As I touched upon in my Kerry Collins post last week, my dad made the great life-altering decision to purchase Penn State season football tickets right before the start of the 1994 season. Boy, was his timing impeccable...
Like probably most fans, I wasn't thinking that PSU would go undefeated that year, but having only as far back as the 1991 season to go by, I figured we could post another solid 10-2 record and go to a decent bowl game. Keep in mind that the last undefeated/national championship season in 1986 occurred just a few months shy of my third birthday, and that the magical 1982 season was before my lifetime, so I didn't know what such teams looked like or how to spot such potential. Suffice it to say then, that I was pleasantly shocked with how dominant the team looked in the season-opening 56-3 dismantling of Minnesota in the Metrodome, even if Minnesota was god-awful back then.
It was a quick-strike offense unlike anything PSU and college football fans had ever seen, one that ended up averaging 47 points per game and around two minutes per scoring drive. When Ki-Jana Carter, Mike Archie, and Brian Milne weren't busy running like bulls in Pampalona, Kerry Collins was busy slinging the ball all over the yard to various receiving weapons such as Bobby Engram, Freddie Scott, and tight end Kyle Brady. A beastly offensive line anchored by the likes of Marco Rivera and Jeff Hartings helped open the holes for the running backs and gave Collins his fair share of time to find an open receiver. It turned out that beatdown of Minnesota that night was merely an appetizer for the main course of beatdowns that were to come, most notably the famed 63-14 demolishing of Ohio State (with both teams having the full allotment of scholarships, I may add).
Not only was this team stocked with NFL-caliber talent, but it also had the intangibles to complement such talent such as veteran/senior leadership and the ability to remain calm when things appeared to be going south. These very intangibles were perhaps on their greatest display when they went down 21-0 in the first quarter at Illinois. While ten year old me ran up to his room, bawling after that seemingly insurmountable deficit on the road against the nation's top-ranked defense, the PSU players slowly but surely, clawed their way back like Uma Thurman in 'Kill Bill' to one of the greatest comebacks in program history, capped off by Brian Milne's go-ahead touchdown plunge with a little over a minute left in the ballgame. No other team came as close to ruining PSU's undefeated season and Rose Bowl hopes as the Illini did that day, but there was no stopping this PSU team for certain, once they pulled off that incredible rally.
I'll also never forget the season-ending home game against Michigan State (see YouTube video below), if only because the crowd spent the entire fourth quarter chanting "we're number one" countless times. By this point however, it was very much apparent that unless AP and Coaches Poll darling Nebraska were to stumble, PSU was going to be shut out of being properly recognized as national champions. And yes, I say 'properly' because at the very least, there should have been a split title between Nebraska and PSU, much like they did for Colorado/Georgia Tech in 1990 and Washington/Miami (FL) in 1991. Hell, they even had a split title a few years later in 1997 (the year before the BCS went into effect) between Nebraska and Michigan. Apparently, there was so much sympathy from the voters for Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and his countless near-misses over the years, that it prevented such a split. It was the catalyst for the anti-Nebraska angst that Penn State fans possessed in the years following that '94 season and one could argue, didn't go away until 2002, when PSU destroyed Nebraska under the Beaver Stadium lights on national television. Had there actually been a BCS/playoff system back then to pair the two teams though, I really think PSU would have won. If that offense couldn't be slowed down by Illinois' top-rated defense, then it's unlikely the vaunted blackshirts defense would have fared any better.
By the time the day of the Rose Bowl came about, we already knew that it was simply about pride and finishing with a perfect record, as Nebraska had clinched the national title the night before, rallying in the fourth quarter to beat Miami (FL) in the Orange Bowl. I still have fond memories watching that Rose Bowl game at a viewing party at the Scanticon (now the Penn Stater hotel) and seeing Ki-Jana Carter on the game's first play, bouncing off an Oregon player and taking it 83 yards to the house (again, see YouTube video below), setting the tone from the very beginning. Even though Oregon hung tough for three quarters, PSU's offense did enough to keep them at bay and seal the deal on what still remains their most recent undefeated campaign.
In a sense, I was spoiled from having the 1994 season be my first year of attending games at Beaver Stadium. No season since has been quite like it, granted a few have come close such as 2005, 2008 and 2012 (for different reasons, obviously). If we're talking about sheer dominance over its opponents however, then I'm not holding my breath on ever seeing a team like that again in my lifetime...[I guess this is the cue for James Franklin & Co. to prove me wrong at some point, given their torrid recruiting pace]