What is the Oban Cup? Well, that’s a secret between the coaches. No really, it’s a secret. “It's kind of a little thing we've been doing for a while now,” explained Ohio State coach Tom Rooney. “(Long time PSU coaches) Terry Ryland and Frazier Gegor started it way back when, and it's fun. It's a friendly rivalry, the coaches enjoy it, the competition's good.”
To understand the rivalry, you don’t really need to know what the Oban Cup is, you just need to know that it's a traveling trophy of sorts and both teams want to win it.
Ohio State and Penn State used to be Midwest rivals many moons ago, before Penn State joined the Mid-Atlantic and both programs eventually joined the College Premier Division. It even predates Penn State's joining the Big Ten in varsity sports and the tenure of both sitting coaches.
“I can remember in 1991 competing against each other,” said Rooney. “In '92, my first year of coaching, we played them in the second round in the Midwest and lost on like the last play of the game, and I wasn't aware of what the rivalry was at that time, so that was my first Penn State game, and I've been paying attention ever since.”
“As soon as I became involved in the program, one of the first matches I was around was the Penn State-Ohio State match, and being a competitor I was immediately awestricken with all that went into it,” said Penn State head coach Don Ferrell. “They played Ohio State here my first time, and I just remember it being close with a lot of emotion and intensity and a hard-fought match. Being new to the sport, I was drawn in and it was something I was obviously ready to go through.”
Penn State has enjoyed the upper hand in this derby in recent meetings, and judging by the Rugby East standings (where you'll find Penn State is playing for their playoff lives and Ohio State is winless) it seems as though they should be favored again Saturday. But Ohio State has nothing to lose, and a win over their rival would go a long way in salvaging an otherwise downtrodden year.
“That can make a season for a team, no question,” said Rooney. “We're not approaching it that way. We’re approaching it more along the line of we just keep trying to get better. That's the part of stepping up into this division, and we knew coming into it this first year that we were going to be struggling. Penn State, nonetheless, is one of the games we have targeted that we want to perform well in.”
“We've talked to the team about that, and I’m not trying to bolster us or whatever, but we pretty much always get everybody's best match,” added Ferrell.
“Most get riled up to play a rival. Most get riled up to play Penn State, like they get fired up to play anybody else in this league, but I guess, to a certain extent, we do have a target on our back. We're working hard to get things back on track, and any team in this league's going to smell blood in the water, and it's our job to make sure we get back on track.”
If Ohio State captures a scalp at home and knocks off Penn State, it would considerably weaken PSU’s playoff chances, and that’s weighing on the collective Nittany Lion mind.
“Obviously these kids are athletes and want to do their best and want to win the league, so they know what lays in front of them now,” Ferrell said.
Part of the process that is actualizing what could be for Penn State is taking a look back, as PSU upperclassmen like senior captain Chris Saint and junior leader Joe Baker have been tasked this week with giving some history lessons to their younger teammates.
“I think that those guys serve an important role in making sure that the younger players understand the rivalry and what’s at stake and what's happened in the past or whatever, just making sure they understand the magnitude of the rivalry,” said Ferrell. “With a young team, I always expect my seniors to be leaders. We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores playing, and it's important for our senior leaders and our captains to not only play well, but to lead well.”