The date: October 3, 1998
The matchup: No. 7 Penn State (3-0) at No. 1 Ohio State (3-0)
The stakes: THIS is the year for John Cooper and Ohio State, right? Surely?
The back story: Cooper took over from Earle Bruce in Columbus in 1988 and took his time building a winner. But in 1993, his Buckeyes embarked on a six-year run that saw them win 62 games with six top-15 finishes and three top-sixes. But they were perched at the doorstep of a national title shot in 1993 and lost 28-0 to Michigan. They were 11-0 in 1995 but fell at Michigan again. They were 10-0 in 1996 but fell, yes, to Michigan. They were 10-1 in 1997 and fell to Michigan again.
Losses to the rival Wolverines had doomed Cooper's tenure to date, but his 1998 squad was nearly untouchable. They had All-Americans Antoine Winfield and Damon Moore (plus Ahmed Plummer) in the defensive backfield, David Boston and Dee Miller (combined: 2,350 receiving yards) at receiver, Michael Wiley at running back, Joe Germaine at quarterback, defending Butkus Award winner Andy Katzenmoyer at linebacker, etc. This team might have had more raw talent than any team in the 1990s.
From 50 Best*:
The constant ability to fall one win short created an interesting dynamic in Columbus in 1998. On one hand, Buckeye fans were prepared for another excellent season but were braced for the worst, especially with a brutal schedule that would feature five ranked opponents, three in the first four weeks. On the other hand … goodness, was this team talented.
Penn State, meanwhile, had current and future All-Americans LaVar Arrington, Courtney Brown, and Brandon Short on defense and would allow just 15.2 points per game on the season, 10th in the country. The Nittany Lions weren't amazing offensively but had averaged 10.2 wins per year since joining the Big Ten and had begun the year with wins over No. 21 Southern Miss (34-6 at home) and rival Pitt (20-13 on the road).
Before Ohio State could think about finally clearing the Michigan hurdle, the Buckeyes had to take on three ranked opponents in the first four weeks. They disposed of No. 11 West Virginia, 34-17, in the opener, and came back to handle No. 21 Missouri, 35-14, in week 3. Now, after a bye week, it was time to take on the biggest test yet.
The game: From the Akron Beacon-Journal:
On a cold, rainy afternoon at Ohio Stadium, No. 1-ranked Ohio State spun its wheels in the soggy turf for nearly the entire first half.
Then, midway through the second quarter, No. 7 Penn State slugged its way to a 3-0 lead. The partisan crowd of 93,479 fell silent, wondering if the dreary conditions had left the Buckeyes lifeless.
Ohio State, with the rain pouring relentlessly, looked desperate. The Nittany Lions were playing over their heads, defusing the Buckeyes' high-octane offense. [...]
[Linebacker Jerry] Rudzinski turned things around, pressuring Penn State quarterback Kevin Thompson, forcing a fumble. Rudzinski chased down the ball before it rolled through the end zone, wrapping his body around it for a touchdown to give Ohio State a 7-3 lead with 3:55 to go in the first half.
The Nittany Lions never recovered and the Buckeyes never looked back in winning their Big Ten opener, 28-9.
Wiley scored on a 20-yard pass from Germaine with 23 seconds remaining in the first half, and then the Buckeyes scored on a blocked punt. Despite fumbling the ball five times, Ohio State eventually eased ahead and cruised.
The box score:
Penn State averaged just 3.1 yards per play and generated only nine first downs. Once Ohio State was actually able to build an advantage on the scoreboard, the Nittany Lions had to start taking chances. That didn't work too well. Thompson was 11-for-20 for just 106 yards and a pick, while Germaine completed 16 of 30 for 213, a touchdown, and an interception.
Boston caught only two passes for 37 yards, and Wiley rushed 19 times for only 67 yards, but Dee Miller had a big day (6 catches, 108 yards), and Ohio State simply didn't need much more than that.
The Buckeyes rolled through their next four conference opponents by an average score of 40-8 and took down Michigan with relative ease in the regular season finale, 31-16. Unfortunately, the slip-up had come a couple of weeks before Michigan came to town. Nick Saban's talented, glitchy Michigan State Spartans pulled off an out-of-nowhere late comeback to upset the Buckeyes, 28-24, and in the first year of the BCS formula, one-loss Florida State finished ahead of the Buckeyes for the No. 2 spot opposite Tennessee.
The unbeaten Vols won the national title, and Ohio State, probably the best team in the country, settled for beating Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl and finishing second in the polls for the second time in three years. In a playoff setting, Ohio State would have probably been the favorite. But the CFP wouldn’t come around for another 16 years.
This ended up being Cooper’s last gasp. Ohio State went just 14-10 in 1999-2000, and Cooper was dumped in favor of Jim Tressel, who pulled off an unbeaten 2002 campaign.