Before joining the Big Ten in 1993, the Nittany Lions dominated college football as an independent team in the 1980s. Penn State won six bowl games from 1980-89, including three Fiesta Bowls and one Sugar Bowl. Penn State finished in the AP Top Ten five times in the 80s, and twice as number one. Joe Paterno’s teams won two national championships in the 80s. Despite two losing seasons, the '80s were a great time for the Nittany Lions.
The next time Penn State would come close to the number one spot was 1994. Paterno’s teams were 37-12 leading up to '94, and '93 was a great year. Some might say that the final game of that season against Michigan State set the tone for the run to the top in '94.
The Nittany Lions opened their first Big Ten season with five back-to-back wins, but eventually fell to Michigan and Ohio State consecutively. Penn State was able to compete with Michigan for the first three quarters, but the Wolverines held Ki-Jana Carter back from the goal line in the opening play of the fourth quarter, and that’s pretty much when it ended. I guess it officially ended when Kerry Collins threw an interception within the last minute of the game.
Ohio State handed the Nittany Lions their second loss of the season at Ohio Stadium two weeks later. Prior to this matchup Penn State was 6-2 against Ohio State. The last time they saw the Buckeyes was at the Fiesta Bowl in 1980 when the Nittany Lions crushed them 31-19. The Buckeyes would be vindicated in ‘93, though. Ohio State was undefeated and ranked third in the nation. The Buckeyes held Penn State to two field goals and Kerry Collins was intercepted multiple times. Ohio State finished the '93 season with only one loss.
Despite the two consecutive losses, the Nittany Lions bounced back to win out the rest of their season. They capped off their season with a win in East Lansing, where they squeaked out a win against Michigan State to take home the legendary Land Grant Trophy. The Big Ten was really on to something when they designated Penn State and Michigan State as rivals, meaning they would duel it out annually to prove which land-grant school was bigger and tougher and badder.
But I digress. This really was a great game. Michigan State was ranked 25, and Penn State was sitting at the number 14 spot. The field was a disaster, and play on both sides reflected that. Michigan State took a 13-0 lead early on, but Mike Archie went right up the middle (in true Paterno form) to put some points on the board. Michigan State immediately responded with another seven points, and this is pretty much how it went for the rest of the second quarter. By halftime Penn State had narrowed that gap to a one-score deficit, 23-17.
The Spartans turned to their passing game in the third quarter, and quickly increased their lead to 37-17. It looked as if the Nittany Lions’ winning streak could be over.
And then, they were alive again: Collins completed a 40 yard pass to Bobby Engram, and Penn State was back in the game. They filled that gap even more when the defense recovered a fumble on Michigan State’s 38. Collins drove his team down the field, and with a Brian O’Neal touchdown it was a one score game.
The defense exploded and forced a three and out, and gave the ball back to the offense on their own 48. Collins faked a handoff and completed a 52 yard pass to Engram (that’s three touchdowns in about four minutes, for those of you keeping track). The defense shut down the Spartan offense in the remaining ten minutes to take that Land-Grant Trophy back to Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions finished their first Big Ten season at the number three spot in the conference.
After the win in East Lansing in 1993, Penn State didn’t lose a game until late September, 1995. The Nittany Lions put a beating on more than a few of the teams they faced in ’94. They pounded #21 Ohio State when the Buckeyes traveled to Happy Valley. After they took a 35-0 lead at halftime, Paterno played guys from all over the depth chart, and still managed to put 63 points on the board. On average, the Nittany Lions‘ scoring drives lasted less than two minutes each. This offense was arguably one of the best in the history of college football. With a final score of 63-14, those 14 points are the only reason I can be sure Ohio State even showed up. Penn State was the nation’s number one team.
The 1994 team was Paterno’s fifth to go undefeated. Penn State finished the 1994 season 12-0, number one in the Big Ten, and number two in the nation.
Number two. Another all too familiar story for Penn Staters who can remember ’94 (or have heard about it for as long as they can remember). As history would have it, Penn State was crushing Indiana when Paterno pulled his starters. The Hoosiers scored a couple late touchdowns to make the score look a whole lot closer than it actually was. And then something happened that never ever happens: the voters dropped the ball Sunday morning. Based on the box score, Penn State appeared to have struggled with Indiana (there was no struggle involved). Nebraska, who beat #2 Colorado, was voted up to number one, and Penn State dropped to number two.
I guess we’re about twenty years too late with that college football playoff.
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