Penn State defeated Oregon to cap off the 1994 season with a perfect 12-0 record. Applications for admissions to the University Park campus predictably rose, and all looked good out into the foreseeable future for Penn State Football.
True, Kerry Collins, Kyle Brady, and Ki Jana Carter had moved on to the NFL, but Penn State would return 4 of 5 starting offensive linemen and a pair of bigtime WR's in Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott.
Mike Archie and Steven Pitts, two highly acclaimed high schoolers in their own right were back and so were the two battering ram fullbacks in Jon Wittman and Brian Milne. Wally Richardson had looked good in 1994 mop up duty and was predicted to post some big numbers for us in 1995.
Yes indeed, things looked good.
The season would get off to a rocky start. Penn State hosted a dangerous Texas Tech squad that featured superb all American MLB Zack Thomas and elusive tailback Byron Hanspard.
Penn State stumbled and fumbled around all day. Hanspard ran well enough for Texas Tech to put two touchdowns and a FG on the board, and Penn State gift wrapped another 7 points for Tech when they ran a double reverse inside their own 10 yard line and the second exchange was frittered away in the end zone.
Penn State found themselves needing 10 late fourth quarter points to pull this one out, and they got the last three of them on the final play of the game courtesy of a Brett Conway made field goal from 34 yards out.
Penn State fans casually brushed this one off, but this game would be a precursor of things to come.
In week two Penn State had lowly Temple at home. As might be expected, Penn State quite literally blew the Owls all the way back to North Philadelphia in convincing fashion.
Penn State would beat Temple by a resounding 66-14 score in what was the first game action at tailback for true freshman Curtis Enis. Curt barely played getting mop up duty in the fourth quarter, but his running skills were obvious. Curt would carry the ball only 14 times against Temple, but he racked up 132 yards and 3 TD's on those carries and a star was born.
The following week, Penn State traveled to The Meadowlands to play Rutgers. Rutgers had beaten Navy the week before and some of their fans had this crazy notion the Scarlet Knights could hang with Penn State.
Rutgers had a very good tight end named Marco Battaglia and they threw the ball to him every chance they got. He got open too, a lot. Every time Penn State would pull ahead, Rutgers would keep it close. And Penn State made just enough bumbling mistakes in this game to make it entertaining for about three quarters.
Once again, Curt Enis, with a lot of help from Bobby Engram, was the star of the game. Curt piled up 145 yards on 15 carries, and Bobby Engram amassed an amazing 175 yards in receptions to lead the way, but they weren't the story that day. No sir, not by a long shot.
Penn State eventually pulled away from Rutgers, but Rutgers scored one last time to bring it to 38-24. After Penn State scored twice more to put the nails in the Rutgers coffin the game looked completely over. But there would be fireworks yet, real fireworks.
After one final Rutgers turnover, Penn State had the ball inside the Rutgers 40 in the last two minutes of the game. Big Red, also known as backup QB Mike McQueary, had entered the game to run the clock out with a series of off tackle handoffs.
With just over one minute left the staff thought it might not be a bad idea to let him throw the ball once as well, so they called a little 6 yard stop route to one of the back up TE's.
This is the part where the fireworks came.
McQueary, went through his normal progressions and noticed that back up WR Chris Campbell had come wide open on a deep post. Well, Big Red did what comes naturally to an eager QB trying to make his mark - he threw it to Campbell down the middle for an easy 35 yard touchdown pass.
After that beautiful spiraled toss finally came out of the night sky and into the waiting arms of Chris Campbell, the ESPN TV crew pans over to Coach Paterno who is basically besides himself trying to figure out how and why McQueary had decided to throw deep on that play. Paterno spent the next 59 seconds chasing Big Red around the sideline until the clock finally ran out.
What happened next is the kind of thing you rarely see in real life. Rutgers head coach du jour Doug Graber ran across the field and went into an expletive laden tirade in which he yelled every conceivable obscenity at Joe Paterno that you can think of in twenty seconds or less. Graber had completely gone bonkers.
This was more about 35 years of futility that had piled up on Rutgers than anything else. Penn State had just smacked the Scarlet Knights around again for the 22nd time in 23 meetings (not counting their first game in 1918), and Penn State was going to rotate off the Rutgers schedule permanently after this game. Graber knew he wasn't getting another crack at the Penn State apple so he made damn well sure he didn't go down without taking his best shot at Paterno. Unfortunately, his best was nothing more than a testosterone driven adolescent meltdown.
Battaglia went on to the NFL, Graber would be fired at the end of that year, McQueary is now on the Penn State staff, and Joe Paterno is the winningest coach in Division 1 history, so I guess everything worked out about as could be predicted. Just not before the entire eastern seaboard portion of the college football viewing world had a few good yuks over the whole thing.
Penn State arrived back in State College in the wee hours Sunday September 24, 1995 riding as high as could be possible in the world of college football. Owners of a 20 game win streak at that point, and with a Wisconsin Badger team that had been crushed in week one that year by Colorado coming to town, all looked good and well for the Nittany Lions.
Things were so good that Penn State could basically do nothing right for 30 minutes the next week and at halftime of that game Kirk Herbstreit would still pick them to finish off Wisconsin and beat Ohio State the following week. But things were about to change, and this wasn't going to be pleasant.
Wisconsin showed up the following Saturday. ESPN had been negotiating with Penn State to make this game a night game for TV and they had finally gotten what they wanted, sort of. This wasn't the 8pm kickoff that they were looking for, but it was late enough for most of the game to be played in darkness.
This was also the game where Penn State fans found out that Wally Richardson could be erratic. To this day, I doubt most Penn State fans know that Wally Richardson could do a pretty good imitation of Joe Montana in practice. Calm, cool, and basic money in practice. True. But Wally sometimes just got plain nervous in big games, and when that happened his ball would sail on him, or it would go into the ground at the receivers feet. Yep, erratic is the word.
Wisconsin had a little known but immensely talented defensive end in that game named Tarek Saleh from Notre Dame HS in Hamden, CT, and Saleh was intent on making this game his coming out party. And he would party alright. He managed to turn our superb offensive line inside out on his way to several sacks that night.
Richardson would be as cold as ice. A Wisconsin team that would go 4-5-2 that year would hold Penn State to 9 points and the streak would come to an inglorious end.
Penn State had no time to lick their wounds either. Ohio State was coming to town for some revenge, some 63-14 revenge.
The Buckeyes were loaded. I mean really loaded. John Cooper had amassed some serious talent in Columbus and the Buckeyes were all over the NFL draft in those years. Ohio State had 4 players drafted in 1993, 5 in 1994, and 8 in 1995. Ohio would be in line to watch 39 players get drafted between 1996 and 2002. Those were Cooper's boys each and every one of them.
The 1995 team had Bobby Hoying, Eddie George, Terry Glenn, Ricky Dudley, Orlando Pace, Shawn Springs, Rob Kelly, Ty Howard, Mike Vrabel, Matt Finkes and on and on and on it went. Yes, these Buckeyes had some bigtime ability.
This was one of the all time games at Beaver Stadium. Ohio State was undefeated, something that would stay that way until they coughed up a major furball at Michigan in the final week of the season. But they didn't know yet what was to come, and they just wanted to beat Penn State.
This was not going to be easy for either team. The lead swung back and forth all game long. Curt Enis had another big day grinding out 146 yards on 25 carries. Eddie George did even better though.
Both teams would move the ball that day. Penn State had a fourth quarter lead and the ball and all the Nits needed to do was grind out a couple of first downs to win it, but they couldn't do it when it mattered and Ohio State would get the final score and a 28-25 victory. The final score came on an Eddie George sweep toss that went around the left end. You could see it coming from a mile away.
After 20 straight wins, Penn State was now looking at a 2 game losing streak and back to back road games looming in the weeks to follow. Penn State fans were in a bit of shock to say the least.
Penn State would manage to squeak by Purdue. Jim Colletto was still the head man at Purdue back in 1995, and the Boilers were still a running team in those days. They were not an especially good football team back then, but they had one great football player in Mike Alstott.
Alstott would batter teams to death, and if you turned the ball over or otherwise played sloppily the Boilers could beat you. They almost did beat Penn State that day before succumbing 26-23.
Bobby Engram got free for a scintillating 203 yards in receptions that day, but the key play in that game came when Richardson threw a well timed late fourth quarter slip screen to Mike Archie who had lined up out in the left flank. Brian Milne came out like a freight train to lay a perfectly timed block on one of Purdue's d backs. Milne basically bludgeoned the man into the ground and Archie walked into the end zone for the winning score.
Iowa was next. The Hawkeyes didn't have what anyone in their right mind could call a real good team that year, but they were dangerous. They did sport a winning record and a Sun Bowl victory over the Washington Huskies at year's end, but the fact was that they were merely good, not real good.
The key players for Iowa that year were Jr. running back Sedrick Shaw and exciting sophomore WR Tim Dwight. Penn State would roll into Iowa that year and take home a 41-27 victory. Penn State pounded Indiana the following week by a lopsided 45-21 count.
Three wins in a row felt pretty good after what had happened with Wisconsin and Ohio State. Things actually seemed to be getting back to normal. Northwestern was next up for Penn State, and even though the Wildcats had gotten off to a 7-1 start, 50 seasons of futility had most Penn State fans thinking they were a fluke at best. I personally thought we'd go right through Northwestern.
Well, Northwestern proved tougher to beat in 1995 than I thought they would. They went so far as to actually beat us. A combination of miscues, missed FG attempts, penalties, erratic Wally Richardson passes, and some inspired play from the Wildcats led to another Northwestern win.
At the time I was certain that Penn State could go no lower than to lose to Northwestern, but when the Wildcats won the Big10 I knew I was wrong. Amazingly, in large part due to the way Big10 scheduling works, Northwestern has won a couple more Big10 titles while Penn State has yet to win this league again.
Penn State would not lose another game in 1995. A talented but disorganized Michigan squad came to Penn State in mid November that year. The mountains of Central Pennsylvania are known to have occasional early snowfalls. In 1995 we had a huge snowfall the week leading up to the Michigan game. Not only did it snow, it snowed almost two feet. It also stayed cold all week long so the snow didn't melt.
Penn State has had a long rich history of football. There are so many legendary stories surrounding this program that it would take a very long time for any historian to recount even a small sample of them.
There are also a lot of quirky eclectic "local flavor" human interest stories that go with Penn State Football. The way in which Penn State solved it's little "massive snowfall accumulates inside Beaver Stadium" problem in 1995 is probably one of those stories. You see, the snow inside the stadium was so deep and so heavy that there weren't enough volunteers and there wasn't enough time to clean it all out.
This is where it gets pretty interesting.
Penn State had made an offer, more like a plea really, to the student body to help with the clean up. They didn't get many takers for what looked like a daunting task. Because of the emergency nature of the situation, what with a big football game to be played in just a few short days following the freak snowfall, University officials sought help from an unlikely source - the U.S. Federal Prison System.
That's right. Inmates from nearby Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary arrived in State College on Thursday morning that week and began shoveling off as much snow as they could from inside Beaver Stadium.
The inmates did as good a job as was possible, and the field itself was in amazing shape by game day. There were huge piles of snow maybe ten to fifteen feet high in each of the four corners of the stadium, but the field itself was as clean as could be. The stands were another matter.
The best the inmates could do was to clean the snow from atop of the bench seats and from the portion of the concrete floor where your feet would normally be placed. The aisles were cleaned up too. But there was snow tightly packed under each of the bench seats. There just wasn't enough time or manpower to remove it all from such tightly packed spaces, so they did the best they could and hoped for the best.
Michigan came to town that weekend sporting a two loss record. Like Penn State, the Wolverines were basically out of the Big10 title hunt. But they were still Michigan. Penn State fans did not want to lose this game. Many Penn State fans decided to stay home due to the weather situation. I drove up and didn't see any traffic or road problems on Friday afternoon until I was within a few miles of State College.
In typical Bud Schuster, er, Penn Dot, fashion, the roads in Central PA were as clean as a whistle. I guess it helps to have your local Congressman heading up the U.S. House Committee on Transportation.
Because of the plethora of available seating that day, I spotted tickets going for as little as $3 outside the stadium. If you were just hanging around, this would be $3 well spent. The game was a classic. For more reasons than you can count on one hand too.
If some of our more seasoned fans had stayed away that day, our students more than made up for it. Not just in numbers, but in enthusiasm. It seems that the immutable laws regarding the nature of the confluence of young people, alcohol, and snow were as much in play as has ever been the case that day.
Snowballs reigned down from the student section that day so frequently as to make a 700 level "Iggles" patron at the Vet blush with envy. Amazingly and shockingly, some snowballs even hit some Michigan players. Several times in fact. What were the odds on that happening?
Joe Paterno, as one might expect, ran down the sidelines a few times to yell at the students. It didn't matter. They kept throwing, and throwing, and throwing. Then they threw a few more for good measure.
The students weren't the only ones hitting the Michigan players, our boys in Blue and White did their fair share of hitting too.
Michigan had suffered a pair of close losses earlier in the year, one to Northwestern and the other to Michigan State, but no one had been able to run on Michigan that year. Not Vriginia's Tiki Barber, not Northwestern's Darnell Autry, not Purdue's Mike Alstott either. No one.
Penn State's offensive line had been maligned all year long. Many pundits had declared our returning line the best in the nation entering the year, but after the dismal effort against Wisconsin and the inability to get a fourth quarter first down on two separate occasions against Ohio State there were whispers. People said the O Line was overrated.
An unlikely hero emerged that day too. Maybe two of them in fact.
Penn State had a lot of talent on that 1995 team. Mike Archie had 4 career 100 yard games entering that game with Michigan. Curt Enis had emerged as a budding superstar. But it was seldom used Stephen Pitts who stole the limelight that day.
Pitts had entered Penn State as one of four nationally rated running backs in 1991. Ki Jana Carter, Mike Archie, and J.T. Morris were the others. Ironically, Pitts was probably the highest rated of them all, yet it took him the longest to get noticed. On this day, our coaching staff had a plan and they worked it to perfection against Michigan.
Penn State came out that day and threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Michigan. Michigan had star power on that defense with guys named Steele and Irons, but Penn State outmaneuvered them all day long. Fran Ganter had devised several special formations for this game, formations we hadn't used all year long.
Penn State came out with a three back set, then switched to the Power I, then to split backs, then more of that three back set. Ganter threw in a lot of motion as well. TE Keith Olsommer was split wide of the line in several sets and he or Bobby Engram would go into motion a lot.
Basically, Penn State outnumbered Michigan at the point of attack all day long. They used Enis and Archie as decoys and the offensive line manhandled the Michigan front seven. Penn State ran for 246 yards that day. Pitts got 164 yards himself, including 58 on a key 4th quarter gallop to set up Penn State's final score. It was a career day for Stephen Pitts, one that would set him up to get drafted by the San Francisco 49ers the following spring.
In addition to a wonderful game plan, some great blocking, and some terrific running by Pitts, Penn State had one other huge play in that game. From the Michigan 3 yard line with less than 3 minutes to play and a 20-17 lead in hand, Penn State ran a fake field goal play that worked to perfection. Little known redshirt freshman WR Joe Nastasi ran thru a seam I could drive a semi thru to waltz into the end zone for the final points of that game.
The game would come to be known by Penn State fans as "The Snowball Game". Fans in East Rutherford and Foxboro would throw snowballs the following day at NFL games, but the press always likes to take shots at icons, so most of the Snowball Stories in the Monday papers were about Penn State and it's raucous student body. Editorials flowed. Letters to the editor followed.
I have three defining images in my mind of that game. Stephen Pitts and his 58 yard gallop where he seemingly made all 11 Wolverine defenders miss him, Joe Nastasi running thru the Grand Canyon of all running lanes on that fake FG attempt turned TD, and Mercury Hayes getting plugged in the facemask by a snowball in the south end zone during a TV timeout before one of Penn State's 2nd half kickoffs.
Penn State would not be playing any more home games that year. The final game was on the road in East Lansing against a Spartan team with a split personality. MSU had beaten Michigan that year, but they had gotten their doors blown off by 4 touchdowns at Wisconsin.
The Spartans had Tony Banks and three NFL caliber WR's on their offensive roster in Muhsin Muhammed, Derrick Mason, and Nigea Carter. They also had a very good big back in Scott Green.
Penn State had Bobby Engram.
Bobby Engram is all over the Penn State record books. There is little doubt that he's the most prolific WR in Penn State history. He's basically lapped the closest competitor. With more than 3000 yards in receptions, he has more than 1000 more yards than Kenny Jackson, OJ McDuffie, and Joe Jurevicius.
Bobby won the inaugural Fred Belitnikoff Award following the 1994 season and topped that off by scoring more TD's, catching more passes, and racking up even more yardage in 1995. None of those 1995 touchdowns meant more than his final score though.
Penn State trailed Michigan State all day long in our final contest in 1995, but out Nittany Lions trailed by only 20-17 in the final minute of the game and they had driven inside the Spartans 10 yard line with the game on the line. An elite bowl game was on the line as well. It was simple really. Win the game and go to Tampa, Florida on New Years Day to play an SEC team. Anything less than victory meant a December 28th game in San Antonio.
Joe Paterno knew what he wanted. He felt that Penn State should be playing on New Years Day, and this led to one of the all time efforts I have ever witnessed a player make on a single game deciding play.
With 4 seconds remaining in the game and Penn State stuck with a 4th and goal situation and the game on the line, Penn State called a time out. I think most Penn State were not really sure what Penn State would do. Kick a FG and settle for the tie or go for broke and try to hit pay dirt one final time in the Michigan State end zone.
Penn State went for it. The play called for Wally Richardson to take a quick three step drop, briefly look downfield to TE Keith Olsommer to pull in the MSU defense, then throw a delayed inside slip screen to Bobby Engram in the left flat. Engram would then be asked to find the end zone behind a wall of blockers.
It didn't quite work out as planned.
The Michigan State defense covered Olsommer with a LB in front and a safety in back. They covered Engram with a pair of defenders right in front of him. Wally threw the ball to Engram as planned. The blocking wasn't very effective on the play, but Bobby Engram had the heart of a Lion.
Engram made the two defenders in front of him completely miss. I'm still not sure to this day how he did it, but he managed to get by them. Still, there were two more fast closing defenders approaching that were determined to keep Bobby from the end zone. Bobby dove as hard as he could into the MSU defenders right at the goal line. It was a Titanic collision that would determine Penn State's fate that day, and it would determine where they'd go bowling.
Freelance photographer Joe Bodkin covered Penn State Football for the Daily Collegian for many years. His photographs can still be purchased in town at various art and picture framing galleries. Joe took two photographs in sequence of this game and season ending play. The first shows Engram sidestepping the first pair of Spartan defenders and the second photograph shows Engram on the ground with the ball tightly held in his right arm just beyond the goal line.
Penn State kicked the PAT in what amounted to a formality. The game and the season had ended when Bobby Engram showed the heart of a true champion in getting into that Michigan State end zone on the previous play. The effort was vintage Engram. The decision to go for it, vintage Paterno.
Penn State would spend the holidays in South Florida. Auburn wound up being named the Hall of Fame Bowl opponent. The Tigers were led by Pudgy round faced head coach Terry Bowden. Auburn had suffered three very narrow losses to very good teams that year and I think the Tigers may have even been favored in the game.
The Tigers liked to run the ball. They had decent talent all around and a great running back in Steven Davis, but they didn't have the same kind of talent Penn State had that year. The Nits smoked Auburn good in a driving rain that day. The game was stunningly easy. Penn State rolled thru Auburn to the tune of a 43-14 final score to finish the year a very respectable 9-3.
Penn State fans had even higher hopes when the year started, but they found out that the chemistry they had enjoyed so much in 1994 just wasn't there the following year. Neither were Kerry Collins, Ki Jana Carter, and Kyle Brady. That might have had something to do with it as well. But 9-3 in this league has proven to be a pretty good year.
Penn State would see ten players drafted in the spring of 1996. Penn State had lost two good linebackers to the NFL after the 1994 season in Brian Gelzheiser and Phil Yeboah Kodie. They'd lose Terry Killens to the Houston Oilers in the third round of the 1996 draft. But the 1994 and 1995 teams were about offense. The 1996 draft took the core offensive linemen, a pair of fullbacks, a pair of running backs, and Bobby Engram.
1996 would bring new faces and more winning football to Happy Valley. Curt Enis would become a full fledged star, Joe Jurevicius would become one of the better WR's in the nation, and Kim Herring and Brett Conway would become all Americans.
1996 would be a year in which Penn State would come very close to playing for a national title. Closer than most of our fans may recall.