The Games of Our Lives: 1994 Illinois vs. Penn State

To choose one game from the 1994 regular season above the others is to choose among a wealth of possibilities. The annihilation of No. 13 USC 38-14 is a strong candidate. The comeback win on the road against No. 5 Michigan was certainly impressive. The team ferociously dismantled No. 14 Ohio State in Happy Valley 63-14. Other Big Ten foes met similarly fates—61-21 over Iowa, 59-31 over Michigan State, and 45-17 over the Northwestern team that would win the Big Ten in 1995. Explosive was an understatement.

Probably the greatest game from the undefeated ’94 season was the one that tested their resiliency. By the time they traveled to Champaign to face Illinois on November 12, the Lions had a fearsome reputation and a Rose Bowl bid nearly in tow with two weeks still remaining. Much more was on the line for them though; an undefeated season and a potential national title were the goals. With home games against Northwestern and Michigan State to follow, the road test versus the Fighting Illini’s Big Ten-best defense was the final hurdle to clear.

Early miscues in the windy and cold late afternoon contest put the Nittany Lions in a 21-0 hole early. Both the beleaguered defense and the hailed offense needed to fight with every ounce of grit to save PSU’s lofty goals and create a legacy for themselves.

The Opponent

University of Illinois football is closely tied with the sport’s very history. The Fighting Illini’s nearness to Chicago both helped the school’s team takeoff and fed the midwestern metropolis’s love of the new game. Bob Zuppke’s squads claimed four national titles in the WWI and post-WWI era (Zuppke was head coach from 1913-1941), while football icons George Halas (legendary early coach of the Chicago Bears) and Red Grange (one of the first professional football superstars at halfback, primarily with the Chicago Bears) both cut their teeth on the Champaign gridiron.

But modern-day football has been less kind to Illinois. Since the Ray Eliot days (’42-’59), Illinois has won an underwhelming four Big Ten titles and hasn’t sniffed a national title since their last in 1951. The Fighting Illini’s most legendary figures stood at middle linebacker. Dick Butkus, a three-time All-American and eight-time NFL Pro Bowler with the Chicago Bears, had his No. 50 retired from the school, and Ray Nitschke, the hard-hitting backbone of the first NFL championship teams from Green Bay and an eventual NFL Hall-of-Famer. Butkus is the namesake of the award for the outstanding collegiate linebacker (won by Penn Staters LaVar Arrington in 1999 and Paul Posluszny in 2005).

The linebacker position was showcased on the stingy 1994 Illinois team as well. In Illinois’s three losses in 1994, defense was never to blame. Two linebackers on the team won the Butkus Award—Dana Howard in 1994 and Kevin Hardy in 1995.  Howard, a two-time All-American, had a brief pro career, but Hardy went 3rd in the 1996 NFL draft, played nine seasons in the NFL, and made a Pro Bowl. Simeon Rice also was twice an All-American at defensive end and went one spot ahead of Hardy in the 1996 draft. In his 12-year career—mostly at linebacker—he won a Super Bowl ring and went to three Pro Bowls. Although the defense carried the Fighiting Illini, one offensive player went on to professional glory. TE Ken Dilger, a 2nd round draft pick, won a Super Bowl ring, and a Pro Bowl berth in his ten NFL seasons.

The Game

The morning before the Illinois game, Penn State woke up in the dark in their hotel. Their pre-game routines were severely altered from the odd (some say plotted) power outage, and the offense seemed to be still stumbling about when the 3:30 game kicked off. Ki-Jana Carter fumbled on the Illinois 25 and allowed Illinois to score first with a 1-yard TD run by Ty Douthard. Giving up the first 1st quarter touchdown of the season just 3:29 into the game portended a difficult afternoon for Penn State.

Penn State’s other Heisman hopeful, Kerry Collins, took his turn helping Illinois two drives later. Collins overthrew his receiver and the pick was returned inside the Illinois 25. QB Johnny Johnson rolled out on 1st and goal and hit a wide-open Ken Dilger. Shortly after that score, Johnson hit Shane Fisher with a touchdown pass. When the first quarter horn sounded, Penn State trailed 21-0.

It wasn’t until their seventh possession that Penn State’s offense got a first down, a remarkable fact considering their offensive exploits. Once again deep in their own territory, Penn State’s big guns came to life. Ki-Jana Carter ripped off a 14-yarder and Collins hit Kyle Brady for a 38-yard reception. The Lions finally got on the board when Brian Milne dove in from the 1.

Following a wobbly 11-yard punt by Illinois, on Penn State’s first play from the Illinois 38, Collins hit Freddie Scott for a touchdown strike.

Lions fans hoped momentum had shifted, and PSU would steamroll their way to the victories they’d grown familiar with this season. The home team wasn’t about to roll over though. An 80-yard drive featured four passes to Ken Dilger and culminated in a 5-yard Douthard rushing score. Illinois had to feel good heading into the half.

Penn State would need every minute of the second half to stage a comeback, and they wasted no time. On their first drive, Ki-Jana Carter took a sweep 21 yards on a crucial 3rd and 1 play. Then he finished off the drive as he scampered untouched into the end zone on a 5-yard jaunt. Just four minutes into the second half, Penn State had already trimmed the lead to one score—28-21—and it again seemed like PSU stole some momentum.

Again, the Illinois offense had other ideas. Moving into a stiff wind, Johnson and Douthard ate 6:46 off the clock on their way to a 27-yard field goal. Tepper now had more than his 28 needed points, and the Lion defense couldn’t find a way to slow the bleeding.

As the game progressed through the third quarter, Illinois chewed up some clock with their next two drives, but the score held. With the wind precluding any thought of a field goal attempt, Paterno went for it on 4th and 2 from the Illinois 33. Collins waited and waited until he finally found Bobby Engram across the middle for a clutch 17-yard gain. Three plays later, Brian Milne rammed the ball through the middle on a 5-yard touchdown. The scoreboard read 31-28 for the home team, but Lions fans prayed that 7:59 would be enough time for the visitors.

The defense finally got an important 3-and-out, but Archie underestimated the wind-aided punt. The ball sailed over his head, rolling all the way to the Penn State 4. Staring into the wind with 6:07 left, Kerry Collins faced the length of a hostile field to salvage the Lions’ perfect season. The nation’s best offense against one of the nation’s best defenses. Destiny hung in the balance.

All Kerry Collins did in the face of adversity was go 6-6 in the passing game for 58 yards, converting two 3rd and shorts along the way. Carter went down injured on one of those, leaving everything on the field to pick up the 1st down by inches. When Brian Milne followed All-American Jeff Hartings into the end zone with :57 left, Penn State had journeyed 96 breath-taking yards and chomped 5:10 off the clock. And most importantly, the Nittany Lions gained their first lead of the day, 35-31.

Illinois QB Johnson’s final heave into the end zone as time expired held Penn State’s hopes and dreams in its arc. But Kim Herring came down with the ball. Fittingly for this epic game—played so well by both sides—the game’s only turnover was on the final play.

The Rest of the Story

Penn State cruised to Beaver Stadium wins in the last two weeks of the season and prayed for a Nebraska stumble. They didn’t get it. Nebraska held on with strong but not overwhelming victories to finish out the regular season No. 1.

Nebraska rose to No. 1 after beating then-No. 2 Colorado at home on October 29th, the same day that top-ranked Penn State demoralized a top-25 Buckeye team 63-14. The Colorado victory held special influence in Nebraska’s favor because of Colorado’s dramatic “Miracle at Michigan,” a 64-yard Hail Mary pass to defeat the No. 4 Wolverines as time expired, earlier in the season. Additionally, Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne found a soft spot in the hearts of voters, as he had never won a national championship despite two decades of dominance in Lincoln. The previous year’s disappointment—a controversial championship game loss to Florida State 18-16—was especially fresh in the nation’s conscience.

Penn State lost more points from voters the week after Ohio State when a Hoosier Hail Mary and two-point conversion closed the margin of victory over Indiana to just 35-29. Another factor going against Penn State was the mediocrity in the Pac-10. Although Oregon, USC, Washington State, and Arizona were all top 25 programs, none were in the top 10. The one to emerge as Pac-10 champion—the Oregon Ducks—went 7-1 in league but lost two ugly early-season games (Hawaii and Utah) and wasn’t highly respected (ranked just #12 entering the Rose Bowl).

Meanwhile, Nebraska found themselves pitted against No. 3 Miami in the Orange Bowl, in what was considered the Bowl Coalition national championship game. The deck was stacked in Nebraska’s favor, and they capitalized.

The 1994 offense stands unquestionably as one of the tops in college football history. The accolades of the offensive unit is detailed in the Rose Bowl story, but a short moment will be taken here to discuss the defensive stars of the 1994 team. Brief because, to put it bluntly, there weren’t many. The undefeated ’94 squad is an anomaly in Penn State history simply from its lack of defensive pillars. The accomplishments of that team (and to a lesser extent the 1995 team) are all the more inspiring when you consider the mediocrity of its defense. Linebacker Terry Killens played seven years in the pros. Kim Herring, just a sophomore on the vaunted ’94 team, won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens and played nine years total in the NFL. And that’s it—a remarkable dearth of superstar defensive depth for a Penn State squad.

But on that fated day in Champaign in early November, the defense played a crucial role in the victory, even if Collins’ 96-yard drive earned a place in all-time Penn State greatness.

The 22-part “The Games of Our Lives” series is excerpted from Ryan J. Murphy’s forthcoming book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives (release date summer 2012 by Father’s Press).