Okay, we are going to end our series of games that sparked/ruined a special football season on a high note by talking about the 1994 team. You all know about what a remarkable season ‘94 was and how much fun that high-octane offense was to watch, but can you off the top of your head, name the game that sparked such a special year?
Penn State brought a 5-0 record and No. 3 ranking heading into Ann Arbor, Michigan for the first time in school history. The team’s closest contest at that point had been a 24-point victory over USC, and they had scored over 50 points in three different games, even eclipsing 60 in a 61-21 beatdown of Iowa. Michigan however, ranked fifth themselves and led by star running back Tyrone Wheatley and wide receiver Amani Toomer, was looking to make a statement of their own. After all, it was Michigan that handed PSU its first loss as a Big Ten member the previous year, utilizing a goal line stand to leave Beaver Stadium with a 21-13 win. To them, this was a chance to truly put PSU in their place en route to winning the Big Ten.
For PSU, this game was a chance to exact some revenge from 1993 and to prove that their hot start was for real, rather than just as a result of beating up on a bunch of bad-to-mediocre teams in Minnesota, USC, Iowa, Rutgers, and Temple. In the first half at least, it seemed as PSU was indeed the real deal, jumping out to a 16-0 lead via a trio of Brett Conway field goals and a touchdown strike from Kerry Collins to tight end Keith Olsommer. Michigan tacked on a field goal before the half to make it 16-3 heading into the locker room.
The Wolverines struck back in the second half, with Wheatley breaking off a long 67-yard run to the end zone on the opening possession. Wheatley would score again on the following Michigan possession after being set up by a deep catch by Toomer, from the arm of quarterback Todd Collins (no relation to Kerry). Just like that, Michigan had their first lead of the afternoon at 17-16, and PSU found itself in a gut-check situation. And check their guts, they did, as the PSU offense responded with a 10-play, 86-yard TD drive that ended with Kerry Collins lobbing a TD in the red zone to his fullback Jon Witman. A successful two-point conversion made it 24-17 Lions.
Michigan would respond back with another TD drive set up by yet another Todd Collins-to-Toomer deep connection, tying the game at 24. With less than five minutes to play and starting near midfield, PSU would utilize a combination of Bobby Engram’s receiving and Ki-Jana Carter’s running to swiftly move down the field, with Kerry Collins ultimately connecting with Engram on a 15-yard slant pass into the end zone, putting PSU up 31-24 with only a couple of minutes remaining in the game.
Wheatley would rattle off another big run on Michigan’s final possession to get the Wolverines to midfield. However, PSU cornerback Brian Miller came up with a game-sealing interception on fourth down to secure the team’s biggest win of the season, proving that the team’s 5-0 start was not a fluke.
Coming out of Michigan’s big house victorious was a major confidence-booster, as PSU proved they belonged in the national title conversation, and rode that wave of momentum to a 63-14 drilling of Ohio State, the only other Big Ten team to hand them a loss in 1993. They would also rely on their same resilience from the Michigan game when falling into an early 21-0 hole at Illinois, ultimately putting together a game-winning 96-yard TD drive that is now simply known as “The Drive.”
The fact that PSU was screwed out of being rightfully awarded at least a share of the national title with Nebraska is something that will eat at me as long as I live. It does not make the accomplishments of that ‘94 team any less special however, and earning a tough road win in Ann Arbor was what helped light that spark.