As 1995 turned over into 1996, Penn State fans knew they had seen the last of one of the most talented groups of players ever assembled in State College, Pa.
The 1996 NFL draft would see no fewer than ten Nittany Lions taken, five of which went in the first three rounds. Big offensive linemen Jeff Hartings and Andre Johnson spearheaded that list as first round picks. Former Fred Belitnikoff winner Bobby Engram went in the 2nd round to Chicago, and linebacker Terry Killens and fullback Jon Witman went in the third round.
All in all, ten Penn Staters were drafted that April. Brian Milne, Keith Conlin, Stephen Pitts, Marco Rivera, and Mike Archie rounded out the draftees. These players were all a huge part of that great 1994 national championship team, and, in the five years most had been on campus they went a combined 49-12.
Penn State fans knew this feeling well. One group leaves and another steps right up to the plate and tries to duplicate what the last group had done before them. Our cupboard was far from bare. It was stocked pretty darn well actually.
Joe even knew we had a lot of talent that year. He gave his usual "don't get too excited" story on the fundraiser circuit that year, but when interviewed by Town and Gown for the Football Annual, he was very upbeat.
Penn State had lots of holes to fill, but we had more than a few players to do the filling.
The Nits would return steady, if sometimes erratic, Wally Richardson at quarterback. Joe loved that kid. He liked back up Mike McQueary too. He wasn't even close to worried about the QB situation.
The offensive line however gave him some cause for worry.
Center Barry Tielsch was the lone returning starter from the 95' squad. Penn State had graduated so many good linemen that we really did need to see some new guys step up and take on a leadership role.
Bill Anderson and Phil Ostrowski would start the season at offensive guard and Jason Henderson and Pete Marczyk would man the tackle spots.
Penn State would somehow overcome a rash of problems with their offensive line that year and play some good football. Dan Drogan was an expected back up at offensive tackle, but he had an off season DUI situation that involved an injury and he barely played long enough that year to break a sweat.
Then Brad Jones saw his career ended with some sort of heart or lung ailment following the opener at the Meadowlands against USC. Things got so tenuous for the O Line that year that true freshman John Blick actually started a couple of games for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State had a pair of nice TE's that year in 5th year senior Keith Olsommer and 2nd year man Cuncho Brown. The receiving corps was led Joe Jureviscious. Joe was a tall, rangy, speedy and very athletic kid from near Cleveland, Ohio. He would later make quite a splash in the NFL, but not before he terrorized more than a few Big10 defenses.
One of the trouble spots that year was finding a capable 2nd pass target. Chris Campbell had the dropsies half the time. Corey Jones was always smallish and Joe Nastasi was unproven.
Penn State did not have much proven depth at RB, but they had Curt Enis, and that was about all they needed that year. They also had rsFreshman Aaron Harris at FB, and these two would prove formidable to Penn State opponents in 1996.
The defensive front four had one very, very good man in DT Brandon Noble. But like the WR spot, the rest was another case of "looking for a few good men."
Noble had the one DT spot locked up, and Floyd Wedderburn was now in his 3rd year on campus and many thought he'd take the other DT spot. Floyd was a high school all American out of Upper Darby, PA, but he had knee problems and never really dented the rotation. Mike Buzin would end up playing some that year, but 252lbs. junior Matt Fornadel wound up the starter opposite Noble.
In the spring of 1996 Coach Paterno had moved fullback Anthony Cleary to defensive end. This was done mostly because Brad Scioli had torn an acl in spring ball that year and we were playing shorthanded at that spot. Part of the reason for that move, however, was the emergence that spring of freshman FB Aaron Harris.
While Harris would turn into a fantastic FB that year, the team was depleted at DE, and hence, the move of Cleary. The thought was to find some athleticism. It never panned out for Cleary. He would ultimately transfer to D3 Bloomsburg to be nearer his fiancée.
Chris Snyder and Clint Seace were also tried at DE. Snyder took, Seace didn't, at least not enough to ever sustain any playing time. That DE spot was so thin that year that rsFreshman Brandon Short, the expected starter and a future all Big10 MLB in waiting, would play DE most of the year.
Short's move to DE forced Gerald Filardi to start at MLB, and he actually played very well that year. Maurice Daniels backed up. Jim Nelson and Aaron Collins manned the OLB spots. Ahmad Collins and Cory Carlson backed up what was probably the deepest position at PSU that year.
Penn State had three spots in their secondary locked down with Kim Herring at free safety and Mark Tate and Brian Miller at corner. Shino Prater and Shawn Lee rotated opposite Herring.
Brett Conway and Darrell Kania were returning starters in the kicking game.
Penn State had routed Auburn to cap off the 1995 campaign and the Nits wanted to start out 1996 right. They did just that.
Penn State exploded out of the blocks that year with a 24-7 dismantling of favored USC at the Meadowlands in the Kickoff Classic. Wally Richardson would throw for only 102 yards, but Curt Enis would run for 241 more and three touchdowns to boot.
The Penn State defense shut down USC and their Rose Bowl MVP QB Brad Otten cold. Penn State so thoroughly dominated Otten and his wideouts that the Trojans barely avoided getting shut out, scoring with 29 seconds left when linebacker Chris Claiborne recovered a fumble by tailback Chafie Fields in the end zone.
Enis was scintillating. His 24-yarder, with 1:57 left in the first half, displayed Enis' power and speed. He ran directly into safety Rashard Cook at the 15-yard-line, bounced off and sped into the end zone to give the Nittany Lions a 10-0 lead. Cook had come up to make a big tackle and Enis essentially blistered him into the hard Meadowlands turf on his way to the end zone.
Enis, who had 27 carries, produced the fourth-highest rushing total in Penn State history to that point. His total was also the most ever allowed by Southern California.
Otton, USC's Rose Bowl hero against Northwestern the prior New year's Day, had a poor outing, completing just 11 of 28 passes for 144 yards and an interception and fumble. Penn State dominated that day, but the secret was out - this Curtis Enis character could run with the best of them.
Penn State had Louisville, Northern Illinois and Temple due up next. The Lions blew all three of them out in what were major beatings. The games were all over very early. Enis was going off on everyone and Aaron Harris was getting his yards too. These were very overmatched opponents.
The only unusual occurrence in this three game stretch was the fact that the Temple game, an away game, had to be moved to the Meadowlands because both the Phillies and the Penn Quakers had home games and Temple didn't have anywhere else they could play the game.
Next up was a late September road trip to Wisconsin. Penn State controlled this game for all but a few minutes, but true freshman RB Ron Dayne made this game interesting. Every time Penn State got ahead, Dayne would lead UW back down the field. Penn State got up two scores in the second half but Dayne wouldn't quit and he brought UW back close.
The game got scary when Richardson threw a tight pass in traffic towards Cuncho Brown in the last five minutes of the game. That pass was throw towards Brown at about the Penn State 12 yard line and one of Wisconsin's d backs came up and jolted Brown early but no call was made. The ball popped way up in the air before it was picked off. Wisconsin was within ten yards of taking the lead.
The Penn State defense would hold UW to a FG, and on the ensuing possession Richardson found Jureviscious behind the UW defense on a fly pattern that went to the Wisconsin 20 yard line. Brett Conway would kick a FG and Penn State would barely hold on for the win in Madison.
From Madison it was off to Columbus where Penn State met Ohio State on October 5th. Ohio State was ranked among the nations top 3 teams at that point and the Bucks were unbeaten just as was Penn State. But this game would be a mismatch from the word go.
Ohio State jumped on Penn State early and often. Many of Ohio State's senior laden team had been punished two years earlier in Happy Valley to the tune of a 63-14 walloping that was the Buckeye's worst loss in 90 years. Between that motivation and the fact that the press talked incessisantly of Curtis Enis all week long and how he did not like John Cooper, well, they were really fired up to pound Penn State, which they pretty much did.
The Nittany Lions never got off the ground and Ohio State just kept pummeling away en route to a dominating 38-7 victory in the Shoe. The Buckeyes moved the ball effortlessly that day and Penn State was throttled by a tremendous Ohio State defense.
Penn State came home for the first time in three weeks to take on an overmatched Purdue squad. This Boiler team had little energy as Jim Coletto was just going through the motions at that time. The PU alumni had had it with Coletto and were set to replace him at season's end and he knew it. Penn State prevailed 31-14 in Beaver Stadium.
The following week saw some of the worst October weather I can ever recall in Beaver Stadium, and it would play a huge part in our game with Iowa. Iowa had a good team that year, but Penn State had a better team and still the Nittany Lions managed to lose the game.
The temps that day dropped to around 35 cold, wet, rain and sleet filled degrees during the game. Iowa's Tim Dwight returned one punt for a TD and hauled in a 60 yard pass at the Penn State 3 yard line to set up another score. One decent touchdown drive added in gave Iowa the 21 points they needed to win the game. Penn State would score 2 touchdowns and 2 FG's in the game but would still drop a 21-20 heartbreaker as Wally Richardson couldn't hit the broad side of a barn that day.
One of the reasons Richardson was so erratic that day was the weather, and the other was the poor blocking effort in front of him. Penn State was still juggling personnel to make up for the loss of Anderson and Brogan when one of the other starters got dinged up that week. This is how true freshman John Blick got on the field. Between the sloppy blocking up front and Aaron Harris' inability to pick up blitz packages that day, Richardson didn't get a lot of help.
I can vividly recall just dragging my arms and legs out of the stadium that day with three of my equally numb friends. We somberly ate at Damon's before heading home in the midst of the Nor'easter that had fallen on the east coast that weekend. Penn State was just another casualty claimed by Mother Nature and the fickle winds that sometimes blow through bigtime college football.
Penn State would travel to Bloomington the following week to take on Indiana. The Hoosiers had another mediocre football team and Penn State should have blown their doors off from the first possession, but the Nittany Lions came out as flat as was possible that day. IU actually led the game at halftime when Coach Paterno lit into the players in the locker room. Paterno spent roughly 5 minutes alternately questioning the character of his players and just flat out ripping them for what he deemed lack of effort.
The halftime speech worked. So did back up QB Mike McQueary and reserve tailback Chris Eberly. Paterno pulled Wally Richardson at the intermission and inserted McQueary who proceeded to march Penn State up and down the field at will. On top of pulling Richardson, Paterno also yanked Enis for his sloppy and uninspired play.
Penn State, trailing considerably at halftime, would win the game by a 48-26 count. I was at the Outer Banks that weekend and almost threw some furniture out of the window onto the sandy back yard in the first half. Luckily, I waited to see what the second half brought before wreaking havoc.
On November 2nd Northwestern rolled into town. The Wildcats were the defending Big10 champs in large part due to scheduling quirks, and they were sitting atop the Big10 again with a perfect 5-0 league mark. They had beaten Michigan and 4 other teams all in close affairs, but they hadn't played a really good team yet.
Penn State fans weren't sure which QB would be under center that day. Would it be the sometimes erratic Wally Richardson or would popular back up Mike McQueary be leading the way?
This would be an awesome night. The game started in the late afternoon with a "fly by" performed by a pair of Army hornets. It was both extremely loud and extremely exciting to see the two jets whiz past as some serious speeds. It was also an omen of what Penn State would do to Northwestern that day.
Penn State turned the clock back on the Wildcats that day making them look every bit the part of the hapless victim they had played several hundreds of times before in Big10 play. Curt Enis and Aaron Harris ran through and around NU with ease, and Joe Jureviscious had a huge night himself.
The sky that night was as beautiful as it was ugly for the Iowa game. The air was crisp and clean and the late afternoon and early evening sky had turned an incredible pink and purple over Beaver Stadium. The setting sun was as beautiful late that afternoon as I had ever seen it over the north west corner of the end zone.
By the time the final seconds ticked off the clock Penn State had trounced the Wildcats by a 34-9 count. It might not have been that close. The Penn State defense punished Northwestern in every conceivable way. If not for a D'Wayne Bates 80 yard touchdown play the Wildcats would not have reached the end zone even once.
That setting sun, the fly by, Joe Jureviscious galloping down the center of the field towards the south end zone on a long TD reception, and Chris Snyder getting up off the turf to topple over the Northwestern QB for a late game sack near their goal line are what I recall from memory from that game.
Penn State beat back Michigan the following week. Curt Enis proved a little too much for the Wolverine defense that day and the UM offense was brought to a halt when Brian Griese threw several interceptions.
For the 2nd straight year Penn State burned Michigan with a special teams play. In 1995 it was Joe Nastasi scoring on a fake field goal attempt. Nastasi had run through a gap about a mile wide in Michigan's FG defense to score a late game touchdown which helped seal that game.
This time it was freshman cornerback David Macklin crashing in to block a punt which was recovered in the Michigan end zone by Harrisburg's Ahmad Collins. Collins deserved to have something good happen for him that game. He had spent most of the year in the doghouse for reporting to camp overweight, and this was certainly a shining moment for him.
Kim Herring made one of the most acrobatic interceptions you could ever see in a football game that day. In the end, Penn State had too much Curt Enis and too much Wally Richardson to Joe Jureviscious for Michigan to handle. The Wolvies had a star in the making at cornerback in Charles Woodson, but Joe Jureviscious got the better of him that day and Penn State prevailed by a 29-17 score in Ann Arbor.
Penn State closed the year at home against Michigan State in what turned out to be a wildly entertaining game. The game featured a beautiful wheel route run by Aaron Harris that got him open by more than ten yards for an easy touchdown. Michigan State scored twice in the first half themselves when Derrick Mason and Nigea Carter both sprang open for touchdown passes.
Penn State trailed at the half, but the staff made one of the simplest, and best, halftime adjustments you'd ever wish to see. Penn State had been blocking straight ahead in the first half, but in the second Coach Kenney employed more of a slant blocking technique and the running game went wild.
Still, a late game turnover almost lost the game for us. With the score tied Penn State fumbled the ball in their own territory late in the game, but 3 plays later Michigan State's kicker missed a 32 yard FG attempt to give the ball back to Penn State with less than 2 minutes to play.
Richardson, Jureviscious, Cuncho Brown, and Joe Nastasi all factored in the last second drive to set up kicker Brett Conway for the game winning FG attempt. Conway would convert a long one and Penn State would escape with a narrow 32-29 win to close out a 10-2 regular season.
Our regular season had ended, but there were still some games left to be played to figure out who we would line up against in a bowl game that year.
The BCS in those days still had a Rose Bowl tie in that forced the Big10 and Pac10 champs to face each other in Pasadena. Ohio State was 10-0 entering their game with Michigan that year, but the Buckeyes found a way to lose to a team they were far better than which ultimately wound up costing them the national title that year.
Unbeaten Florida State defeated unbeaten Florida late in the year. Florida would beat Alabama in the SEC title game. Nebraska had one loss to Arizona State when they were stunned by heavy underdog Texas in the Big12 title game. That was the game where John Mackovic called a rollout pass play on 4th and inches late in the game to hold on for the victory in St. Louis.
As the BCS selections wound up, Nebraska went on to play Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl where they won handily. Penn State would play Texas in the Fiesta Bowl, and Florida State was rematched with Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
Had Penn State not dropped it's game to Iowa that year, our Nittany Lions stood a fantastic chance of playing Florida State in that BCS National Title game in the Sugar Bowl. The thinking was that the BCS might not have wanted to rematch FSU and Florida in a game that had just been played, but with the other eligible teams all sporting two losses there was no way around it. The Noles were pounded by the Gators that evening and Steve Spurrier won his only National Title.
In the Rose Bowl, Arizona State had a lot to play for as they were still unbeaten and probably could have gained a split National Title by beating Ohio State. The Buckeyes won the game however when Joe Germaine engineered a late game drive that would culminate with a final second touchdown pass to David Boston in the corner of the end zone near the pylon on the right side of the field.
Penn State routed Texas in the Desert. The game was a see saw affair in the first half. Texas actually dominated most of the first 30 minutes and Penn State was fortunate to not be far behind at intermission. After trading punts to open the second half, Penn State struck when they ran a double reverse to back up tailback Chafie Fields who ran 95 yards before being pushed out at the Texas 1 yard line.
After that it was all Penn State. The Nittany Lions dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage and basically made Texas quit. The final score was 38-13 and Penn State had to sit on the ball and run out the clock to keep the score down at the end.
Junior running back Curtis Enis rushed for 13 touchdowns and more than 1,200 yards that year. Senior wide receiver Joe Jurevicius was second in the nation in yards-per-catch with an average of 21.2.
Penn State would lose only Richardson, Kim Herring, and Brett Conway to the NFL from among their core players following the 1996 season. Many thought 1997 could be a very good year, and included in that group were a lot of pollsters. The Nittany Lions finished strong in 1996, and they would open the 1997 with Joe Jureviscious on the cover of Sports Illustrated sporting a headline that would read "Penn State is #1".
1996 was a good year, and 1997 showed a lot of promise.
Ten Years in the Big10 - Part 4
As 1995 turned over into 1996, Penn State fans knew they had seen the last of one of the most talented groups of players ever assembled in State College, Pa.