“The Granddaddy of Them All.” The Tournament of Roses Parade. The quintessential New Year’s Day college bowl game.
The Rose Bowl Game, college football’s oldest bowl game, began in 1902, but as of 1994, Penn State had never appeared in the game. Before the 1960s, the Rose Bowl frequently pitted an undefeated West Coast team against a stellar eastern opponent, but by the time Joe Paterno unleashed the PSU steamroller in 1966, the Big Ten and Pac-10 began their agreement to send conference champions to the Rose Bowl each year.
It didn’t take Penn State long to earn a trip to Pasadena though. In their second season in the Big Ten, Penn State went undefeated, challenged only on road trips to top-10 Michigan and defensive-stalwart Illinois. While its first Rose Bowl game should have been an all-time highlight for the Nittany Lions program, the conclusion of the historic season was anticlimactic.
Nothing could be done about the match-ups. Penn State couldn’t control voter opinion. All they could do was beat Oregon and cap an historic undefeated season, Paterno’s fourth straight decade with such a season.
The national perception of Oregon football is that it’s a new-fangled, anti-traditionalist kind of program. And while the school has been playing football since 1894, its history pales in comparison to most major football teams of today. They won a Rose Bowl in 1917 over University of Pennsylvania (not Penn State) but lost their other four appearances in history. The Ducks had their most illustrious stretch of the 20th century under Len Casanova. Over a 16-year tenure, Casanova sustained a winning percentage, which wasn’t common for Oregon as they boasted of just four bowl trips between 1920 and 1988. A few NFL stars emerged from the Oregon program, but none claimed the notoriety of superstar San Diego Charger quarterback Dan Fouts.
Rich Brooks, coach of the Nittany Lions’ opponent in 1994, turned around Oregon’s fortunes, leading the team to four bowls in just six years. His ’94 squad stumbled its way to 4-3 start before hosting rival Washington. No. 9 Washington sat at 5-1 and had owned the Ducks for many years. Holding just a 24-20 lead, Oregon fans feared another impending heartbreak as the Huskies drove down the field to the Duck 9-yard line. Instead, the Duck faithful witnessed a watershed play in the school’s history. Freshman Kenny Wheaton stepped in front of the goal-line pass and returned it for a pick-6, sealing the victory 31-20. The Ducks won their next four to cap off a Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl berth.
But in the same way that Oregon had few NFL stars in its past, there was little NFL talent on the 1994 roster as well. CB Alex Molden—an eleventh overall pick by the New Orleans Saints in 1996—had a decent NFL career but was literally the only serviceable NFL player on the team. More good things would follow for the Oregon program following their remarkable ’94 season, but they’d have to serve time on the Pasadena soil with an overpowering Penn State team first.
Oregon started the game with a plodding, 4-minute drive that concluded in a punt. Penn State’s offense didn’t like staying on the field so long. From the PSU 16, Ki-Jana Carter broke a few tackles close to the line of scrimmage and then outran the Oregon secondary. The first running play of Penn State’s twelfth game of the year was their longest of the season. One play, 84 yards, 7 points.
If Penn State had an Achilles’ Heel in 1994, it was the defense. Ranked 70th in total defense, the injury-ridden D wasn’t aided by the fast-moving offense. After just a few minutes on the sideline, the Lion defense returned to the field to yield an 80-yard, 4-pass play drive that lasted less than a minute. Oregon played with twice the emotion and urgency as their more talented counterpart.
You don’t get too many chances to take the lead on an elite team though. Penn State made Oregon regret their missed early opportunities on the next drive. Relying mostly on the passing game, the Lions drove into Oregon territory when Collins hit redshirt freshman Joe Jurevicius on a 45-yard bomb. Brian Milne finished off the drive with a 1-yard plunge with 1:26 remaining.
Oregon used the little time remaining to sprint down the field to the 9-yard line, the Penn State defense showing yet again that it couldn’t slow a high-powered passing attack. Luckily, an Oregon receiver stayed inbounds after a completion and time ran out. Penn State was fortunate to head into the locker room 14-7 after a lackluster first half.
The second half started with traded punts between the two contestants before PSU moved the ball enough for Conway to get a field goal opportunity. Conway missed by inches.
Collins—the top-rated passer in Division 1A—led another solid drive on PSU’s next possession but after crossing mid-field, Collins through a misguided pass to Reggie Jordan who returned it 39 yards to the Penn State 17. Oregon gunslinger Danny O’Neil would kick off a fantastic second half with a lob TD pass to Cristin McLemore. The underducks weren’t going away quietly.
One minute and one second later, ignited by a 62-yard kickoff return by Ambrose Fletcher, Penn State rallied back to a 21-14 lead with an 18-yard touchdown stroll by Ki-Jana Carter. O’Neil’s aerial attack gashed the PSU defense again on the next drive until Chuck Penzenik, a back-up safety starting for the first time that season, pulled in his second interception. Just 1:16 later, Carter found the Oregon-yellow carpet again to put the Lions ahead 28-14. The Duck’s comeback seemed stuck.
After the teams traded punts twice, PSU began to wear down the Oregon defense with an uncharacteristically long drive, which culminated in a Brett Conway 43-yard field goal. The three-score lead (31-14) meant that Oregon had to go for it on 4th down deep in their own territory. Phil Yeboah-Kodie squashed any morsel of hope with a blindside sack of O’Neil. After starting in the red zone, the offense’s Jon Witman lumbered into the end zone with a 9–yard score to put the Lions up 38-14.
Danny O’Neil’s arm powered most of Oregon’s final drive of the game, as he set thirteen Rose Bowl records on the patchwork Penn State defense (including most completions , attempts , and passing yards ). After O’Neil slowly moved the Ducks down the field, Ricky Whittle finished off the drive with a 3-yard trot. Brooks went for two, hoping for two touchdowns and two more onside kicks to tie the game at 38, apparently. He failed.
Penn State ran out the clock on their final drive sealing a 38-20 win. In earning Penn State’s first Rose Bowl win, the Lions also made their coach the only coach to win the Fiesta, Cotton, Sugar, Orange, and Rose Bowls.
The Rest of the Story
Following the Rose Bowl, Rich Brooks stepped down and handed the reins to his offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti. Bellotti continued to build on the success of Brooks, going to twelve bowls in the next fourteen years (more bowls than they’d been to in the previous 80+ years). His 2001 team—led by Heisman finalist and future NFL QB Joey Harrington—was robbed of a title game shot by the BCS computer polls, but thumped Big 12 champ Colorado 38-16 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Bellotti, the winningest coach in Oregon history, moved to administration in 2009 and dubbed his offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly, the new front man. Kelly’s teams have had their share of controversy off the field, but he made them a perennial top-10 team and led them to a championship game appearance in 2010.
Penn State’s second-half stomping of the Ducks didn’t change the minds of any voters, and Nebraska did indeed hold onto the top position of the AP and Coaches Polls. The New York Times named Penn State the national champion as did the National Championship Foundation, but to the nation, those titles don’t mean a thing.
Penn State’s prospects for 1995 looked solid, if only the Lions could replace their mega-stars: Carter, Collins, and Brady. The Rose Bowl MVP, Ki-Jana Carter went No. 1 overall in the 1995 draft to the Cincinnati Bengals, becoming the first PSU player to achieve that distinction (Courtney Brown also went first in 2000). Before Carter, Blair Thomas was the highest pick (No. 2 in 1990). However, the Heisman runner-up in 1994’s career was ill-fated. On just his third carry of his first preseason game, he tore his ACL and never recovered. Ki-Jana worked his way back but played only sparingly over the next ten years.
Kyle Brady had better pro success. The All-American and No. 9 pick by New York Jets thrived for 13 seasons in NFL. He missed only 9 games in that span, a remarkable feat for a pro football player. The last game of Brady’s career was a Super Bowl loss of his undefeated New England Patriots to the underdog New York Giants in 2008.
Kerry Collins though will be the most remembered of the all-star trio of 1994. After placing 4th in Heisman voting and winning the Davey O’Brien, Sammy Baugh, and Maxwell Awards in ‘94, he became the No. 5 selection by Carolina Panthers. Collins made Pro Bowls in ’96 and ’08 and led the New York Giants to an eventual Super Bowl loss in 2000, the highlights of an impressive 17-year career NFL.
Remarkably, most of the starters from the Rose Bowl team returned in 1995, and even without Carter, the backfield was still loaded. The outstanding receiving corps also returned intact in 1995 (their biographies will be mentioned in the next chapter) but what’s a great receiver without a great quarterback? Inexperience at quarterback would be a key factor in Penn State’s efforts to repeat at Big Ten champions the next year.
No other Nittany Lion team would eclipse Paterno’s first championship squad in the new league. The 1994 team, even without national recognition as the best college football team, was considered by Paterno, the Nittany Nation, and the ’94 squad itself as the clear-cut No. 1. They were Rose Bowl champions and so much more.
“The Games of Our Lives” series by Ryan J. Murphy is excerpted from the book Ring The Bell: The Twenty-Two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives (due for release by Father’s Press, summer 2012).
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