Penn State travels to Evanston on Saturday with a team coming off a trip to the Rose Bowl and with plenty of names that are familiar in the college football world.
It’s hard to believe there was once a time when Northwestern was in much the same position.
Since joining the Big Ten in 1993, Penn State’s all-time longest win streak in conference games is the 12 straight it won from the end of the ‘93 season to the unbeaten 1994 year.
Two years after losing to Penn State’s famed offense, former college football laughing stock Northwestern entered Beaver Stadium riding a 13-game conference winning streak with its focus on a second-straight Big Ten title and trip to Pasadena.
On a blustery late afternoon day, Penn State awoke from a midseason slumber with a win that we’ll remember in today’s Lion Tales.
Northwestern’s 1995 season was that of a fairy tale. The Purple went to Pasadena after a 10-1 regular season that included a non-conference win at Notre Dame and an unblemished conference season highlighted by wins against Michigan and Penn State.
The No. 3 Wildcats lost in the Rose Bowl to USC, but returned much of its lineup a year later in search of continued success under Gary Barnett.
Much like 1994, Northwestern lost a heartbreaker in September, falling 28-27 on the road at Wake Forest. The Wildcats then rattled off seven straight wins, including a one-point home win over No. 6 Michigan. Northwestern was ranked No. 11 and seemed poised to reach the Rose Bowl again as they headed to Happy Valley for an early November battle against No. 18 Penn State.
What they found, however, was a talented Penn State team that was ready to shake off some midseason struggles. The Nittany Lions had climbed as high as No. 3 in the national polls thanks in large part to a dominating win against USC in the Meadowlands to open the season. But Penn State was throttled at Ohio State and a couple weeks later looked listless in an upset loss at home to Iowa.
A week ahead of the Northwestern game, starting quarterback Wally Richardson was benched at halftime in Bloomington. Penn State came back to win the game easily and came home to play its best four quarters of the season.
Again, it might be hard to imagine, but Northwestern was unbeaten in conference play with guys like running back Darnell Autry, quarterback Steve Schnur, and linebacker Pat Fitzgerald had become national stars.
But a huge crowd roared its approval throughout the late afternoon as Penn State rolled to an early lead.
Safety Kim Herring had two interceptions in the game and also forced a fumble. It helped the Lions get ahead 27-3 at the half.
“They went to the Rose Bowl because of us,” Herring said of his team’s revenge looking back at 1995.
Curtis Enis ran for 167 yards and a touchdown and in the end, it was a 34-9 win for Penn State, who improved to 8-2. Richardson shook off his previous week’s benching to throw two touchdown passes.
Meanwhile the Nittany Lion defense feasted on the Wildcats, forcing five turnovers and sacking Schnur seven times - three of those by defensive tackle Brandon Noble.
“We didn’t come into the game with the right attitude,” Schnur said after the game. “Defensively, they had us figured out pretty well.”
Northwestern still wound up earning a share of the Big Ten as they bounced back for a dominant win at Iowa and then held on to beat Purdue in the season finale. They missed out on the trip to the Rose Bowl, however. Ohio State, who Northwestern did not play, ironically earned that berth because it had been longer since they had traveled to Pasadena.
The Wildcats settled for a trip to the Citrus Bowl where they lost to Tennessee and wound up ranked No. 15 in the final AP poll. They suffered three straight losing seasons and never reached as high a ranking as they entered Happy Valley with until the 2020 Covid-shortened season.
Penn State, on the other hand, used the win over the higher-ranked ‘Cats as a springboard to a fantastic finish to the 1996 season and a preseason No. 1 ranking for 1997.
They closed the regular season with wins against Michigan and Michigan State. The Nittany Lions earned a trip to Tempe where they routed Big XII champion Texas 38-15 to finish No. 7 in the final polls.