The last undefeated Penn State football team was denied the national championship due to a popularity contest and some stubborn league officials. The year was 1994, four seasons prior to the formation of the Bowl Championship Series. It was possible for two teams to finish undefeated and not face one another to decide the champion. This played out when Nebraska, under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne, finished 12-0 in the Big 8 conference. Penn State finished the year 11-0 out of the Big Ten conference. Due to a lack of agreement between leagues to face off the top two teams, Penn State played Oregon in the Rose Bowl and Nebraska played Miami in the Orange Bowl.
It was incredibly frustrating at the time, and still is to this day, that the two best teams in the country, each undefeated, did not settle the score on the field. And yet the arrangement created a fascinating scenario with just two games remaining to be played in the season. Three teams, Miami, Penn State, and Nebraska, had a chance to win the national championship. Nebraska held the top spot in both the Associated Press poll and the Coaches poll. The Huskers were in position to win the Orange Bowl on January 1 and claim the national championship.
Penn State would play Oregon the next day and needed a win paired with a Nebraska loss to take the top spot. Miami, playing what was essentially a home game at the Orange Bowl, had a chance to jump two spots to No. 1 with a win against Nebraska paired with a Penn State loss in the Rose Bowl.
Penn State entered the seventh game of the season 6-0 and in first place in the national polls. It had a critical home game with No. 21 Ohio State. The Lions took care of business on that day, defeating the Buckeyes 63-14 in front of what was at the time a capacity crowd of 97,079 fans inside of Beaver Stadium. On the same day Nebraska, ranked third, defeated No. 2 Colorado 24-7. The win for Nebraska was sufficient in the polls to leapfrog the Lions and for the remainder of the season the teams held the top two spots, with the Cornhuskers No. 1 and Penn State No. 2. It was an era where an unwritten rule existed that if a team held the top spot heading into the final bowl game, and won, it would hold on to the top position. There was little to no hope for the Lions were Nebraska to win the Orange Bowl.
All eyes were on southern Florida for what turned out to be a fascinating Orange Bowl contest. The Hurricanes, in the middle of the famed ‘Da U’ football run, were nearly an even-odds bet to win the game. Nebraska and coach Tom Osborne had a recent history of not being able to get over the hump in the big game. It was far from settled that the higher-ranked team would prevail.
On the side of the Cornhuskers was one of the best offensive lines in recent college football history, in addition to future NFL running back Lawrence Phillips. Tommie Frazier, an option quarterback that gave defenses fits, returned to the Nebraska sideline after sitting out since September 24 with blood clots in his leg. The Hurricanes had Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp, the prototypical pieces to stopping the option, or any run play for that matter.
Another key component to the Husker attack was first-year punter and future Nebraska Cornhusker baseball coach Darin Erstad.
Erstad is known by many people for his fourteen-season Major League Baseball career. He was also a very talented punter and kicker at the collegiate level. He finished the 1994 season with a 42.6 yards per punt average, good for 14th in the nation that year. He was also capable of kicking touchbacks with regularity as a kickoff specialist. It was the only season that Erstad played football for Nebraska, as he would leave for the MLB in the months following this game. He played an important role in the 1995 Orange Bowl, as field position became a momentum changer.
The Era Of Brazen Celebrations And Taking Helmets Off On The Field
Penn State and Nebraska were known for their conservative approach on and off the field. Each was coached by respected, long-time icons in the college football world. Miami was the antithesis of conservative, and was feared but not necessarily respected by those outside of southern Florida.
It was common for Hurricane players to expend the same amount of energy, if not more, on post-play celebrations than on the play itself. This would become a factor late in the Orange Bowl, as the ‘Canes appeared to run out of steam.
Early in the game, following a field goal on its first offensive possession, the Hurricanes scored a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead on the last play from scrimmage of the first quarter. Take a look at the vintage footage. The play was great, sure, but watch the Miami players flock together on the field, most without their helmets on, after the play. The phrase ‘act like you’ve been there before’ was born in this period as a result of such irrational exuberance. It was antics such as these that made college football fans cringe, and it led to a change in the rules that forces players to keep their helmet on at all times.
On the next Nebraska possession Warren Sapp, winner of the Lombardi Award that year, ended the drive with a sack on a great individual play. After the sack, Sapp expended a great deal of energy while celebrating. The game turned at that moment, but in favor of Nebraska. Keep the tape rolling a few extra seconds to see the 55-yard punt by Darin Erstad, which came to rest inside the Miami ten yard line.
Nebraska was able to use the field position gained on the punt to its favor, forcing Miami to punt from its own end zone following the series of downs. Nebraska returned the kick to the Miami 40 yard line. Moments later the Huskers scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 10-7. The half would end with the same score, Nebraska having weathered the force of the Hurricane attack in the early-going. With time running out in the half, Sapp made a great play to break up a screen. Following the play he went to the Nebraska sideline, straight to coach Tom Osborne who also called the plays for the Huskers, and shook his head ‘no’ in the legendary coach’s face. He then took his helmet off and ran across the field to celebrate a little more. Karma Warren, it’s not in your favor here. The next play, Darin Erstad made another clutch punt to pin the Hurricanes inside the 20 yard line, taking away any hopes for additional scoring in the first half.
Penn State Fans Feel The Game Starting To Slip Away
Around the country fans of the blue and white went to the snack table at half-time feeling like Miami had let Nebraska back in the game. After a commanding 10-0 start, with momentum clearly on its side, the Hurricanes led by only three points. Nebraska was in position to make a comeback, which would dash Penn State’s national title hopes.
Second Half Starts With A Bang
On Miami’s first possession of the final half, it scored easily to stretch the lead back to ten, 17-7. The game once again turned in favor of Nebraska, when the majority of the Hurricane team ran on the field to celebrate. Notice Sapp in the middle of the field, helmet-less, making a feigned appeal for mercy to the referee as the penalty was assessed. The team was given an unsportsmanlike penalty, which hurt field position. On the ensuing drive another solid Erstad punt pinned Miami inside the 15 yard line. Nebraska was able to convert the field position gained from the celebration penalty into a safety shortly after to cut the lead to 8.
The safety was the beginning of the end for Penn State’s hope of winning the national championship.
As the game was slipping away from Miami, they were dancing on the field after most plays. Ray Lewis made a great play to end the next Husker drive, and then went into what later became his signature dance move. Following the celebration, Lewis ran to the sideline to get a high-five from a helmet-less Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. As the non-football events grabbed the attention of the cameras, Darin Erstad changed the game with his best punt of the night. Let the tape run following the Lewis celebration, and you will see the punt bounce at the one-inch line, downed at the four yard line. You could argue that this was the play of the game. At the time of the punt, Nebraska was down 17-9 and about to give the ball back to Miami with 9:52 remaining in the game. Erstad nearly had the punt blocked. After calmly catching a low snap, he blasted a clutch 60-yard punt.
Had Miami blocked the kick it would have been all but over for Nebraska. Even a returnable kick could have given Miami a chance to gain a couple of first downs and pin Nebraska deep for their final drive, down 8. Instead the Huskers forced a punt on the ensuing Hurricane drive.
Nebraska went on to tie the game on the next drive. At this moment the Lions could still hold on to thin hopes that the two teams would end the game in a tie, which was possible in this era. This would give PSU a chance to be the only undefeated, untied, team and garner the title.
Instead Nebraska scored once more, capping off a 17-0 run following the celebration penalty on Miami early in the second half, winning the game 24-17.
Lions Weep Nationwide
At the time I was a month shy of my 21st birthday. Long beautiful curly hairs resided where Homer Simpson-like stubble now calls home. I went to bed that night believing that there was still a chance that Penn State could defeat Oregon so convincingly that the voters would pull a coup, naming Penn State the national champion. Oh, the comfort found in the ignorance of youth. It allows you to sleep at night.
It was not to be. The Lions took care of business, handling the Ducks 38-20. It was not a commanding victory, as it remained tied until late in the game. Penn State went on a 24-0 run following a game-tying touchdown pass by Oregon with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Ducks out-gained the Lions in the game in terms of yards from scrimmage, 501 to 430, using a Rose Bowl-record 456 passing yards. Penn State countered with its offensive line, and rushing attack, which accounted for all five touchdowns in the game. Kijana Carter had three rushing touchdowns. Two different fullbacks, Brian Milne and Jon Witman, scored the remaining touchdowns for Penn State. It was an era that included fullbacks that could not only block, but also carry the ball effectively.
Some would argue that Penn State’s style of play, along with its inability to put Oregon away sooner, cost the team the national title. That is unlikely. It is just as likely that a major blowout would have made the Ducks seem like an unworthy challenger.
It just wasn’t in the cards for the Lions that year. The team was new to the established Big Ten conference, and many have speculated that this played a role in the snubbing of Joe Paterno’s final undefeated squad. Here’s an Associated Press vote map showing that many of the writers in Big Ten territory gave Nebraska the nod instead of Penn State. It also shows a map of the votes a few years later, in 1997, when longtime Big Ten team Michigan garnered the mid-west AP votes when it faced a similar situation with Nebraska.
The Bowl Championship series, a seriously flawed system, came into effect a few years after the 1994 season. While it was imperfect, it decreased the chances of two teams from major conferences being undefeated and not playing in a bowl game. The BCS gave way to the College Football Playoff in 2014, which also has flaws, but is a continuation in the right direction.
What say you, BSD reader? Do you remember the 1994 season? Was your heart pulled from your chest during the Orange Bowl? Did you go to bed that night thinking that Penn State could still win its way into the top spot?