Focusing on the Positive

Two decades later, the stars of Penn State’s great 1994 team remember what it accomplished, not the opportunity it was denied.

Time has softened the blow for two prominent members of Penn State's 1994 team, a club that went unbeaten, untied and unrewarded. For Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter, the focus is no longer on what that team was unable to accomplish -- indeed, what it wasn't even given a chance to accomplish -- but what it did do.

Which was, of course, quite a lot. Those Nittany Lions went 12-0, averaged 48 points and 520 yards a game, obliterated nearly everything in their path … and finished No. 2 in the nation, behind Nebraska.

If they were screaming about being jobbed as 21- and 22-year-olds, the players from that team are much more reasoned about the snub now, 20 years later. About falling out of the top spot in the Associated Press poll despite beating Ohio State 63-14, then ceding No. 1 in the coaches' rankings when Indiana scored two garbage-time touchdowns a week later, leaving the Lions with a 35-29 victory. About the fact that conference bowl tie-ins deprived the two teams the opportunity to square off.

And about the fact that the Huskers' come-from-behind victory over Miami in the Orange Bowl all but secured the title for Nebraska, the night before Penn State took on Oregon in the Rose Bowl -- a game the Lions would win, 38-20.

Some 50 members of that PSU club were honored Saturday, at halftime of the Lions' 21-3 victory over Akron in their home opener. That included Collins, a standout quarterback who went on to an 18-year NFL career, and Carter, the star tailback, whose pro career was cut short by injuries.

New coach James Franklin made sure to refer to that club as a national championship team during his postgame remarks, even though those Lions don't have the hardware to show for it. And in Collins' mind it's just not that big a deal anymore.

“It does stick with us a little bit, but at the same time we did all we could do,” he said. “When you have that knowledge it brings a sense of peace about it. Unfortunately things weren't in place then like they are now (i.e., a four-team playoff). It's a big debate about what would have happened. We would have loved to have an opportunity to play for a national championship. We just never got that chance. There's nothing we could do about it.”

“It does stick with us a little bit, but at the same time we did all we could do. When you have that knowledge it brings a sense of peace about it.”

Finishing second that year, Carter said, is “like me getting 100 percent on a test, and I get a B-plus. We took care of what we could control. Now they did the BCS because of us, but when that happened (in '94), there was none of that. So we took care of our business. … We took care of what we had to. And you know what? You can never be mad at that.”

That team, which besides Collins featured long-time pros like guards Jeff Hartings and Marco Rivera, tight end Kyle Brady and wide receiver Bobby Engram (all now retired), began gathering momentum late in 1993. That edition of the Lions came from behind to win its final regular-season game, at Michigan State, then trounced Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.

“Toward the end,” Collins said, “you could really feel it all coming together.”

Everybody stayed in State College that summer. Everybody hit the ground running when the season began -- with a 56-3 rout of Minnesota, in fact -- and remained at full gallop.

It was a matter, Collins said, of everyone having an “extreme amount of confidence.”

“Every time we went up to the line of scrimmage,” he said, “we all knew that everybody was going to run that play to the best of their ability and when you have that trust with guys and you have talent and good coaching, I think what we had in '94 is what you get.”

The memories are many. Carter most cherishes that Ohio State runaway, since he is a Columbus native and the Buckeyes had beaten the Lions the previous year. (Among other things the '94 matchup featured one of the greatest catches in PSU history -- a one-handed, parallel-to-the-ground grab by Engram that almost left the voluble Carter speechless. Almost. “That stuff,” he exclaimed after the game, “don't make no sense.”)

“The payback to them, the way we did it, was gratifying for me,” Carter said Saturday.

There was also a game at Illinois in which the Lions spotted the Illini a 21-0 lead but came all the way back to win, driving 96 yards in 14 plays for the winning touchdown, on a two-yard blast by fullback Brian Milne with 57 seconds left. Collins said he still gets asked about that march “a pretty good bit.”

“I think that really encapsulated our team,” he said. “We were the kind of team that every time we broke the huddle we just executed. That's what we did perfectly on that drive. It was under some tough circumstances but you know, the guys really rose up to the challenge. What a great way to seal the Big Ten.”

Carter finished second in the Heisman voting to Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam, while Collins was fourth. The team as a whole set offensive records that still stand, and built an unbreakable bond, as was shown when they gathered Saturday.

“It just feels like we just left the Rose Bowl yesterday,” said Carter, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale and runs an online janitorial and office supply company. “Instantly, 20 years went away and we started picking up, busting each other's chops, making jokes and everything. It never stops. We're big kids.”

“It just feels like we just left the Rose Bowl yesterday. Instantly, 20 years went away and we started picking up, busting each other's chops, making jokes and everything. It never stops. We're big kids.”

Many of them attended practice Friday, and met those who play their positions now. Collins came away with a favorable impression of Christian Hackenberg -- of not only his skill set, but his demeanor.

“The guy's got an extremely bright future,” Collins said.

Hackenberg was no less impressed.

“Great guy,” he said. “Guy I'm going to try and keep in touch with, and be able to pick his brain about things. It's always about trying to get better and take things from guys who have been there and done that. … Being able to pick a guy's brain like that is awesome.”

Collins, who lives in Nashville with his wife Brooke and 10-year-old daughter Riley, said he doesn't work -- that indeed he doesn't have to.

“I'm just enjoying being with my family and living the good life, I guess,” he said.

He does find himself laying some Joe Paterno-isms on his daughter -- the ones about taking care of the little things so the big things take care of themselves, etc. -- and he calls playing for his late coach “a privilege and an honor.”

When Carter was asked his view of the end of Paterno's career, he said, “I'm not happy. Nobody's happy. That rush to judgment. It is what it is. Stuff's sifting out now. OK, let the whole process happen. That's all he was saying. It's just unfortunate he didn't have his chance to explain, because of health problems. He's never forgotten.”

And then Carter pointed out something written on the back of his white T-shirt: “#RIPJVPGOAT” -- Paterno's initials, followed by an acronym meaning “Greatest of all Time.”

But for different circumstances, that '94 team might have the same designation.

“I don't know if you're ever OK with it, but you just come to peace with it,” Collins said, referring once again to the snub. “… It was what it was. There's nothing we could do about it. We did all we could do, and what more can you ask?”

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