The great personal joy of this series is going back and revisiting Penn State games that I’ve forgotten about to some extent or needed some context.
This one doesn’t fit that narrative.
I wrote this years ago on this site (back when I was spending my hard earned BSD bucks rather than taking them from you) that the 1994 Penn State/Michigan game is the quintessential college football contest. Even more simply, it’s my favorite Penn State game ever.
Watch the broadcast highlights below. Keith Jackson. ABC. A 3:30 p.m. kickoff. Sunshine on a perfect fall day. Two top five teams wearing distinctive uniforms and finishing a thrilling contest on natural grass under the portable lights.
There have been greater Penn State wins, games that decided national titles or conference championships. But I’ll maintain that the most perfect Nittany Lion win ever came on October 15, 1994.
Go back to 1994 for a moment and realize that this was only the second meeting ever between Michigan and Penn State. The Wolverines, behind a goal line stand, had shaken off a slow start in 1993 to sneak out of Beaver Stadium with a 21-13 win.
Entering 1994, both teams were viewed as legitimate conference - and national title - contenders. The Nittany Lions opened the year No. 9 and had risen to No. 3 in the rankings heading into Ann Arbor thanks in large part to a series of dominating wins. Some pundits weren’t impressed, noting that Penn State hadn’t beaten anyone of substance - somehow ignoring the 38-14 pasting of No. 14 USC.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines came into the matchup at 4-1 and ranked No. 5, having already been heavily tested with September games against Notre Dame and Colorado. Speaking of the game against the Buffs, the famed Stewart to Westbrook Hail Mary would figure prominently into the narrative of best wins as the ‘94 national title chase played out between Nebraska and Penn State.
But that stuff came later, let’s focus on Penn State’s first ever trip to Michigan Stadium where they played in front of the third-largest crowd in stadium history. Penn State also controlled much of the first half, scoring on its first four possessions and building a 16-0 lead.
However, Michigan put together a last-ditch just-before-the-half drive that was aided by a Penn State personal foul and capped by a Remy Hamilton field goal to make the score 16-3.
Then, in the second half, the Wolverines really came to life. Tyrone Wheatley, who had been limited to 11 yards in the first half, scored on each of Michigan’s first two possessions of the third quarter and the Lions were suddenly facing a 17-16 deficit - one of only two games on the season where they trailed in the second half.
What followed was a beautiful back and forth between two Big Ten heavyweights. Penn State regained the lead at 24-17 only to see Michigan tie the game once again.
Then, in the fourth quarter, beneath those lights and with a special season hanging in the balance, Penn State’s offense proved its mettle.
Bobby Engram made a clutch sideline catch. Ki-Jana Carter, who was battling a thumb injury, broke a nifty run. Then, facing a third down, but in field goal range, Collins found Engram slanting into the end zone to give Penn State the winning score.
Michigan had a desperation drive reach midfield, but Todd Collins was picked off on a fourth-down play and Penn State had justified the preseason hype with a 31-24 win in a big-game environment.
“We knew we had the talent,” Penn State tight end Kyle Brady told the Baltimore Sun. “What we needed to see was if we had the mental toughness to win in the fourth quarter.”
It was the first time Penn State had reached 6-0 since the 1986 national championship season and the Lions overtook No. 1 Florida (who lost to Auburn) and No. 2 Nebraska to be ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time since that ‘86 season.