was so lasered on OSU that he forgot he turned 43 on Tuesday.
“I’m not a big birthday guy. My wife will list all the things I really don’t enjoy. Birthdays, weddings, theme parks, the beach,” O’Brien said. “My brother texted me and said ‘Happy Birthday.’ That’s when I figured it was my birthday.”
Few could have envisioned the mood would be so light in Happy Valley these days.
O’Brien appeared set up to fail. A former New England Patriots assistant who had no head coaching experience, he replaced the late Joe Paterno — a Penn State institution who left a legendary, but ultimately complex, legacy — at a school stained by the cover-up of a sex-abuse scandal.
Soon, the NCAA dealt Penn State an unprecedented four-year postseason ban and severe scholarship reductions. Players were free to transfer without penalty, and 12 took advantage, including star running back Silas Redd, among other starters. The Nittany Lions were written off for the next decade, then vindicated the doomsday forecasts with losses to Ohio University and Virginia to open the season.
Yet while the future remains tenuous — the program will be limited to 65 scholarships beginning in 2014, 20 fewer than the usual allotment — Penn State has not gone away.
Far from it. Now, the Nittany Lions have won five straight, O’Brien is mentioned in coach of the year conversations, a struggling former walk-on is the best passer in the Big Ten, a gritty veteran defense is allowing an average of only 15.7 points per game, and a town and a state are believing again.
Penn State is coming off a 38-14 rout of Iowa — its first win over the Hawkeyes since 1999. “They look like a team on a vengeance,” Ohio State safety Christian Bryant said.
The biggest avenger is the least likely candidate. Fifth-year senior Matt McGloin has transformed from one of the worst quarterbacks in the Big Ten last season to its best pro-style passer this fall. Under the direction of O’Brien, who coached Tom Brady for three seasons in New England, McGloin has thrown for a league-best 1,788 yards and 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions.
“This is still Penn State,” Meyer said. “I know there's going to be some tough sanctions against them. But the minute you say woe is Penn State … Penn State has great football players right now. They're very well-coached. I made that clear to our team.”
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.