The eighties marked the rise of the independents in college football. Penn State won two national titles. Miami’s dynasty began, and Bobby Bowden’s momentum was building in Tallahassee. Even Notre Dame was surging again under Lou Holtz. In ’88 and ’89, the top three teams in the country were independents. By the early nineties, the stability of conference affiliation lured in most of these programs
Penn State’s move to the Big Ten proved monstrously successful for both parties. Penn State moved from the Atlantic 10 to the Big Ten in all minor sports (improving those programs and becoming national champions in various endeavors), and the league got a football school on par with historic programs like Ohio State and Michigan.
Since OSU and UM already had their season-ending rivalry, the league hoped to create another between Michigan State and Penn State, two schools that were both founded in 1855 as Land Grant schools. The first pairing of these prospective rivals in 1993 seemed like the perfect way to start a meaningful series—a one-point game between two teams in the thick of things for the Big Ten title.
Before Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, the last school to gain admission was Michigan State in 1949. Once in, the Spartans made the league pay under “Biggie” Munn. Before beginning league play in 1953, the Spartans won shares of national titles in 1951 and 1952 and started a 28-game winning streak that extended through a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory in ’53. Munn moved to administration in 1954, and his protégé, Duffy Daugherty, took over. Daugherty is still the school’s longest tenured football coach (nineteen seasons total), and he led the Spartans to shared national titles in ’65 and ’66. Michigan State split the championship with Notre Dame in 1966 after the #1 and #2 teams tied 10-10 during the Spartan Stadium game (dubbed “The Game of the Century”).
Sparty’s success waned through most of the next two decades (never sniffing another national title) as they faded to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, but George Perles crafted a perennially competitive squad from 1982-1994. In 1987, Perles headed a team that won not just the Big Ten title outright but also the Rose Bowl over USC, providing MSU fans with their only top 10 finish in the decade.
In ’93, Michigan State, rebounding from a losing season in 1992, got off to a strong start, winning six and losing three tough road games. They hosted Penn State—in what would become a season-ending “rivalry game” for eighteen years—as the #25 team in the country.
After a rough end to 1992, the Lions started out on fire in 1993. Ascending all the way to #7 in the polls after a 70-7 road drubbing of Maryland, Penn State then ran into the gauntlet the Big Ten schedule-makers specifically crafted: a home game against Michigan and then a road game to Ohio Stadium. Both ended in losses. The team righted the ship at home against #19 Indiana the following week and reeled off another two victories before heading into their season finale on the road versus MSU ranked #14 in the country.
Michigan State ground crews worked all morning to get ice off the Spartan Stadium field, but the game started off with a predominance of slipping and sliding. Penn State moved the ball well early but fumbled twice, losing the second one in the MSU red zone. Penn State stalled again on the next drive, and Craig Fayak missed a 47-yard field goal short.
On MSU’s third drive of the game, Jim Miller found Mill “The Thrill” Coleman on a perfect 30-yard pass in the end zone (missed extra point). They fumbled away a promising opportunity on the following drive, but Spartan defender Matt Christensen tipped a Kerry Collins pass to himself for a turnover to set up a Miller-to-Coleman bomb and then RB Steve Holman 3-yard TD run. MSU had a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Penn State battled penalties on the next drive but erased the zero on the scoreboard when Mike Archie sprinted 24 yards through the middle of the Spartan defense. The Michigan State offense wasn’t fazed; they simply drove the length of the field and gave the ball to Holman again for a 6-yard score.
The 20-7 game became a 23-10 margin in MSU’s favor after the teams traded field goals, but PSU showed a glimpse of offensive firepower in the final :59 of the half. Starting at his own 35, Kerry Collins gunned his way down the field until he found Michigan-native Freddie Scott on a 16-yard bullet for 7. Considering the Spartan’s dominance early in the game, Penn State gladly headed into the locker room down just 23-17.
Penn State certainly missed Ki-Jana Carter in the first half. The #1 rush offense in the Big Ten only mustered 66 yards, and things didn’t start out much better in the second half. After failing on 4th and 5 in Spartan territory, PSU’s offense then watched Michigan State turn around and pound the ball down its defense’s throat. With the Spartan run game so brutally battering the PSU front 7, Jim Miller threw a play-action pass from the 2-yard line to tackle-eligible Bob Denton. MSU 37-PSU 17. Things looked dire for the Lions.
Collins started the second half 2 for 11 (with one reception being a batted ball that he himself caught) but with 1:09 in the 3rd, he hit Freddie Scott on an 18-yard strike and then a 40-yard bomb to Bobby Engram on back-to-back passes. Penn State had a pulse.
Two plays later, PSU recovered a Duane Goulbourne fumble on the Spartan 38. Collins hit mammoth TE Kyle Brady on two straight passes to get to the 3, and then FB Brian O’Neal followed his blockers in for the score. The game that seemed out of reach was now just 37-31 Spartans.
While the offense might have provided the fireworks for the comeback, the defense provided the fuel. Forcing fumbles, harassing the quarterback, and sticking tackles—all ways that the defense put the brakes on MSU’s runaway ground game. After forcing a three and out, Penn State started their next drive on their 48. Offensive coordinator Fran Ganter decided to erase the remaining deficit on the very next drive. Collins faked the handoff, dropped back, and rained a perfect bomb to Bobby Engram. The fifty-two yard touchdown catch meant three trips to the end zone in less than four minutes and a 38-37 Penn State lead. The defense made amends for their porous effort in the first three quarters by shutting out the Spartans in the final ten minutes to preserve the razor-thin lead.
The Rest of the Story
Penn State finished third in the Big Ten in their first year but earned a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl. Their Citrus Bowl foe—the Tennessee Volunteers—hoped to get revenge for the 1992 Fiesta Bowl drubbing but met a similar fate. Penn State thwarted Heisman runner-up Heath Shuler 31-13 in Orlando to finish 10-2 and ranked eighth in the nation.
A few days after their loss to Penn State, Michigan State traveled to Japan in a rare Big Ten clash with Wisconsin. But the Spartans should have committed harikari before their trip; they lost soundly to the Badgers and then again in their bowl game against Louisville. To make matters worse, they wouldn’t reach .500 in 1994 and lost Coach Perles amidst a scandal.
Penalized by NCAA sanctions and having failed to achieve a winning season in four years, Michigan State reached for Toledo head coach Nick Saban to stop the freefall. Saban steadied things for four seasons before catapulting the Spartans to a 9-2 record in 1999. His sudden success caught LSU’s eye, and they snatched him up before Michigan State’s bowl game (a Citrus Bowl win over Florida). Michigan State struggled through the 2000s until they hired Cincinnati’s Mark Dantonio in 2007. Dantonio won the Land Grant Trophy twice (2007 and 2010) before the season-ending game was discontinued with the addition of Nebraska in 2011.
Few fans bemoaned the change. A potent rivalry never really materialized, partially because both teams were so impotent. Michigan State had a subpar record during the Lions’ first years in the league (1993-2010), and Penn State suffered its worst stretch in program history as well (2000-2004). Penn State won the first game and then 12 of the next 17 in the battle for the Land Grant Trophy.
On future schedules, the cross-division rivals will reappear, but both Lion and Spartan fans hope that their teams can face off in a Big Ten championship game. That would be a Land Grant Trophy worth something great.
The 22-part “Games of Our Lives” series debuts every Monday on the Nittany Lions Den. The stories are excerpted from Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Livesby Ryan J. Murphy (release date summer 2012 by Father’s Press).