Hidden Gems: 1995 Penn State vs. Texas Tech

1995 goal line. Three fullbacks, and two tight ends. - YouTube screen cap

Hidden Gems: 1995 Penn State vs. Texas Tech. A staring contest vs death. Death blinked first.

Every program has those games that live on forever in its lore and are forever fondly remembered and relived by its fanbase. Penn State fans are fortunate to have a long list of these games- 1981 vs. Pitt, the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, 2005 vs. Ohio State- the list can go on and on. Hidden Gems will focus on games that may not have the same prestige as those games, but certainly were memorable in some way or another and are an important part of the overall composition of Penn State sports.

Penn State kicked off the 1995 college football season at Beaver Stadium on September 9th, against an unranked but talented Texas Tech squad. Penn State was riding a 17-game win streak, and held the #4 spot in the polls. Although they were without three top 10 NFL draft picks - KiJana Carter, Kerry Collins, and Kyle Brady - from the brilliant 1994 squad on offense, they still returned seven starters on that side of the ball, including four senior o-linemen, and all Big Ten receiver Bobby Engram on the outside. Furthermore, the four new starters on offense - QB Wally Richardson, RB Mike Archie, C Barry Tielsh, and TE Keith Olsommer - had all seen significant playing time in 1994. They were all upper classmen, and expected to play well.

On the defensive side, the only significant loss was MLB Brian Gelzheizer. Most of the young 1994 defense returned to the field, including DT Brandon Noble, DE/LB Terry Killens, LB Jim Nelson, S Kim Herring, and both cornerbacks, Mark Tate and Brian Miller. The defense figured to return to Penn State standards.

//start totally off topic paragraph

Brian Miller was a 3-time All Big Ten first team corner, so...he was pretty good. He'd run laps at the I-M building, alternating between a nice forward jog lap, and a backpedal lap. I'd pass him as he backpedaled, he'd pass me back after he flipped his hips and ran forward. Never saw him on the wrestling mats in the basement, though. He figured to be a high draft pick, but I think he decided he didn't want to play football anymore.

//end totally off topic paragraph

Texas Tech was in its last year of the Southwest Conference, before they'd join the newly created Big 12, which would begin league play the next season. Texas Tech was, at best, 3rd fiddle in its own home state to Texas and Texas A&M. In the 50 seasons from 1945 - 1994, the Red Raiders owned just four seasons in which they had won nine or more games. The most recent of those seasons was 1989, when Tech finished 9-3. The Red Raiders had finished 6-6 in each of the last two seasons before making their way to State College.

But the 1995 season was supposed to be different in Lubbock. Three of their best players of all time were on the squad that took the field that day: QB Zebby Lethridge, RB Byron Hanspard, and an undersized linebacker, Zach Thomas. Head Coach Spike Dykes entered his 9th season at the helm, with the arrow pointing up, after inheriting an absolute disaster from Jerry Moore and David McWilliams, who dumped Tech for the Longhorns after just one year on the sidelines. Penn State was favored by double digits (I think), but it wouldn't be a cake walk for the Lions.

Even if it would have been a cake walk, the Lions seemed determined to make it difficult. Within the first five minutes of the game, RB Mike Archie and WR Freddie Scott ran into each other while trying to execute a reverse. They fumbled, and Texas Tech recovered it - in the Penn State end zone - for an early 7-0 lead. It wasn't the most auspicious of starts.

After that flub, Penn State appeared to right itself, and marched down the field methodically, with fullback Jon Witman punching it in from 2 yards out. Witman was a bit of a wild man in those days. He was one of the few, if not the only, Penn State player to sport tattoos. He had plenty of them. When asked why he liked tattoos, Witman replied, 'I like to bleed.'

The first quarter ended in a 7-7 tie. Penn State's defense was curb stomping Tech's Hanspard, allowing next to nothing on the ground. And as the game rolled into the second quarter, Tech boomed another punt to the always dangerous Bobby Engram. But Engram fumbled the punt, and Tech recovered it at the Penn State 20 yard line. On the very next play, Lethridge hit a small, white wide receiver named Field Scovall in the PSU end zone to put Tech back on top, 14-7.

No worries - not with our potent offense - right? Wrong. Still in the second quarter, Engram fumbled a second punt which Tech again recovered, this time at the Penn State 40. To make matters worse, Tech actually picked up a couple of first downs, driving inside the PSU 10. Lethridge hit Hanspard out of the backfield for a 7-yard touchdown pass, and Beaver Stadium got quiet. The only consolation was that Tech's kicker missed the extra point. But with a 20-7 lead at halftime, the underdog Red Raiders believed they could win, held the momentum, and had slienced the 93,000 capacity crowd.

The start of the third quarter didn't alleviate the concerns of the blue and white faithful. The Penn State rushing attack still could not get on track, as Texas Tech sent its two inside linebackers on run blitzes for what seemed like the entire game. And the smaller of the two inside backers, #35 for Tech (Zach Thomas), was an especially terrific pain in the ass, making tackle after tackle. The Richardson-led passing attack was a little better than the rush, though it certainly didn't remind anyone of last season. Penn State moved the ball some, but not consistently.

A Penn State punt managed to flip the field, and put the Red Raiders in the shadow of their own goal line. With the offense in early season, flailing mode, the Penn State defense needed to make a play. And they did, forcing a Hanspard fumble which was recovered by Terry Killens on the Tech 3-yard line, right in front of the student section. "Killens!!!", my friend screamed in my ear. As FB Witman plowed the ball over the stripe on the next play, Penn State had clawed its way back to a six point deficit, 20-14. The sinking feeling that had been growing since late in the first quarter had been chopped in half.

Relief from the pit of despair became complete early in the fourth quarter, as Penn State put together, and finished, it's first touchdown drive since the second possession of the game. Richardson hit TE Olsommer after a crisply executed Frannie Ganter play action call from goal to go, three yards out. Penn State took its first lead of the game, 21-20, and 93,000 people let out an audible "whew". Young girls and old men cried tears of joy, seemingly having been spared from the executioner. Sophomores in section EB, shaking uncontrollably from frayed nerves, stared blankly at the field, shocked from the 50 minutes of horror they'd witnessed, but slowly began forming hints of a smile at the corner of their mouths. This disaster of a game would turn out okay. We felt assured the Lions would soon put another score on the board, and we could retire to the tailgate to drink and eat in full contentment.

But Tech hadn't finished torturing us. Tech's offense seemed to catch some lucky breaks, some fluky bounces of the ball, and answered with a drive of their own. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. The Penn State defense buckled down and held, forcing the Red Raiders to attempt a 42-yard field goal by a kicker who, frankly, was fortunate to be 2-for-3 on his extra points. As Tech got ready to snap the ball, you couldn't have found 20 people in the universe that thought he'd come within 15 yards of the uprights. All evidence to this point in the game led one to believe it'd be a miracle if the kicker even got the ball past the line of scrimmage.

And then he made the kick. Of course he did. What other freak things could possibly happen on this day? Would the clear, sunny skies suddenly cloud over and start raining blood? Would Mount Nittany, clearly visible over the southeast end of the stadium, crumble and vanish beneath the earth? Should all 93,000 of us commit ritual suicide now, and save ourselves the shame of this impending loss via divine intervention?

The answer appeared to be a resounding "yes". Brett Conway, the prettiest man you've ever seen, but with an absolute bazooka for a right leg, hooked a 37-yard field goal which would have put Penn State back on top. So the Lions continued to trail, 23-21. Taking possession, Tech coach Spike Dykes got conservative on offense, trying to milk the clock. They punted, and Spike figured to rely on his defense (which was mostly working) to escape with a victory.

With just over six and a half minutes to play, and the ball at their own 30-yard line, the Lion offense jogged onto the field. "This is it. We've got to get it done here," I said to my friends standing around me. "F**k!" and "come ON!" two of them answered. Another friend, sloshed by some pirated Jim Beam (in the handy clear plastic travel size you could tape to your leg), sat hunched on the metal bleacher, chin on chest, and motionless other than some drool hanging out the left side of his mouth. I didn't ponder whether I'd end up in the same condition in a few hours - of that, there was no doubt. Instead, I wondered whether he'd be proven smart to have started at 10:30 am, instead of waiting for the game to finish.

From the start of the drive, drool-guy looked wise. But faced with what seemed to be an ever-present 3rd-and-9, Wally Richardson and the offense made critical play after critical play to march lurch and jerk down the field. They went on a 14-play, 58-yard drive over the final six and a half minutes of regulation, capped by a 13-yard completion to Bobby Engram, which put the ball around the Tech 12-yard line. Salvation lay dead ahead, just 30 seconds away. The only fully functioning voice in the stadium at that point belonged to Dr. Drool, and then only because he hadn't used his since the game was 7-7.

But, this being a completely torturous event from the start, it couldn't finish without a last twist of the knife lodged in our collective stomachs. Penn State was penalized for holding on the next play, moving the ball back, and putting an already nerve shattering field goal attempt into the psychosis zone. It was 39 yards. And of course, to the keen observer, the ball lied on the exact same hash, pointing at the exact same uprights, at almost exactly the same point on the field, from which handsome Brett had missed a kick just half a quarter ago.

With four seconds left, Conway drilled the ball through the uprights as the clock read zero. Penn State won, 24-23. Some people cheered, others simply collapsed. At least one sat hunched and motionless, still drooling.

Penn State had played an entirely atrocious game. They fumbled four times, losing three. They were flagged often, and usually at the worst times. They attempted 45 rushes, but managed only a paltry 132 yards against these no-names from West Texas. They punted seven times - seven! - averaging just 32 yards per boom. The 1994 offense may have tallied its seventh punt around game eight.

It was, to that point, one of the most harrowing experiences of my young life. To have stared football death in its cruel face like that - as the #4 team in the nation with plans for another undefeated season on the line, losing the opener to an unranked bunch of nobodies would have been a pollster death sentence - yet somehow to have miraculously survived, was....not amazing. It wasn't gratifying or satisfying or sweetly pleasing in any way. But it was memorable.

No one could talk much until we'd exited the stadium. "Sloppy. We're not a very good team right now." "We'll need to play a lot better than that if we want to be any good." "Well, you see the most improvement between weeks one and two. We'll start to see what kind of team we can be next week." We all nodded in agreement with each other's statements. We'd all heard them a thousand times from fathers, aunts, uncles, and extended tailgating family members. They'd all learned them from Joe, of course.

Postscript

The 1995 team did appear to improve by leaps and bounds the following week. They crushed a hapless Temple squad 66-14, and stomped on Rutgers in East Rutherford 59-34 (the Mike McQuery in relief, long bomb late touchdown game, in which the soon-to-be-fired Rutgers coach accused Joe of running up the score, to which Joe was accidentally caught on tv replying, "ahhh..bullshit!").

In the fourth game, against Wisconsin, we saw a veritable replay of the Texas Tech game. It didn't end well this time, though, as Penn State lost 9-17. Wisconsin's 26-year old quarterback Darrell Bevel - he was literally 26, which seemed to be really ancient in those days - completed dump off after dump off to his running backs Carl McCullough and Aaron Stecker, as they crossed in front of Gerald Filardi, who struggled to keep up.

In the fifth game, the Lions got absolutely jobbed by the refs against Ohio State. Eddie George, on what became the game winning drive, fumbled the ball and it was recovered by Penn State. It happened right in front of section WF, on the Ohio State sideline. Of course, it wasn't ruled a fumble, and the final became 25-28. Penn State was suddenly 0-2 in Big Ten play. Somewhere around this point, a guy named Curtis Enis started getting the bulk of the carries - and what a freaking horse he proved to be. Yes - I continued the postcript this far for the sole purpose of embedding the following YouTube. I hope you enjoy watching Enis truck fools, particularly the Illinois dude around the 1:55 mark.


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