BSD is chronicling 15 of Penn State's best games since joining the Big Ten in 1993. For more on the series, click here. Today, Lou Prato and Tony Pittman help us profile Penn State's comeback victory against Michigan in 1994.
By mid-October of 1994, Penn State fans knew they had the makings of a special team in only the Nittany Lions' second season of Big Ten football. Coach Joe Paterno's No. 3 ranked squad had sprinted out to a 5-0 start in dominating fashion, beating opponents by an average of 51.6-17.2 behind stars including quarterback Kerry Collins, running back Ki-Jana Carter and wide receiver Bobby Engram.
As Penn State prepared to take on No. 5 Michigan at the Big House, though, there were still questions of whether the Lions were serious national title contenders or not. They'd played only one ranked team to that point in the season, then-No. 14 USC, which had stumbled to a 3-2 start, and some felt Penn State was still untested, including Collins.
"We haven't been in a tough ballgame with all this riding on it, and I think you need a game like that under your belt to really know what to expect going into a big game," Collins told the AP before the game.
Penn State appeared to show the critics it was prepared to crush anyone when it raced out to a 16-0 lead against the Wolverines, but Michigan, led by stud running back Tyrone Wheatley, stormed back to take a 17-16 lead in the third quarter.
Collins hit John Witman for a nine-yard score and Penn State converted a two-point try to take a 24-17 lead into the fourth quarter, but Michigan came back again to deadlock the score at 24 on a one-yard touchdown run by Tim Biakabutuka.
The game remained tied until late in the fourth quarter when the Lions' offense stuck like lightning. Led by Collins and Carter, Penn State marched down the field in 1:53 to take a 31-24 lead on a 16-yard pass from Collins to Engram with 2:53 remaining. The Lions held off the Wolverines by picking off Michigan's Todd Collins with 1:26 remaining to seal the win.
"For me, this is the biggest game of my life," Carter said after the game. "They dominated the Big Ten for so long. I think we just gained respect as a great team."
Carter finished with 165 yards on 26 carries, while Collins turned in a 20-32, 231 yards and three touchdown performance in the victory. Wheatley finished with 144 yards and a pair of touchdowns for Michigan in defeat.
The win gave Penn State sole possession of first place in the Big Ten and propelled the Lions to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time all season. It also served as a wakeup call to the nation that Penn State was for real. Next up was a showdown with No. 21 Ohio State at Beaver Stadium on Homecoming two weeks later.
Given all of these challenges, this game against Michigan is what truly made the 1994 team battle hardened. We had a feeling we were pretty good coming into this game, but it wasn't until we pulled out this win that we actually KNEW we were very good.
Of all the games on this list compiled by BSD, this is the only one I did not see in person—but that led to a scene in a downtown Los Angles luxury hotel I will never forget. I couldn’t go to Ann Arbor that weekend because I was attending a convention of the Radio Television News Director’s Association. I was the treasurer of the organization for 20 years and I planned to watch the game in my suite with my wife. But because of the time difference, I had to be at a luncheon for most of the first half. Being a big-time fan, my wife stayed in the suite to watch the game, and the only other person with her was one of my students. At the time I was the Washington, D.C., director of Northwestern University’s masters broadcast journalism program, My student had just graduated and had flown to the west coast to look for a job, at the convention and elsewhere. He also happened to be a Michigan undergraduate. Well, I got back to the suite as soon as I could and soon, we had a couple of dozen other people there, including several students from Penn State’s College of Communications, who also were at the convention to make contacts for future jobs.
So, I didn’t see the early part of the game in that perfect October weather, but I vividly remember Penn State was ahead at the half (16-0) about the time I entered the room. My student was sitting there with the saddest look on his face. But when Michigan roared back in the first five minutes of the second half to take a 17-16 lead, he was jumping up and down, pumping his fist and screaming his head off. He yelled, "Take that Penn State," or something like that. With about five minutes left in the game it was all tied up at 24-24 and Penn State had the ball on its own 45-yard line. Then it was bang-bang--bang: Collins to Engram for a first down at the Michigan 41. Carter up the middle to the 15-yard line. And on third-and 16 Collins hit Engram all alone in the end zone, Conway kicked the extra point and Penn State led 31-24. I thought my student was going to jump out of our 26th floor window. Michigan still had time to come back and it reached midfield before an interception ended the threat and basically the game. My wife and the Penn State contingent went wild, and my student just sat there in silence.
Well, the kid did get a job that trip. He found one as a sportscaster in a Readding, CA station where one of his classmates was working as a weathercaster-newswoman. Not long after, a talent scout saw him while watching TV news in a motel room, recommended him to ESPN and the rest his history. For the last several years he has been the prime anchor and voice of the NFL Network. And I have never let Rich Eisen forget that 1994 Michigan game.
Here's video of the climactic fourth quarter of this game.