The 1997 match-up between undefeated Penn State and Michigan proved to be an early lesson in perception vs. reality for me.
Expectations were sky high for the Nittany Lions entering the season. Penn State found itself atop the AP Poll heading into the season, with nearly twice as many #1 votes as #2 Florida. Michigan came in at #14, with the thought they were in store for a satisfying season but with little reason to believe they might be hoisting the national championship trophy in January. They certainly weren’t capable of getting in the way of this highly-regarded Nittany Lions squad, right?
Penn State had the nation’s best backfield duo with Heisman candidate Curtis Enis and Aaron Harris. They returned a nasty and talented offensive line, and several playmakers at receiver. The defense featured yet another fantastic linebacker unit, led by All-American candidates Brandon Short and Aaron Collins, one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backs in David Macklin, and a rising star in Courtney Brown who was set to terrorize quarterbacks throughout the fall. They were poised for a special year, and it seemed as though there was nothing stopping them from reaching the loftiest of expectations.
The season started as planned as the Nittany Lions blew past Pitt, Temple, Louisville and Illinois to reach 4-0. Then they took down #7 Ohio State in a thriller, making it clear they were the team to beat in the Big Ten. However, the cracks in the foundation would soon become apparent.
After an emotional win against the Buckeyes, Penn State was listless as it nearly suffered a massive upset against 2-4 Minnesota. If not for a lucky bounce with a late fumble recovery, Penn State would have suffered its first lost and almost certainly been discarded from the national championship race. While the baffling result could be brushed off as a hangover from a massive game the week before, the next week would raise more eyebrows as Penn State again struggled against a poor team, this time squeaking past Northwestern by a field goal.
Regardless, Penn State had survived and stood at 7-0. However, so did Michigan, which had risen to #4 in the polls. The Wolverines weren’t just the result of an easy early schedule - they had beaten Notre Dame, as well as #8 Colorado, #15 Iowa and #15 Michigan State. They also blew past the same Minnesota and Northwestern squads that had given the Nittany Lions fits.
This set up “Judgement Day” — a week 12 clash between undefeated Penn State and Michigan, but also Florida State and North Carolina, who also faced off in a huge late-season match-up of unbeatens.
Unfortunately, Judgement Day turned out to be a lot of empty hype. The Seminoles raced past UNC 20-3, with the Penn State-Michigan game turning out even more lopsided, ending just as soon as it started.
For me, the week leading up to the game included plenty of friendly, and not-so-friendly, debate with my friend who is a diehard Michigan fan. As we walked into gym class on day, I diagrammed the first play that Penn State would run - a fake handoff down between the tackles, followed by another fake handoff on an end-around, and then Mike McQuery connecting with Joe Jurevicious on a deep ball over the top of the Wolverines defense. Unfortunately, if a ninth-grader is able to predict the offense so easily, so too can opposing Big Ten defensive coordinators. Penn State would run the aforementioned play on its first snap, and instead of Jurevicious racing into the end zone for an early lead, McQuery quickly found himself on his back staring at the overcast Happy Valley sky.
That play basically summed up the afternoon for the Nittany Lions. The recap is simple - Michigan kicked Penn State’s butts up and down the field all afternoon, as fans watched the hope for a national championship quickly dissipate in shocking fashion. The Nittany Lions had no answer to move the ball against an incredibly physical and disciplined defense. If not for Curtis Enis playing with every ounce of effort long after the outcome was determined, Penn State would have been completely shut out. Penn State could only muster 169 yards on offense on the day, with nearly half of those coming on the garbage time touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
Michigan would go on to win its remaining games, and a victory against Washington State earned them a share of the national championship. Penn State was able to briefly bounce back, with commanding wins against #19 Purdue and #24 Wisconsin the following weeks. However, the regular season would end in disaster as the Nittany Lions were crushed by Michigan State, 49-14.
Penn State fell to #11, and was invited to the Citrus Bowl to try to salvage the season against #6 Florida. However, the Nittany Lions offense could not get moving without the help of Enis and Jurevicious, neither of whom made the trip while serving suspensions. The Nittany Lions would finish at 9-3 for the ‘97 season — which would have been fin had they started the season ranked #14 like their Big Ten foe. However, it ultimately proved to be a disappointing season in a year that began with legit national championship aspirations.