Unbeaten, Unstoppable, Uncrowned
An Oral History of the 1994 Penn State Football Team
Part 3 opens with Penn State’s first ever trip to the Big House, an epic occasion in which the game lives up to the hype; an injury-plagued and overlooked defense shows a knack for answering the call; a Homecoming romp over some cupcake from Columbus; and a historic collection of skill players combine for what might be the most unstoppable offense in college football history.
9. Big House Brawl
An impressive 2-0 after dominating Minnesota and USC, the Nittany Lions ran off a string of comparatively easy wins: Back-to-back home victories over Iowa (61-21) and Rutgers (55-27) followed by a 48-21 win over Temple at Philadelphia’s historic Franklin Field. The only slight hiccup came against the Owls, where an uncharacteristically slow start saw the Lions trail 6-0 after the first quarter, and where Ki-Jana Carter suffered a broken thumb.
The Lions stood 5-0 for the third straight season; the task was to make sure they didn’t once again end up 5-1. After a bye, they traveled to Ann Arbor to face the team that that ended their perfect start a year earlier. It promised to be nothing less than one of the games of the year: Penn State was unbeaten and ranked No. 3, while Michigan, whose only loss had come on a Hail Mary against Colorado, stood at No. 5.
KILLENS: That was our first trip to Ann Arbor.
SCOTT: They had just come off a heartbreaking loss to Colorado on the Hail Mary. It was a little disappointing, because we knew it could’ve been a top-five matchup, but we still knew it was going to be one of the toughest, if not the toughest, games of the years.
BRADY: We knew their backs were against the wall. It was a must-win for them.
CONLIN: That was our third straight year being 5-0. We had lost to Miami in ’92, and we lost to Michigan the year before. It was a huge hurdle for us to get over.
GREELEY: That’s the game, when I think about that year, I think about the time leading up to it: “There’s no next year for me. If I can’t beat Michigan this year, I don’t have another chance.”
FORBES: The guys that played the year before, we talked about, “Remember last year. Remember Beaver Stadium. Remember how the Michigan players were gloating.”
CARTER: The way they beat us the year before, that fourth-and-goal stop on us—actually, on me…
DIEHL: People ask, what’s the biggest thing I miss about Joe. I miss his Friday night speeches, particularly on the road. He went back to when they went to Notre Dame for the first time, and he told the team, “The Four Horsemen, they’re not going to be riding through the tunnel. They’re gone.” And he said the same thing with Michigan. “You’re not playing against the ghosts of Michigan. You’re playing against 11 other guys wearing those dark jerseys and that yellow stuff on them.” He said, “Remember, last year on the goal line. If it comes down to that again, I’m calling the same four plays.”
CONLIN: Joe was like, “They’re Michigan, and I had a chance to coach Michigan before they hired Schembechler. I didn’t want to go there. They’re Michigan. But we’re Penn State.” This is Friday night. We’re ready to tackle the people serving the cheesecake.
Game day in Ann Arbor. The stage was set for a classic.
GREELEY: If you’re writing a script for a movie about college football, this is how you would write it. Perfect day, everything at stake, national television, the possibility of a national championship for both teams…
NOBLE: Penn State-Michigan, in that situation—this is why we joined the Big Ten.
ENGRAM: That was a big time game, man. ABC game, Keith Jackson commentating? It doesn’t get any better than that.
BRADY: I can remember that day pretty vividly. I remember getting stretched out by one of our strength coaches, him looking at me and saying, “This is what it’s all about, man.” A couple of us spoke before the game, and it was just, “Listen, we’ve got too much talent in this room. We’ve been in this situation the last two years, and we know this team is different.”
FORBES: We never really had a problem with focus, but it was a heightened sense that week. We were extremely prepared. There was nothing they did that we weren’t ready for defensively. And I know offensively, our guys were talking about embarrassing them.
For a while, it looked like the Lions might do just that. Collins connected with tight end Keith Olsommer for a short TD and Brett Conway drilled three field goals, giving Penn State a 16-0 lead late in the second quarter. The lead should’ve been bigger—a dubious holding call cost the Lions another TD—but the Wolverines could only manage a field goal before the half.
BRADY: We had the game in control. The place was quiet.
CONLIN: It was our first time at the Big House, and we were laughing at how quiet it was. I had friends at the game, they couldn’t believe 100,000 people were so quiet.
CARTER: The beginning of game, we came out and we were rolling. But then they called holding on a touchdown of mine and brought it back.
HARTINGS: It was a holding call on Keith Conlin. It was a bad call at the time, and it’s a bad call when you look at it now.
CONLIN: We got up on ’em quick, but they weren’t just going to accept getting beat. It’s still Michigan.
And this was a typically loaded Michigan team. Early in the third quarter, star tailback Tyrone Wheatley woke up the dozing Big House crowd with touchdown runs of 67 and 21 yards to give the home team a 17-16 lead. The Lions regained the lead midway through the third on Jon Witman’s touchdown catch and a two-point conversion, but the Wolverines tied it at 24 early in the fourth.
CARTER: We had a nice little lead, and then Tyrone Wheatley became a superhero. It was like, “Oh, no, don’t let this happen again.”
ENGRAM: They popped a big run early in the second half to get back into it.
BRADY: They had talent all over that team. You talk about the SEC in the modern era, and I give it to them, but I put those two teams up against anybody.
FORBES: The only team we thought matched up with us was Michigan. They were loaded. That’s probably the one game that I remember doing what would be like NFL film study. I can picture Amani Toomer’s favorite routes right now in my head. I remember Scrap saying, “Tyrone Wheatley won a track meet all by himself. That’s the kind of athlete he is.”
PITTMAN: They had Tyrone Wheatley, and Amani Toomer—people ask me who was the toughest person I had to play against, and I say him. They were tough. That was a battle.
PITTS: That entire game, from kickoff to the end, seemed to be played at this extremely high pitch. The emotions, the adrenaline, it was really intense. I don’t think there was ever a letdown that entire game.
COLLINS: We had to dig deep. It was really the first test of what we were made of.
CONLIN: It was the first time all year we played into the fourth quarter.
ARCHIE: I think we all knew this was going to come down to the end.
ATKINS: Toward the end, when our offense was on the field, all those guys kind of looked at each other like, “OK, who’s going to make a play?”
The Nittany Lion offense had been potent all season. Now, for the first time, they’d have to show they could be clutch, as well. When Collins found Engram on a post route with 2:53 to play, any doubts about Penn State’s ability to perform under pressure were answered.
ENGRAM: That was definitely one of those big-time, big-game moments where I wanted the ball. I know Joe knew that. I wanted to be known as a clutch player. I relished that moment, I didn’t shy away from it. We had a lot of guys with that mindset. I was fortunate that the ball would fly my way.
COLLINS: We ran two types of posts: timing posts, which that was, and a post over the top. We hit both of those often throughout that season.
ENGRAM: Deep ball, across the middle, underneath, you name it, he could make it.
DIEHL: When you’re a student manager, you know all the plays. I used to run up and down the sidelines with these guys going, “OK, this one’s a touchdown to Bobby.” The Michigan game, the pass to Bobby across the middle, it was, “40-post, Bobby’s gonna be wide open.”
ENGRAM: That one, I ran a nice seam post, and Kerry made a great throw.
CONWAY: I think it was third down, and I had just finished warming up in the net. That’s when Kerry hit Bobby over the middle for the touchdown.
GANTER: The post wheel we ran, I’ve played that over in my mind 100 times. That right there was clutch, a play we had to have. Perfect throw, great route, great catch. That’s the one play in that game I’ll never forget.
Now the defense had its turn, facing—for the first time all season—a must-have stop in the closing minutes. They were up to task.
ARCHIE: After we went down and scored, when our defense went out on the field, we knew we were going to win that game. We knew they were going to come up big.
FORBES: I remember Willie Smith saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if at the end of this game, it’s just silent.”
COLLINS: The offense came through when it had to, and then we made the big stop on fourth down at the end.
ARCHIE: Michigan started moving the ball, but they called the right defense, and Brian Miller came up and intercepted that ball.
KIM HERRING: Defensively, we did our part.
In The Football Letter that week, Carter was quoted as saying “it was the biggest game of my life.” Indeed, the Lions’ 31-24 victory in Ann Arbor was huge by any measure, not least because it catapulted Penn State to the top of the national polls.
RIVERA: I’ll never forget the feeling in the locker room after that game. We were on top of the world. I even saw Coach Paterno smile once.
NOBLE: I think at that point, that team realized how special it could be.
PITTMAN: We knew we had arrived.
COLLINS: That was the game, not only did we prove we could score points, but we could do it when we needed to—we could do it in the clutch.
GREELEY: Just the way that game was played—both teams played hard, there wasn’t a lot of junk being talked on the field. It was just hard-nosed football, mutual respect.
BRAD SCIOLI: I almost went to Michigan—it was my second choice—and I knew that in the Big Ten, that was going to be a rival throughout my time at Penn State. Beating them on the road, that was big.
HARTINGS: I could honestly say we were disappointed in the way we won that game. We were a lot better than that Michigan team.
DIEHL: For like the next four weeks, Freddie got an average of like 20 Sports Illustrateds to sign. He changed his signature after that.
Chapter 10: Better than Good Enough
With its late stop against the Wolverines, the Lions’ defense passed its first real test. But given the fireworks displays put up by the offense each week, and a young, injury-plagued roster lacking the star power of its counterpart, the Penn State D remained largely overlooked.
HERRING: We lost a lot of guys from the year before—Shelly Hammonds, Lou Benfatti, Tyoka Jackson, Derek Bochna—so we had a lot of new guys, new faces. We got better as the year went on, but the first couple of games, we really had to lean on each other.
NOBLE: We had a lot of injuries, and we had a lot of youth.
PITTMAN: People didn’t realize some of the adversity we had to deal with on defense. I think there were only two guys that started every game—me and Brian Miller. I think everybody else had injuries. Having nine of the 11 starters out at some point of the year, it’s hard to be a dominant unit. I think the fact that we were good enough to go undefeated despite that says a lot.
STEWART: I missed six games my senior year with injuries. Michigan, I broke my foot in a warm-up drill the day before we were leaving, right after recovering from a knee injury. I got back for the last game.
HERRING: I blew out my knee against Northwestern, on an illegal hit. I was having one of the best games of my life.
NOBLE: My first start was the Temple game. Vinny was hurt, and Eric Clair was hurt. They were scraping the bottom of the barrel to get me on the field. I played absolutely horrible. I got benched in my first start.
SCIOLI: Just a few months earlier I was in high school, and then I’m playing on this team that’s this good… it was totally unreal. It’s not like I even had an offseason of weight training. I went from a linebacker-quarterback in high school to playing in the d-line in the Big Ten, and I wasn’t a lineman by any stretch of the imagination. I was just a guy who would come in, chase down balls, hopefully make something happen.
As the season went on, a curious conundrum emerged: While the high-scoring offense obviously took pressure off the defense—it’s not like the Lions had to pitch many shutouts—the way in which the offense scored actually made things harder for the guys on the other side of the ball.
FORBES: We probably had as good a defense that year as we had during my tenure there, but because our offense was so explosive, it was overshadowed.
KILLENS: Our offense was so good, and they scored so fast, that our defense never really got the opportunity to rest. We were constantly back on the field.
NOBLE: You’d sit down, get a drink, start to make a few adjustments, and then Ki-Jana would take off down the field.
ATKINS: I think their average scoring drive was like a minute 40 or something. We’d come out of the game after getting a big stop, and next thing you know Ki-Jana’s running 80, 90 yards down the field, and we’re right back out there.
FORBES: We used to curse at the offense, like, “You guys can’t score in a minute 33 seconds!”
BRADY: In some ways it was a typical Penn State defense, as far as that kind of bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. They probably didn’t stack up statistically against the better defenses in the country, but they were put in some tough situations, as far as the length of time they were on the field.
FORBES: I never really paid attention to stats, but I remember looking at the amount of plays in some magazine, and all the defensive guys had hundreds of plays more than the offense.
STEWART: Our offense was so good that we were on the field three times as much as most defenses. I was in the best shape of my entire life that year because we had to play so much. They used to call us “bend but don’t break,” but if you analyze it now—and we analyzed it then—when my linebacker is leading the country in tackles, and it’s because we’re on the field all day long, there’s a reason for it. We played a lot of football. Sucking gas, some of us are tired, didn’t matter. We just played.
“We just played.” If the ’94 Lions defense had an identity, it might well have been blue-collar anonymity.
RIVERA: Clair, Atkins, Gelz, Vinnie Stewart, those guys came to work. Those guys played hard. Willy Smith was great defensive leader; he didn’t say much, but man, he practiced hard. And we had a great defensive backfield, with Kim Herring and Brian Miller.
SCIOLI: As a freshman, Todd Atkins was probably my biggest influence. Just a guy who went out, did his job, played hard, kept his mouth shut. Just a football player.
DIEHL: There was Jeff Perry, who was really quiet—they called him Zeus. Gelzheiser was kind of the wildcard.
NOBLE: I was terrified of Gelz. I’m a youngster, this is my first real football season, 255 pounds playing nose tackle in the Big Ten. They wouldn’t even recruit me now. For me, it was a matter of survival. It came down to, “Don’t let those guys down. Don’t let Vin Stewart down, don’t let Eric Clair down—and don’t let Gelz down, because he might kill me out on the field.”
As the season went on, the defense found itself battling not only talented Big Ten offenses, but outside perception, as well. It was additional motivation for a group that didn’t really require it.
PITTMAN: I remember getting tired a little bit of some of the commentators saying, “Oh, Penn State’s good, but what about the defense?” When we had to, we could play defense.
NOBLE: I think it motivates you, as a player and as a unit. As the season went on, you didn’t want to be the weak link. Especially when you see how special that offense is, you don’t want to be the reason you lose a game. It was good, because it pushed you.
ATKINS: I don’t remember taking anything personally. I just remember the offense getting all the credit, and they deserved it. We knew, if we kept teams under 40, we were probably going to win. We were winning. That’s all I really cared about.
PITTS: I never understood the criticism. We went against those guys all the time, and I thought they were pretty darn tough. Teams would put up some points, but they’d never give away the farm.
MILNE: It really wasn’t a big step up from going against those guys every day in practice to my first year in the NFL. They were that good. Gelzheiser, the linebackers, even our secondary, were some of the best in the country. They were great. They were a little overshadowed, but just as much a part of our success as we were putting points on the board.
ARCHIE: They came up big for us whenever we needed them to.
Chapter 11: Homecoming
After Michigan and another bye week, the No. 1 Nittany Lions came back to Beaver Stadium. The opponent: Ohio State, which had embarrassed them a year earlier in Columbus. Given the revenge factor, and with a number of Ohio natives on the roster, this was an easy one to get up for. And oh, by the way: It was homecoming.
ENGRAM: There was a lot of talk about what had gone on the year before.
HARTINGS: It was extra special for me, playing against one of my best friends from high school, Bobby Hoying. A lot of people from my hometown were Ohio State fans. We were definitely out for revenge.
ARCHIE: The year before, they embarrassed us pretty good. That wasn’t the team we wanted to be when we came back. We beat Michigan, we had a bye week, and then that whole week, everybody just kept talking about, “Remember what they did to us.” Ki-Jana that week, he was talking so much. Even guys who didn’t talk a whole lot were really talking at practice.
GANTER: Ki-Jana was fired up for that one. He wanted that one bad.
CARTER: Oh, without a doubt. That whole offseason, I had to go back home, hear all this talk. I felt like we slayed one dragon with Michigan, this was our homecoming game, and we could really put a stamp on our team.
FORBES: I remember Franny was fired up that week, Brian King was going crazy—we couldn’t get him to calm down. And Ki-Jana was like, “I can’t wait.”
What followed was hard to believe. Against an Ohio State team loaded with NFL talent, the Lions roared to a 35-0 halftime lead and hardly let up, rolling to a 63-14 win that ranks as one of the Buckeyes’ worst losses ever. Carter, the kid from just outside Columbus, got his revenge and solidified his Heisman candidacy with 137 rushing yards and four TDs. Collins passed for 265 and a pair of TDs. The defense had its way. It was total domination.
CARTER: We just went in from that first play and dominated.
NOBLE: After Michigan, we’ve got that confidence, then we play Ohio State—and we rolled over them. It was huge.
CONLIN: You have some days where the ball bounces right, where everything goes your way. Well, everything went right for Penn State.
ARCHIE: It just felt like there was nothing they could do to stop us.
HERRING: It was like, “Are we in a scrimmage?” It was crazy. Nobody thought we could score on a team like that.
PITTS: You don’t expect to roll over a team like Ohio State. We had second- and third-string guys scoring on them. It was like Ohio State had kind of just given up.
COLLINS: We completely broke their will. That’s the thing that stood out to me: They knew they couldn’t stop us, we knew they couldn’t stop us. It was a special day.
ENGRAM: We were playing super fast and aggressive, and everything was clicking. Guys were confident from top to bottom—not cocky, but confident. But we felt like we had put in the work.
FORBES: It sounds weird, but that outcome made perfect sense to us. That’s how good we were on offense.
GANTER: I was surprised, but most of our players weren’t. They knew. You could see it in their eyes. They knew they were going to go out and trounce those guys.
ARCHIE: Almost everybody in that game had a big play. That catch I had in the corner was one of the most memorable catches I’ve ever had. Bobby’s one-handed catch? I was like, “Oh, my goodness.” And Ki-Jana, one of those touchdowns he had was mine. I had an equipment malfunction, he came in, and on that one play he had a touchdown.
ENGRAM: Nobody wanted to let up. If we could’ve scored 163, we would have.
It should come as no surprise that, 20 years later, the blowout of the Buckeyes ranks as one of the Lions’ clearest collective memories. For players on both sides, this one lingered.
PITTMAN: I remember watching video after that game, thinking, “That team had Eddie George. That team had Joey Galloway. Where were their highlights?” They didn’t have any.
CIRBUS: I distinctly remember going into the film room the next day with the offensive line, and I never got past maybe the middle of the first quarter in the film, trying to pick apart where we made mistakes. We were very critical the next morning. They were on top of it, too. “OK, here’s where we made mistakes, here’s where we can get better.” I remember that vividly.
COLLINS: Talking to some of the Ohio State guys afterward, I guess they wore black shoes for the first time that day. After that game, they didn’t wear black shoes and black socks for a long time, because of the beatdown they got.
KILLENS: When I was drafted by the Oilers, Eddie George was our No. 1 pick. Chris Sanders was on that team, and he always tells this story—he told it my rookie year and I got a real good kick out of it. Ohio State was our homecoming game, and of course, you usually schedule a creampuff. Well, when they found out, they had a fit. They were in the locker room before the game, Eddie George is punching lockers, “How are they going to schedule us to be the homecoming game?!”
Well, they were our homecoming game, and they got beat like a homecoming team.
SCOTT: I still live here in Nashville, near Eddie and Chris and those guys, and they’ll talk about the ’95 and ’96 seasons. I’m like, “Wait a minute—we handed you the worst loss in Ohio State history.” It’s still a sore point for those guys.
CARTER: I go back home now, and they’re still mad at me.
As memories go, Brad Scioli’s doesn’t reflect much on the outcome of the game. But it’s too good a story not to share…
SCIOLI: As a freshman, I would come in a lot of times towards the end of a game when we’re blowing teams out, or just for a spell. I’m playing end, and again, I’m learning the position on the fly. We’re playing Ohio State, I go in, probably middle of the second quarter, and I’m playing against Korey Stringer—huge, All-American, future first-round pick. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of technique: I was a good enough athlete, and I just tried to get to the ball. So I’m on the line, I kind of stand up, and Stringer drives me back about six yards—right into Gelzheiser. I blocked Gelz like two yards downfield. He looks, sees it’s me, grabs me, holds me, looks over at the sideline, and yells, “Get this kid out of here!”
That was the worst thing that could’ve happened: One of my teammates called me out, the whole crowd looking at me, and I let him down. We ended up blowing them out anyway, but it wasn’t fun. I’ve seen Gelz since, and he remembers it. I’ve told him, that play changed me in a lot of ways. From that point on, I realized, I better learn how to play this game the right away.
Chapter 12: Pick Your Poison
In the press box after the Ohio State game, ABC color commentator and former NFL coach Dick Vermeil told our John Black, “This is the best offensive team I’ve seen since I’ve been doing college broadcasting.” It was a possibility that observers across the country were beginning to consider. Halfway through the season, and with a couple of signature wins on their resume, the deep, balanced, and explosive Nittany Lion attack appeared unstoppable. And as with any great offense, its talent and poise were personified by its quarterback.
FORBES: You’re not going to find anybody better than Kerry.
GANTER: Your quarterback, that’s the No. 1 the guy, the face of the football team. I think his rocky start probably helped everybody pull even harder for him. He was tremendous.
PITTS: Off the field, you’d think Kerry was some surfer dude. But on the field, he was ice. Nothing bothered him. We’re in practice, he makes a bad read or something, Joe jumps all over him, he’ll take his lumps. Joe walks away, and it’s “OK, guys let’s go.”
BRADY: Kerry did a great job being the leader, as you’d expect. And he was on, which just snowballed as far as his respect and his leadership.
ENGRAM: Kerry always had a big-time arm, but I think he grew into more of a leader. Guys believed in him, and I think that gave him the confidence to just go out and play, be the best he could be.
Then there were those running backs. By now, Carter had emerged as the unquestioned No. 1 back, but the depth and complementary ability of the unit was an undeniable factor in his and the team’s success.
CALDWELL: I remember Ki-Jana coming in, and we were fitting him for his helmet. He was nervous, and his mom was with him: “You better take care of my boy.” His first year, he still had that “I’m the star from my high school” kind of thing, that cockiness. After that first year, he got really humble, and really matured. It was neat watching him grow up.
HARTINGS: Ki-Jana was a leader. He was so confident.
FORBES: He ended up being my apartment mate for a while. We used to call him “Baby Fat.” In regular clothes, he just looked big. People would see him in public and not believe it’s him. And he’s a jokester. But on the field, he’s a beast. People would have a tough time making the correlation. You see him off the field, it was just jiggles and baby fat. He puts on his uniform, he doesn’t impress you; you watch him stretch, he doesn’t impress you. Then the lights come on, it’s like, “What?” He really wasn’t a punishing runner—people just bounced off him. He’d get an angle on them, a little jitter step, lean left or right, they’d make an adjustment, and he’s gone.
BRADLEY: I can still see Ki-Jana on some of those runs… you’d just be like, “He’s gone. They’re not going to catch him.” You just knew.
CARTER: I was blessed with speed; we were all fast, but I was the speed burner.
As the de facto second option, Archie made his mark increasingly with his hands as much as his feet.
ARCHIE: We all had a different style, a different flavor, a different component to bring to the game.
CARTER: Pitts was the flash guy, and Archie was great out of the backfield and could make anybody miss.
FORBES: If you ever saw Mike Archie in practice—forget the game—he wouldn’t get touched in full contract drills. He’d just make plays.
COLLINS: He was so good out of the backfield—great hands, and great route runner.
ARCHIE: I felt like we all brought something different to the table. I always felt that if there was one thing I could do to help the team, that was catching the ball out of the backfield. Bobby used to laugh at me, because I used to tell him I felt like I was a receiver in a running back’s body. I wanted to make sure defenses knew they had to worry about me.
DIEHL: To me, Archie had the best hands on the team.
What rings most impressive, 20 years later, is how those backs not only complemented each others’ skill sets, but pushed each other as well.
GANTER: Ki-Jana and Archie and Pitts, all those kids could be a star for anybody. They competed with each other, but everybody assumed a role.
CARTER: I wanted to score all the time. I wanted to have more yards. But I knew Pitts and Archie wanted to play, too. I think we all had the same mentality—there was never a time to be complacent, because you don’t know how many times you’re going to touch the ball.
BRADY: The selflessness they showed was amazing. Everyone accepted their role, no matter what that role was going to be.
COLLINS: It would’ve been real easy for Mike to get mad, or Stephen, who hardly played; with those two guys, he couldn’t get on the field. But never once did I sense that egos came into play.
PITTS: I’ve had people ask, do I regret going there? The answer’s no. There was just something that felt really good about the team. There were no ego problems. One guy didn’t think they were any better than the rest. Michael, Ki-Jana and me, I wouldn’t say we were best friends, but we were tight.
CARTER: I was done in the third quarter most games, and if you ever saw me on the sideline, every time Mike or Pitts would score, I’d be the first one jumping on them. I was so happy for them.
ARCHIE: People would think there had to be some kind of animosity. There was none. The greatest things that came out of that were the friendships.
PITTS: You can throw Jon and Brian in there, too.
That’s Jon Witman and Brian Milne, of course, the “two-headed fullback” that proved vital to the Lions’ attack. Whether blocking, coming out of the backfield as receivers, or bulling through the line in short-yardage situations, the track star and the converted linebacker were interchangeable and invaluable.
MILNE: When Jon came on the scene, the coaches would usually let us decide on our own playing time. The way Jon and I did it, if he started the game, if we had a three and out, he’d have another series. If we had a drive of 8, 9, 10 plays, I’d come in next series. We’d take turns. It was up to us…
We both could catch the ball well, we both ran the ball well, and we were both tougher than nails. You look at Jon and I, we could’ve been at odds, we could’ve been mortal enemies trying to get more playing time, but we worked it out to where it benefited both of us.
Paterno likely would’ve been happy running the ball 60 times a game, but it would’ve been a shame to waste the talent he had in the passing game. In that, the Lions were blessed not only with an All-American QB, but an array of talented and hungry receivers.
ARCHIE: We didn’t do anything special in the passing game. We just lined up in the I-formation, Bobby and Freddie and Kyle, and they just found a way to beat you. When that passing game was clicking on all cylinders…
FORBES: Bobby distinguished himself right away. He was exceptionally skilled, just a pro from day one. In practice, 1-on-1s, I would always start out on Bobby. I would go into games, and our cornerbacks would go into games, saying, “We’re not going to face anybody better than Bobby.”
CARTER: I think the biggest thing was the emergence of Freddie Scott and Joe Jurevicius. Freddie was the other starter, Joe was the slot guy, and having a key receiver on the other side really helped out Kerry. If they wanted to double Bobbie, then Freddie was the key guy. We could spread out, and the defense had to play the whole field.
SCOTT: I was able to take advantage of that one-on-one coverage and take pressure off of Bobby. There were plays where I wasn’t the primary receiver, but Kerry and I would end up seeing the same coverage and making the same read; against Rutgers, I had an 82-yard touchdown on a play where I never got the ball in practice. Because we understood the game, it made things easy—that’s what was fun about it.
And then there was Brady, the 6-foot-6, 260-pound gem of that ’90 recruiting class, and a player many expected to be playing on Sundays in 1994. Instead, he stayed for his senior season and established himself as the most formidable tight end in the nation.
FORBES: We used to call him “Drago.” You’re not going to find another Drago running around.
With dual citizenship in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, Brady was the ultimate example of how the Lions’ skill players contributed even when they didn’t have the ball. But it was easy to take Brady’s blocking for granted; it was something else when guys like Engram and Scott made a name for themselves doing the dirty work. Credit for the worst-kept secret of Penn State’s success in ’94 goes to its second-year receivers coach, former All-American and NFL wideout Kenny Jackson.
CARTER: One of the greatest additions we had was Kenny Jackson coming into our coaching staff in ’93. He brought a lot of credibility.
KENNY JACKSON: I’ve been close to Joe my whole life, and I was watching Penn State from afar. I saw we had problems. We’d just gotten beat by Stanford in the [Blockbuster Bowl], and I saw that there were little things missing. It wasn’t that we didn’t have talent. It was just a difference in philosophy. That’s when I called Joe and said, “You need a little help.”
SCOTT: He really introduced us to the game within the game. He helped us understand the psychological component, that it’s not just X’s and O’s, but that it’s you against him.
ENGRAM: Kenny Jackson would never let me slip with anything. I could catch 100 balls, but the one I dropped, he was never going to let me forget about it.
Maybe more important, it was Jackson who convinced his receiving corps of the game-changing impact their downfield blocking could have on the Lions’ running game. In this, he was at least as much salesman as he was position coach.
JACKSON: Why do we have to block? Let me explain something to you: I hated it, too. When I played in the NFL, it was never a big deal. We got in the way much more than we blocked; it was never emphasized. But when I started coaching, I started to see the significance of it—how you can dictate as an offense what the other team has to do…
If I could run the ball every play and get home in two hours and win, I would. Everybody would. And that’s what I would tell Bobby and those guys. Once the players buy into that, it changes everything.
SCOTT: We understood that there was no way you were going to see the field if you didn’t block. That was a prerequisite: If you’re not blocking, you’re not getting on the field. We didn’t just fast-forward past the run plays when we were watching film. We were coached on that, every play.
ENGRAM: We did a lot of blocking competitions in practice—we would see how many times we could get those DBs on the ground. To me, it was just a chance to hit the defensive backs.
JACKSON: Bobby was off-the-charts strong. He was comparable to Hines Ward.
SCOTT: The defense likes to hit you, but they don’t like to get hit. You’re cutting them, they’re getting mad, forgetting their technique—there’s a lot of psychology involved. It was just that mentality of knowing, “My guy’s not making the tackle.”
CARTER: The receivers’ blocking usually determines if it’s going to be a 10-yard gain or a 70-yard gain.
ARCHIE: They took a lot of pride in it. We used to not only thank the offensive lineman, but thank Bobby and Freddie for going downfield and getting those blocks for us.
GREELEY: There were no better blocking receivers in all of college football. Bobby and Freddie, Phil Collins, Justin Williams—those guys laid the wood to people. When Ki-Jana and those guys got up field, there was nobody there.
Imagining some of the smallest guys on the field transforming into fierce blockers to aid the running game, it’s easy to understand why the ’94 Lions never struggled to share the ball. To borrow a favorite phrase from Joe Paterno, it was amazing what this unit could accomplish when nobody cared who got the credit.
SCIOLI: I was a freshman, and I was seeing top NFL talent. There wasn’t a learning curve. I saw the best right away.
PITTMAN: We used to joke that the game seemed easy when you spent all week playing against those guys.
FORBES: You played against a pro offense in practice. Practices were always harder than games.
CIRBUS: It wasn’t an elaborate offense by any stretch.
JACKSON: We had a lot of talent, and we created a more balanced attack. Things changed, and Joe changed a little bit, too.
CONWAY: Penn State would always get a hard time about their offense. Well, this year, we opened up the offense so much more. It was a great coaching job. They had a lot of weapons, and they used them.
ENGRAM: I remember him being more open to passing the ball. He made a conscious effort to open it up. Give Joe credit—he changed with the game.
BRADLEY: They made it easy on Joe, because the players didn’t care who got the credit. No one cared if Kerry threw for 500 yards or 50 yards. Ki-Jana was rooting for Mike Archie, Mike was rooting for Stephen Pitts. We had so many players that were unselfish. That’s why we were so good.
GREELEY: If ever there was a group of guys who could’ve been selfish. All those guys were All-Americans.
SCOTT: I think it went to the Grand Experiment that Joe had orchestrated. He recruited the right kind of guys. He didn’t recruit guys who were selfish and had to have the ball.
ARCHIE: Everybody had a job to do, and everybody was going to do their job.
Part 4: A deceptively close win in Bloomington costs Penn State in the polls; in Champaign, the Lions endure a nightmare hotel stay, then dig themselves a massive hole against the nation’s toughest defense, setting up a comeback for the ages.
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