Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 1994

Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter sprints to a touchdown in Penn State’s opening drive at the 1995 Rose Bowl against Oregon. (Photo by Penn State)

Editor’s note: Throughout the season, we’re looking at Penn State’s most memorable teams from the past 40 years. Up next is the season when Penn State returned to the Rose Bowl after seven decades.

John Black asked a perfectly reasonable question. Unfortunately, nobody provided an answer.

For 100-plus years, Penn State football had competed as an independent, though that all changed when the University joined the Big Ten in the early 1990s and the football program began conference play in 1993.

A year later, the team bulldozed its way to a perfect record. After demolishing Michigan State 59-31 in the regular season finale, Joe Paterno and Co. accepted a bid to the Rose Bowl, perhaps the sport’s most prestigious game and one in which he had never previously coached.

In his biography of Paterno, Michael O’Brien wrote that the legendary coach (understandably) had ambition to play in the Rose Bowl, and that it was something he’d think about when he was alone, walking in the woods in back of his house. 

So, Penn State prepared to play in it is first Rose Bowl since 1923, meaning that for the first time in its illustrious history, The Football Letter headed to Pasadena — creator Ridge Riley started the publication in the late 1930s — where editor Black covered his first Rose Bowl. Black would return for two more trips, to cap off the 2008 and 2016 seasons.

Though as Black wrote in his lead to that game’s edition: “The first time is always the best.”

Penn State upended Oregon, with Ki-Jana Carter galloping for an 83-yard touchdown on the game’s opening play from scrimmage. The Nittany Lions collected a 38-20 victory for Paterno’s fifth unbeaten, untied season. And yet, as players, alumni, and fans painfully know, no national title. Not even a share.

Black wrote:

“As recently as 1991, undefeated Miami and undefeated Washington were declared co-champions. The year before, Georgia Tech and Colorado shared the title. Why is an undefeated, untied Penn State squad an outcast for the fourth time since 1968? What was possibly wrong with the performance of the 1968, 1969, 1973, and 1994 Penn State teams?

Coach Joe Paterno said the 1994 Nittany Lions ‘proved to everyone in the country that they are as worthy of a national championship as anyone else.’

With no opportunity for the teams to settle the issue on the gridiron, Nebraska, which was also undefeated and untied in 1994, deserves a share of the national title. Certainly Tom Osborne, one of the most respected coaches in college football, has long deserved a national championship ring.

But so do the 1994 Nittany Lions.”

He was right, of course. Though not receiving a share of the championship that they certainly deserved doesn’t make that team any less legendary.

The Penn Stater magazine editor Ryan Jones wrote an extensive oral history on the team, aptly titled, “Legends of ’94,” and you can also read that story on the blog.


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2 thoughts on “Penn State’s Most Memorable Teams: 1994

  1. We were at that 1994 Rose Bowl game and it was disgusting to see Bob Costas literally declare Nebraska the national champions when they defeated Miami BEFORE PSU and Oregon had even played!
    Osborne won that game because he allowed that lowlife Lawrence Phillips back on the team for that game. Phillips had beaten up his girlfriend and knocked her down a flight of stairs during the season and Osborne had sat him down. But when it came time for the bowl game, Osborne put Phillips back on the team and that made the difference. I have zero respect for Osborne for putting that guy back on the team. Phillips ultimately died in prison — a lowlife to the end and Osborne should have been ashamed of what he did.
    If PSU had played Nebraska head to head — we’d have won because without a doubt we were the best team in college football that year. Once again PSU was cheated out of a national championship that we totally deserved.

  2. This is the problem with being in the Big 10 and locked into the Rose Bowl. As an independent, we could have gone to the Orange Bowl in 1994 and played a true national championship game as we did in 1982 and 1986. Nebraska would not have stood a chance against us. Instead, we were at the mercy of the media and the pollsters, who already snubbed us in 1968, 1969, and 1973. No doubt it would have been the same in 1982 and 1986 had we been locked into the Rose Bowl and thereby unable to play Georgia or Miami.

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