Penn State would open the 1994 season filled with anticipation of good things to come. The Nittany Lions had a big tall senior QB who had ended the 1993 campaign on a major roll, a rocket powered running back in Ki Jana Carter, swift receivers in Freddie Scott and Bobby Engram, a tremendous All-American candidate at TE, and a budding offensive line just waiting to lay claim as one of the best ever to don the Blue and White.
On a late summer Saturday, September 3, 1994, Penn State would open the year with a thrashing so sound that Minnesota defensive coordinator Mark Dove would spend the entire following off-season thinking of how to slow down an offense like the one Penn State put on the field.
That game was a sign of the times to come.
Penn State would leave the Minneapolis Metrodome only after having thrashed the Golden Gophers by a 56-3 score. That margin of victory would stand as the largest against a Big10 foe until late in the 2002 campaign.
The game would mark a coming out party of sorts for Ki Jana Carter. A few folk's around Columbus, Ohio knew of his talents, and certainly everyone connected to the Penn State program knew what he was capable of, but I didn't get the sense that the national media had any idea just how good Ki Jana was until that day. Carter broke off two spectacular 80-yard touchdown runs that afternoon to signal that he had arrived onto the Big10 scene that year with some bad intentions.
The Minnesota win was nice, but it was not exactly the best of competition. That would change one week later as USC would travel to State College for a key intersectional match up of traditional powers. USC received the same treatment Minnesota had gotten the week before.
Penn State would simply shut down the Trojans that day. The Nits struck swiftly and with authority in amassing more than 360 yards of total offense en route to a 35-0 first half lead. Penn State would take the second half kickoff and move down the field before settling for a field goal and a 38-0 count. The game was then placed on cruise control the rest of the way, and Penn State left the field with a convincing 38-14 win. The Trojans left battered and bruised.
After a pair of blowout wins at home against Iowa and Rutgers, the Nittany Lions traveled to famed Franklin Field in Philadelphia to take on Temple. As is always the case at the home field of the University of Pennsylvania, traffic was an absolute nightmare. Our tailgating that day took place in the friendly confines of an indoor parking garage somewhere in West Philadelphia.
The game ended with Penn State holding another commanding lead, but it was far from uneventful. In the middle of the second quarter, Ki Jana Carter would take a toss sweep right and go about 30 yards with the pitch before being tackled out of bounds. He would leave the game with a broken bone and some minor ligament issues around his right thumb. Thankfully, Penn State had two weeks to prepare for Michigan and allow Ki Jana's thumb some time to heal.
Penn State entered Michigan Stadium on March 15, 1994 on a mission, and they would leave as the nation's top ranked team. Previously top-ranked Florida lost that day to an Auburn team that was on probation and Penn State had figured a win might vault them into the top spot in the polls. They were right.
Penn State jumped all over Michigan early in that game determined to bury the Wolverines. The Nits scored twice on field goals and once via touchdown en route to a 13-0 second quarter lead, and when Penn State easily moved the ball from their twenty to inside the Michigan ten-yard line things looked very good for Penn State.
After PSU scored on a toss sweep left on a second and goal from the Michigan 6 yard line it appeared as if Penn State would simply steamroll Michigan that day. But for the second year in a row a Penn State scoring play would be called back due to a penalty. Penn State was flagged for holding.
After settling for a field goal and a 16-0 lead with only about a minute left in the half things looked great. But Michigan would take the kickoff and, with the help of a spearing penalty called against Brian Gelzhiser, the Wolverines would mount their only real offense of the first half. They'd score on a long field goal to end the half down 16-3.
Michigan had two big plays in the third quarter. They were very big plays. Ty Wheatley, quiet all game long to that point, would take a couple of long plays to the house and suddenly Michigan led 17-16. Although there were no stoppages for noise, the big house was rocking.
Penn State would score and convert a two pointer to regain the lead, but Michigan answered to tie it at 24. The momentum see-sawed back and forth until Penn State drove down the field and Kerry Collins hit Bobby Engram perfectly straddling the goal line on a deep crossing route for a 31-24 lead the Nittany Lions would never relinquish.
The Lions would grace the cover of Sports Illustrated that week as the new #1 ranked team in all of college football. Everything was right as right could be in State College the next two weeks. Penn State had been playing some great football, but none of us saw coming what would happen next.
Some people say that great athletes get into a groove at times. I have heard it can happen with teams as well. Everyone is good at something; good enough to know what it feels like to get into that groove where you feel like you are unbeatable by mere mortals. Well, if ever Penn State was in a zone like that, late October 1994 was the time and place it happened.
Penn State faced a Bobby Hoying led Ohio State team that was loaded with NFL talent. Korey Stringer, Orlando Pace, Eddie George, Hoying, Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, Mike Vrabel, Big Daddy Wilkinson and Shawn Springs are just some of the Bucks that would end up as future high draft picks into the NFL. But these Bucks were no match for a Penn State squad on a major roll of epic proportions.
Penn State put some serious bad mojo on the Buckeyes that year. Our Nits jumped out to their second 35-0 halftime lead of the year and pulled away late on the way to a 63-14 beating that may have been the worst Big10 defeat ever handed Ohio State. Kerry Collins, Ki Jana Carter, Freddie Scott and Kyle Brady sliced and diced Ohio State at will. Bobby Engram made one of the all-time highlight reel catches I have ever witnessed in any football game.
It's true, that win over Ohio State was about as good as it gets, in football anyway. It got so bad for Ohio State that day that even 279-pound defensive tackle Chris Maczyk managed to score on them. Bobby Hoying, already having been intercepted twice that day, attempted to lob a high screen pass towards Joey Galloway that the beefy lineman managed to get his big mitts on, and what a sight that was. Maczyk, in true lineman fashion, turned like a startled elephant and lumbered the 10 yards between himself and the endzone for the score.
It wasn't pretty. It wasn't very pretty for Ohio State either. Had the Buckeyes not managed to score a meaningless touchdown against Penn State scrubs with about two minutes to play, this would have been their worst loss since 1902.
One week later, Penn State would travel to Bloomington, Indiana for what everyone expected to be a fairly easy victory. For the most part the game played out that way too.
Penn State jumped out to a 35-13 lead in this game and the Nits scored two more second half touchdowns, but both of those long scoring plays were called back due to penalties. As was the case in the Michigan game, I couldn't find the penalty infractions, but the scores were called back and the game went on.
Indiana head coach Bill Mallory would convert a Hail-Mary play in the final minute of the game. After a two-point conversion the Hoosiers converted an onsides kick as well. Incredibly, Indiana would convert a second Hail-Mary play in the waning seconds and they topped that off with another two-point conversion. In what should have been a blowout victory for Penn State, the 35-29 final score was very deceiving.
Penn State would drop to #2 in both polls in the wake of that game, and when Penn State would trail Illinois in Champaign by a 21-0 early second quarter score the following week I am certain the pollsters felt justified in dropping the Nits.
In a contest that would clinch Penn State's first Rose Bowl berth, this was a surreal game from the start.
In a story few fans are aware of, Penn State's Champaign hotel was hit with an isolated power outage in the early morning hours of the game. Some reported at the time that the power outage was isolated to only the hotel in which Penn State was staying. That story was not corroborated to the best of my knowledge, but I know of the impact the outage had on the Penn State squad.
Due to a lack of electricity, Penn State's football squad had to walk down 15 flights of stairs to eat a pre game meal of Pizza. Not your typical "breakfast of champions" so to speak. Then, many had to walk back up again to get personal items. Then back down again. By the team the team got to the stadium there were already minor readiness issues.
Illinois seized the opportunity and jumped all over Penn State. Five minutes into the game Illinois tailback Ty Douthard scored. After a fumble from Ki Jana Carter, Illinois scored again on a 1-yard pass from Johnny Johnson to tight end Ken Dilger. After a Kerry Collins interception, the Illini incredibly scored another touchdown. The hopes and dreams of many a Penn State fan seemed to be evaporating into the thin cold late afternoon November sky.
"After the third touchdown, their eyes opened up," Douthard said of Penn State. "They were shocked." Finally, with a little over 5 minutes left before halftime, Penn State would get on the board. After forcing Illinois to go three and out Penn State would strike again, this time on a 50 yard first play scoring strike from Kerry Collins to Freddie Scott.
Illinois would get one score back right before halftime, but the Nittany Lions just would not give up. "At halftime, we were saying 'Remember Michigan State. Anything can happen. Don't give up,'", Lion tight end Kyle Brady said.
Penn State clamped down in the second half to limit Illinois to one field goal. Meanwhile, Penn State's potent offense sprung to life putting 14 points of their own on the board to get within three points at 31-28.
As the game neared its end, it all came down to this: Penn State's explosive offense against the nation's second ranked defense. It was exactly the matchup everyone had come to see. With little more than 6 minutes remaining in the game, Penn State huddled in their own end zone. With the ball at their four-yard line and the Illinois endzone 96 yards away, a successful scoring drive would place Penn State one step closer to history. A failure to get there would bring a shining season crashing to an end.
In the huddle, Kerry Collins instructed his teammates that they would not falter. They would not fail. They would go the 96 yards and push the ball into the Illini end zone. On the sidelines the players would hold hands in unison and will their teammates down field. In a photograph that Joe Paterno later said was one of his all time favorites, you can see those players holding hands. It was the very essence of what it means to be a team, to place one's team ahead of personal goals.
Fourteen plays and nearly all of the six minutes later, Brian Milne, a player who had beaten back Hodgkin's disease just two years earlier, drove his body through a thicket of defenders into the Illini end zone, thus capping off one of the greatest comeback moments in Penn State football history.
Fans of the Fighting Illini were in disbelief. It was their offense that had been suspect all season, but never their beloved defense. Penn State managed to mount a classic game-winning drive. Illinois' defense had faltered.
Perhaps Illinois All-American linebacker Dana Howard said it best, "We just needed to shut them down on that final drive, but we didn't." Like in a classic prizefight, the Fighting Illini had the Nittany Lions up against the ropes, but couldn't deliver the knockout blow. Illinois wasn't able to stop Penn State's offensive juggernaut when it mattered most.
Penn State, weary and tired, worn out and nearly beaten themselves, left Memorial Stadium winners. They left with more than that too. They left with more character and perseverance than any Penn State team had since 1986. They left with that championship feeling.
Penn State would return to close out the regular season against Big10 foes Northwestern and Michigan State. Northwestern was led by up-and-coming head coach Gary Barnett. The Wildcats were feisty, but no match for Penn State. They went down 45-17. In the final week of the season Penn State took on the Spartans of Michigan State in the inaugural Land Grant Trophy game at Beaver Stadium.
The Land Grant Trophy is one of those crazy rivalry things that the Big10 is trying to force onto Penn State and Michigan State. Sure, we have had some good games, and we do have that original Land Grant thing going, but rivals? C'mon.
Penn State beat the daylights out of Michigan State that day. If not for a comical kickoff return for a touchdown by Mushin Muhammad that turned sophomore kicker Brett Conway around like a pretzel, and if not for some heroics by MSU QB Tony Banks, the game would have been an even bigger rout than the 59-31 score would indicate.
Perhaps the lightest moment of the game occurred when Coach Paterno inserted Ki Jana back into the contest so that he could pick up three or four yards to eclipse the 1500 yard mark. Ki Jana promptly ripped off a 45-yard touchdown run down the left sideline.
In the early darkness of that late November evening, Penn State would end their second season in the Big10 smelling Roses, and with an unbeaten season that no one could take away from them.
Nebraska. Damn Nebraska. Better yet, damn those pollsters for making me hate Nebraska.
The Huskers are inextricably intertwined in the rich storied history of the Penn State program. Penn State and Nebraska had split a couple of games in the late 70's and early 80's that still stand as folklore to many college football fans in both states.
I'm actually long over my hatred of Nebraska. I never really hated them really, but I once did hate what the pollsters did in 1994 in handing Nebraska a sole national title at the expense of this great Penn State team.
But that's in the past, and to argue about those silly polls doesn't exactly enhance what our great 1994 squad did on the field anyway. I just settle for the fact that about half the people think Nebraska had the best team back then and the other half think Penn State was the #1 team in the land. Internet fans that endlessly argue this stuff miss the big picture. Both teams were great. Both deserved to be called champions.
Penn State would line up to play the Oregon Ducks on New Year's Day in The Rose Bowl. Nebraska had already beaten Miami 24-17, and the network that carried that game had already proclaimed the Huskers as National Champions. They deserved it. They had gone unbeaten.
I have no grudge with Nebraska. But that doesn't for one millisecond diminish what Penn State did that year. That is why I say that Penn State was also the 1994 National Champions.
Oregon entered that game with a hot quarterback from Los Angeles named Danny O'Neil who was coming home to play in front of his friends and family. It wouldn't matter. Just as was the case with every other team that faced Penn State that year, there was no answer to stopping the Penn State offense.
Just as the season had started way back in early September against Minnesota, Ki Jana Carter would take a handoff and explode over 80 yards to the end zone, only this time it occurred on Penn State's first offensive play of the game. Carter would score three times in the game, the first on that 83-yard gallop on the opening play from scrimmage. He would score twice more on runs of 17 and 3 yards.
Penn State played that game with a depleted defense. So many starters had been hurt that year that we played the Rose Bowl with a number of second and third string defenders. No matter, our offense simply could not be stopped and the Nittany Lions rolled Oregon easily.
Penn State went up 38-14 on fullback Jon Witman's 9-yard run in the fourth quarter. Oregon wouldn't quit and the Ducks closed the gap to 18 points on Ricky Whittle's 3-yard run with under 3 minutes to play.
The game ended with Penn State taking a knee three times at the Oregon 10 yard line while holding a commanding 38-20 lead. It may have been a bit anticlimactic, but Penn State ended the season unbeaten at 12-0. Most importantly to me, they walked off the field as Champions.
The voters stayed true to form and awarded the National Championship Trophy to Nebraska, but Paterno was not dismayed, at least not publicly. "We are worthy of being called National Champions just like they are. No one can take that away from us."
Kerry Collins was even more emphatic, "We are going to award ourselves the National Championship, no matter what the guys in their easy chairs say."
Perhaps the late H.L. Mencken said it best, "there are two types of tales. One is the wonder of it and the other the shame of it." In 1994, Penn State was the wonder of it.
Kerry Collins, Kyle Brady, Ki Jana Carter, Bobby Engram, Freddie Scott, Brian Milne, John Whitman, Mike Archie, Stephen Pitts, Joe Jurevicius, kicker Brett Conway, and that great offensive line of Bucky Greely, Marco Rivera, Jeff Hartings, Andre Johnson and Keith Conlin would all wind up in the NFL. Carter, Collins, and Brady would all end up being picked among the first ten selections of the 1995 draft.
1994 was truly a season to remember. A Rose Bowl Season. A Championship Season.