They had slain the mighty Wolverines in the Big House. They had laid waste to the formidable Buckeyes in historical blowout fashion. But still Joe Paterno had concerns about his 1994 team. When asked if there was anything that could prevent his team from going undefeated, he confessed that they hadn't shown they could overcome adversity. Everything was coming too easily for them, and he was afraid of what the result might be if they found themselves in a hole and had to overcome it. Little did Paterno know that when his team traveled for a late season game against Illinois, they were going to get adversity in spades.
The Illini were ranked #25 in the nation and 4-2 in the Big Ten with an outside chance at going to the Rose Bowl. Their defense was especially tough with three All-American linebackers in Dana Howard, Simeon Rice, and Kevin Hardy. They ranked second in the nation in points allowed (11.3 ppg) and fourth in total defense (254 yds). Head Coach Lou Tepper was confident in his defense, and when asked before the game to predict the point total his offense would have to score in order to win, his response was 29 points. If his offense quarterbacked by veteran Johnny Johnson could put four touchdowns on the board, he liked his chances.
Penn State's troubles started long before kickoff when the power suspiciously went out in the team hotel which was conveniently located in the middle of the Illinois fraternity houses that had blared their music all night long in anticipation of the game. The hotel staff could not prepare the team meal in the morning, so they had to scramble to find a place that could deliver pizzas and hoagies for breakfast. And since the elevators weren't working, the players had to walk up and down 15 flights of stairs to the trainers' room to get taped up.
Whether all of the setbacks were coincidence or deliberate sabotage, the effect was clear. The Penn State offense that had made a habit of disecting Big Ten defenses with lethal precision looked sluggish and unfocused to start the game. While Illinois, energized by over 76,000 frenzied fans, came ready to play and make a statement.
On the third play from scrimmage, Ki-Jana Carter fumbled on the PSU 24 yard line and five plays later Illinois pushed the ball into the endzone to take a 7-0 lead. After the teams traded punts, Kerry Collins threw an interception to Tyrone Washington who ran the ball back to the PSU 23. Again, five plays later Illinois scored and took a 14-0 lead. Then a short punt gave Illinois the ball at the PSU 40 yard line, and a few plays later a pass to Shane Fisher gave the Illini a 21-point lead with 10:06 still to go in the first quarter.
Except for the small contingent of Nittany Lion fans tucked in the endzone seats, the stadium was rocking. In the press box, sports writers that had dropped the Lions in the polls after they destroyed Ohio State high-fived each other saying, "We knew it. This team was overrated."
But on the Penn State sideline there was no sign of panic. Nobody was screaming in the huddle. Nobody was staring at the scoreboard with glassy eyes. This was a team that could drop 35 points on a team by halftime and often did. They knew what they had to do. Swing the field position and stop shooting themselves in the foot. Do that, and everything would be fine.
Early in the second quarter a pooch punt pinned State at their own 1 yard line. The fans whooped it up in hopes that their heralded defense would come up with a safety to put an exclamation point on the death of the paper tiger Nittany Lions. But it was here where Penn State would make their stand. There would be no celebration in Champaign tonight. It was time to turn the tide.
Fullback Jon Witman plowed through the line for five yards to give them some room. Then Carter busted through for a 14 yard gain. And with that, the high-powered Penn State offense came to life, and the great Illinois defense would spend the rest of the game just hanging on and watching the clock wishing it would roll faster.
Collins drove them down the field without throwing an incomplete pass, and Brian Milne finished off the drive with a 1-yard TD dive to make the score 21-7. The defense held on the next drive, and Phil Yeboah-Kodie partially blocked a punt to give the offense the ball at the Illinois 38 yard line. Collins went deep on the first play and found Freddie Scott alone in the endzone after the defense fell for a pump fake to Bobby Engram. With 3:35 left in the half, Penn State had erased the 21-point deficit down to seven points. But Johnson led an efficient drive to score another touchdown just before the half. Though Penn State trailed 28-14, nobody on the Penn State side doubted they were going to win.
After forcing the Illini to punt to start the second half, Collins connected with Engram for 22 yards and Carter had an 18 yard run that set up his four-yard TD run to finish off the drive. Illinois responded with a 14-play, 71-yard drive that sputtered at the PSU 9 yard line. A field goal made it 31-21, which was more than the 29 points Tepper predicted his team would need. But given the swing of momentum in the second quarter and the way Penn State drove the ball to start the third, he couldn't have been feeling comfortable at that point.
Penn State's next drive ended at the Illinois 33-yard line, but Brett Conway sailed the field goal attempt wide right, and Illinois carried a ten point lead into the fourth quarter as a gentle rain began to fall on the field.
On the Lion's next possession they faced a fourth-and-two at the Illini 41. It was a clutch play, and Collins responded with a 17-yard strike to Engram. A few plays later Milne plowed ahead for a five-yard TD. The lead was cut to three points.
The 1994 defense will never go down as one of Penn State's best, but they came up big when they needed to, and in the fourth quarter in Champaign they forced the stop the offense needed to get the ball back. But they didn't make it easy. Illinois' punt sailed over Mike Archie's head and the Illini downed the ball at the PSU 4-yard line with six minutes to go in the game. As the teams huddled on the sideline to wait out the television timeout, the wind picked up a little stronger, and the rain started falling a little harder. If Paterno wanted adversity, he was probably getting more than he bargained for.
As Collins stepped into the huddle in his own endzone with the wind and rain stinging his face and fans screaming in his ear just a few yards away, he calmly looked his team in eye and said, "Ninety-six yards, fellas. Let's go. Let's do it." He knew there was no room for error. Every play had to be executed perfectly. So that's what they did.
With power running and short passes, the Lions moved down the field four and five yards at a time. A 15-yard facemaks penalty moved State up to the PSU 44 with 4:25 to go. A dump pass to Carter. A five yard run by Carter. Milne over the middle for three. A catch by Kyle Brady for six. Penn State was inside the Illini 35 with 3:10 to go. Scott got open and caught a 16-yard pass at the 19. On first down Carter was stuffed at the line and Collins called timeout with 1:43 to go.
After the timeout Collins hit Engram for nine yards. On third-and-one, Milne ran ahead for seven yards down to the Illini two-yard line where Illinois called timeout to set their defense. But it was no use. Milne followed All-American Jeff Hartings into the endzone, and with less than a minute to go, the Nittany Lions finally took their first lead of the game, 35-31.
Illinois still had a chance with 0:57 to go, and they drove all the way down to the State 31-yard line, but their Hail Mary pass was intercepted by Kim Herring. Once again the defense did their job, and the team that had made it look too easy had shown that when the chips were on the table, they had the mental toughness to overcome any challenge.
Lou Prato's Perspective
Outside of the two national championship games in 1982 and 1987, the dramatic come-from-behind victory in the evening rain, mist and cold at Illinois in ’94 is the greatest game in the 125-year history of Penn State football. BSD readers who did not see the game should read what I wrote in two of my books, The Penn State Football Encyclopedia and Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in Penn State Football History. Yeah, that’s a plug in for my books, but I really believe I accurately describe what happened that day in Champaign--from the pregame hotel problems to the play-by-play details of that late fourth quarter 96-yard drive--and why the game was so momentous.
Remember, Illinois was a 12-point underdog and the Lions had been steamrolling all opposition en route to a possible Big Ten Championship, Rose Bowl berth and possible national title when they were shocked by an emotional Illini team and a crazed hometown crowd. None of us inside that stadium could believe what we were seeing in the first ten minutes when Illinois scored three quick touchdowns for a 21-0 lead. There’s a photograph in both of my books taken by Steve Manuel, the best in the business, that captures the essence of that Illinois blitzkrieg. It shows Joe Paterno conferring on the sideline with his offensive coordinator, Fran Ganter, and the scoreboard in the night time background vividly shows the score of 21-0. That is a picture truly worth the proverbial thousand words.
My wife Carole and I were sitting with the couple of hundred wet and cold Penn State fans in the far end zone when Kerry Collins coolly led that great offense downfield in 15 plays to the 35-31 victory. Our seats were so low we really could not see those early plays clearly. But that winning three-yard touchdown up the middle by Brian Milne was right in front of us and no fans were ever happier than all of us in that end zone seats that night. I remember some fans were dancing around on the grass and slapping each other with high fives. My wife and I celebrated with several other fans in the parking lot for a couple of hours before we started heading for our then home in Alexandria, Virginia. That was the "shortest" drive home we have ever had because we knew we had just witnessed one of the greatest games in Penn State football history.
Cornerback Tony Pittman's Perspective
This game has defined one of the key sports paradigms for me: The Comeback. Much of how we got into the deep 21-0 hole remains a blur to me. I remember that we had a power outage in the team hotel. We had to eat cold pizza for a pre-game meal. We were completely out of sorts. Next thing we know, we were in hostile territory, down 21-0.
But, the most telling aspect of that situation was that there was no panic. I can honestly say, I don’t remember being all that worried. We knew that we were capable of playing much better, but more importantly, we also knew that they probably were not. We had absorbed their best. It was then time to dig in and play the type of football that we knew we could play.
Ultimately we did that, and then it was Brian Milne’s 3rd TD of the day that put us ahead for good. I’ll never forget that ending.