Unbeaten, Unstoppable, Uncrowned
An Oral History of the 1994 Penn State Football Team
Part 4: A blowout in Bloomington ends up deceptively close and costs the Lions in the polls; a surreal trip to Champaign features a crazy hotel stay and an even crazier game, setting up a comeback for the ages.
13. A Bump in the Road
A perfect and impressive 7-0 after that blowout of Ohio State, the Lions looked to maintain their momentum and place atop the polls. The next test figured to be a relatively easy one: A trip to Bloomington, Indiana, to face the Hoosiers.
HARTINGS: Indiana was certainly a memorable game, but not for the right reasons.
CIRBUS: We’re coming off Ohio State, we’ve just blown them out, and we’re No. 1 in the polls.
ENGRAM: They weren’t a very good team, and we were coming off the emotional high we had from the last couple games.
COLLINS: I never got the sense that anybody hit the pause button. The more success we had that year, the harder Joe was on us—our nickname was “The Fatheads.” If we had a little lull in practice or something, he’d start calling us “fatheads.” Our goal was to go undefeated and win a national championship, and nothing was going to take us away from that.
CONWAY: It’s hard to go undefeated. As athletes, we talk about it, and we listen to the coaches talk about it: When you’re No. 1 and on top, everybody’s going to play their best game against you.
PITTMAN: You knew you were always going to get everybody’s best.
Not that the Hoosiers’ best was particularly problematic. The Lions led 17-7 at the half, 20-7 after three quarters, and 35-14 after Carter’s 80-yard touchdown run with 6:09 to play. Almost unbelievably, the Lions scored two other fourth-quarter touchdowns—a 52-yard punt return by Archie, and a 75-yard fumble return by Brian Gelzheiser—only to have both called back on penalties.
Still, as Paterno would point out afterward, “We were in no danger of losing the game.” If they had been, he wouldn’t have pulled his starters, and the Hoosiers likely wouldn’t have scored 15 points in the final 1:49—the last eight coming on a deflected Hail Mary and two-point conversion with no time on the clock—to make the final score 35-29. As John Black wrote that week in The Football Letter, “The last-second Hoosier heroics had the home fans cheering as though they had won the game.”
RIVERA: When Coach Paterno pulled us out of the game, I didn’t hear anybody complaining about it. Here I am complaining about it 20 years later.
CIRBUS: We were clearly in charge of that game, and Coach Paterno, as a sportsman and a coach, and consistent with his practice, puts the other players in. And then Indiana has a nice little rally…
BRADLEY: Joe did the right thing. You substitute—that’s what you’re supposed to do. Running up the score to protect your ranking, that’s around the time when that became the thing to do. But that’s not what it was supposed to be about.
ENGRAM: That wasn’t Joe’s M.O.
ATKINS: Anybody who watched the game knows we beat them handily. It was frustrating, but like Joe said, there was nothing we could do about it.
CARTER: With all these different TV stations now, people would know it wasn’t even close.
The combination of a buzz-free matchup and a 12:30 EST kickoff meant many AP and coaches poll voters saw nothing except the final score. There was also the fact that Nebraska, previously ranked third in the AP poll, had knocked off No. 2 Colorado the week before. When the Huskers answered the Lions’ “narrow” win with a lopsided victory over Kansas, it was enough to convince the voters to elevate Big Red to No. 1. Suddenly, in the pre-BCS era, the clear path to a national championship belonged to Nebraska.
PITTS: It gave the polls an excuse to drop us down a notch.
RIVERA: They were just dying to drop us. But Coach Paterno said, “Guys, you can’t worry about that. Just keep playing hard, and you’ll get your due.”
CIRBUS: He may have been furious, but he never let that bother the team.
COLLINS: Guys were upset about it, but I mean, what do you do? It was out of our control.
CONWAY: It’s kind of like kicking field goals: You have to have a short memory, and focus on your next kick.
CARTER: We knew we weren’t going to be able to play Nebraska. But you can’t say they were going to take away our national championship. We still had three games to play.
Chapter 14: A Night at the University Inn
That next game was in Champaign, where the Lions were set to face what might’ve been the best defense in all of college football. Its strength was at linebacker: Dana Howard was on his way to the ’94 Butkus Award as the nation’s top LB, an honor that teammate Kevin Hardy would win a year later. And then there was Simeon Rice, who had to settle for being a two-time All-American. That was the challenge awaiting Penn State on Saturday afternoon.
As for Friday? The Lions had only to get to their hotel, settle into their usual road game routine, and get a good night’s sleep.
GANTER: I remember everything that could go wrong, did.
DIEHL: We get there Friday afternoon, and we do what we always do: We get to the hotel, get off the bus, get our itineraries. The meetings are on the 20th, 21st floor, dinner on the 22nd floor, and the rooms were on the third and fourth floors.
PITTMAN: The University Inn. I still have my room key.
DIEHL: We get to dinner, dinner’s fine. Then, throughout the night, the phones are ringing.
PITTS: They were letting prank calls through all night. You would call down and say, “Please stop putting calls though.” It was ridiculous.
KILLENS: We were next to a fraternity house or something. They were basically partying all night.
ENGRAM: Urban legend has it that some frat boys cut the power.
A long, mostly sleepless night for the Penn State traveling party ended Saturday morning with the discovery that the hotel was indeed without power. This was a problem.
NOBLE: We wake up in the morning, the power’s out, and the managers are running around banging on doors.
ENGRAM: Our training room was up high, like the 20th floor. And they had to move everything downstairs.
DIEHL: I remember going out and hitting the elevator—nothing. And I remember Spider going, “Well, boys, this is what we get paid for.” There were six of us carrying the big trunk down, and all the video equipment—and this is 1994 technology, not like now, when you can put them in your pocket—and we’ve got to do 22 flights of stairs.
GANTER: It brought back a memory of a great story Joe told about Lenny Moore. Rip Engle was head coach, Joe’s an assistant, and they used to go out to Stone Valley the night before games, stay in these individual cabins, then get on the bus in the morning, and drive back over the mountain. Well, they woke up one morning and there’s two feet of snow on the ground. They were nervous. Rip got a couple of linemen together, and they started up toward one cabin, and they come back carrying Lenny Moore to the bus. Rip said he didn’t want Lenny’s legs to get tired…
I can tell you Joe definitely had that in mind when guys were walking up all those stairs.
SCIOLI: You go on these trips, everything is very regimented: pregame meals, meetings, always at the same time. When something like that happens, it’s like, “Uh-oh…” Especially with Coach the way he was.
NOBLE: Coach Paterno was not a huge fan of change, and all of a sudden that happens? I just remember thinking, “Don’t make eye contact with him.” He was not happy.
GANTER: There’s the old saying about how important routine is, but that really didn’t bother me. I didn’t think that was gonna affect those guys. It was almost a good distraction in one respect. You sit around those hotels, the night before and the morning of, and at least me, you’re a nervous wreck. There were a lot of distractions that morning, and before you know it, you’re out on the field. So it took some of the tension off.
It’s one thing to disrupt a routine. It’s quite another to disrupt breakfast. With the power out, a hot meal prepared by the hotel kitchen was out of the question. This hungry pack of Lions would have to figure out another way to eat.
HERRING: We had pizza for breakfast. They couldn’t cook, so we had to order pizza. Who eats pizza and goes out and plays football? Your stomach’s not gonna be right.
CONLIN: We’re up on the 30th floor or whatever, eating hoagies and drinking Pepsi.
JACKSON: We were eating cold pizza, couldn’t take a shower. The whole building was dark. I don’t know if it was done on purpose, but they damn sure didn’t have any generators.
DIEHL: The managers got to the stadium early, and the Illinois guys took care of us, got us some hot breakfast. They were great. The TV’s on, and they said, “Hey, your guys are on the news right now. They’re eating pizza in the hotel bar.”
Neither well rested and nor well fed, the team made its way to Memorial Stadium for the 2:30 kickoff. With no hope of getting back on their usual pregame schedule, the Lions could only hope that talent and experience would be enough once they got on the field. The omens, as they had been since arrival, were dark.
GREELEY: We were late to the stadium. The bus driver got lost on the way. Born and raised in Champaign, and he got lost.
ENGRAM: We get to the stadium late, and we literally have 20, 25 minutes to warm up. Everything was rushed.
DIEHL: When we came out for warm-ups, their crowd was nuts. To that point, that was the loudest Big Ten stadium we’d heard. Their band and their student section are strategically placed right behind the visiting team bench. I don’t remember being able to hear anything.
CONLIN: We got out on the field, we’re laughing and joking. We weren’t mentally prepared. Joe was like, “Get focused, get focused.” We were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re good.”
Chapter 15: The Comeback and The Drive
It was a horror show. Carter fumbled on the Lions’ third play, and Illinois called five straight running plays to score. Not three minutes later, Collins threw an interception, and the Illini once again turned a short field into a touchdown. The next two Penn State drives ended in punts, and with 12 seconds left in the opening period, Illinois scored again. The Lions entered the second quarter—on the road, against arguably the nation’s top defense—trailing 21-0.
CONLIN: They just jumped us.
GREELEY: They had our number in the first quarter. It was ugly. We couldn’t have played any worse.
BRADY: Dana Howard had promised that if their offense scored 28 points, they’d win the game.
CONLIN: We’d heard what Howard said. We’re averaging 50-some points a game, and he says that?
CARTER: We had a lot of confidence in ourselves. Even down 21-0, there was nobody worrying. It was like, “We know we messed up. Let’s go get that job done.” It was calm. Kerry really helped that—he had that type of demeanor.
COLLINS: Sometimes you go in a game, and for whatever reason, the other team is more ready to play. It happens. Fortunately, we got it back. They scored really quickly and left us a lot of time. There really wasn’t any panic. I think everybody just said, “Let’s get back to doing what we do.” It just took just a couple of plays here and there.
STEWART: I had broken my foot, so I was back home. I literally sat in my apartment, tears coming out of my eyes, and I turned off the TV. It was off for like five minutes. Then one of the younger guys came running in and said, “We’re coming back.”
The second quarter was halfway over before Penn State finally got on the board, Milne capping an 11-play, 99-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run. Less than two minutes later, Collins found Scott on a 38-yard touchdown pass. The Illini scored late in the half to take a 28-14 lead, but their runaway momentum had been slowed.
GREELEY: I remember going in at half, thinking to myself, “Holy cow, we played terrible, we’re going to let whole season slip away.” Joe walked in, and we were waiting for him to light into us, but he called us together, calm as can be, and said, “I want to tell you guys something: We’re going to win this game. Don’t think anything different. Now break up into offense and defense, and figure out how.”
MILNE: Coach Paterno had a way of saying things: “You know, guys, we just have to play football. We have to do what we do.”
BRADY: I remember Fran talking to us at halftime—we’d made some adjustments to some of things they were doing, and we knew we could score. We just told the defense, “Listen, you gotta hold them.” If they scored 56, we didn’t know if we could beat them.
HERRING: We knew, if we did our part, our offense would come back out and score.
Indeed, Illinois went three-and-out on the opening possession of the second half, and the Lions responded with a 59-yard drive capped by Carter’s four-yard touchdown run. The Illini managed a field goal on their next drive to extend their lead to 31-21 going into the fourth quarter, but both teams seemed to sense that field goals weren’t going to keep the Lions at bay.
BRADY: The Illinois players might not admit this, but there comes a point where a unit gains the upper hand, and the other team knows it. And at some point in that second half, we gained the advantage on that defense, to the point that they weren’t having success stopping even the most basic of plays. They didn’t have any more answers.
GREELEY: In the second half, you could just see it.
GANTER: We never underestimated Illinois’ defense, I’ll tell you that. They had some great players. But our guys just had unbelievable poise and confidence.
SCIOLI: I think we just knew we were the more talented team. We knew this was it—this was our chance. Were we gonna let it slip away to this team?
The teams traded punts early in the fourth before the Lions took possession at their 46-yard line with 10:24 on the clock. Two and a half minutes later, Milne had his second TD run of the game. The Lions kicked off, the defense forced another three-and-out, and Illinois lined up to punt from its 29. Penn State figured to get decent field position, but a misread by Archie and a fortuitous bounce meant Penn State started on its 4-yard line, trailing 31-28 with 6:07 to play.
ENGRAM: It was dark, the rain had started to fall—this is stuff you can’t write a movie script for. And then the kick—boom.
ARCHIE: I didn’t field the punt.
COLLINS: I remember watching that punt sail over Mike’s head, like, “Oh crap…”
ARCHIE: I’m feeling bad—I knew I should’ve come up and caught that ball. And as I’m running off the field, you know what my linemen said to me? “Don’t worry about it, dude. You just had to make it look hard.” (laughs)
CONLIN: We were running on the field kidding Mike, like it was a joke. By that time, we were cocky as hell.
ARCHIE: I ran off the field with a big smile on my face. That was just the kind of team we had.
GREELEY: That last drive, we’re huddled in our end zone, and we were laughing. The fans are right on top of us, and I can still remember looking at this one guy’s face. I could read his lips: “They’re laughing?!”
CONLIN: Even in the Chicago papers the next day, people we saying, “They were laughing in the huddle.”
GREELEY: Kerry’s on the sideline, and he comes running in like, “Guys, this is gonna be fun.”
COLLINS: There was no panic.
GANTER: With Kerry, we’d be talking to him, and right before he left the sideline, he’d wink at you.
BRADY: There was an awareness among our offense and their defense that they couldn’t stop us anymore. Even when we got the ball on our 4-yard line, we knew they couldn’t stop us—and they knew it, too. When we came out of the huddle, you could almost see it in their eyes. It was almost as if both units knew it was inevitable.
GANTER: Somebody just had to make some plays. And boy, did they ever.
Five minutes, 10 seconds. Fourteen plays—seven runs, seven passes, all of them complete. Ninety-six yards. All with a game, a Rose Bowl trip, and a perfect season hanging in the balance. In the end, it was Milne—the cancer survivor and symbol of this team’s resilience—who sealed it with his third touchdown of the day. Twenty years later, it’s simply “The Drive.”
ENGRAM: We kind of knew, “This is it, man. It’s all or nothing here.”
MILNE: You couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t hear the snap count. It was just watch the ball and go. It didn’t matter what plays were called. We just had to execute them.
COLLINS: We executed great on that drive. Coming out, it wasn’t like we were bombing it down the field. It was kind of methodical. It was execution, taking what was there, and of course, I had all kinds of time.
GREELEY: Everything was just like we practiced it.
CONLIN: Remember how in Pop Warner, defensive linemen would take a knee? We’re going down the field at Illinois, and they were on their knees.
CARTER: When we got to the 50, you could hear it in the crowd. Like, “You packed us in, now we’re on your side of the field.”
ENGRAM: I remember looking over at the sideline, and every one of our guys were off the bench holding hands.
PITTMAN: We’re standing on the sidelines, everyone’s holding hands, just willing the team down the field. To me, that was college football.
MILNE: I was hoping to get the ball. I remember getting airborne—I think I took off around the 4. I think I hit Dana Howard.
He did, lunging through a gap on the right side of the line and leveling the All-American linebacker, whose 28-point guarantee was now as deflated as the Memorial Stadium crowd. Illinois had a final shot, reclaiming the ball with 57 seconds left and driving to Penn State’s 31-yard-line before Kim Herring intercepted a last-gasp heave in the end zone. The Lions had survived.
Part 5: A trip to Pasadena, and the Grandaddy of Them All; a theoretical 1-2 matchup for the ages; memories of Joe: and posing the question: Was this the best offense ever?
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