The wheel of fortune that was pre-playoff NCAA football stopped spinning for Penn State just as the sun dipped behind Pasadena’s Santa Monica Mountains on New Year’s Day 1995.
There would be no jackpot for the Nittany Lions. Despite that afternoon’s Rose Bowl victory over Oregon and an unbeaten season, a team many still believe was the program’s best ever was headed for the history books with a No. 2 ranking and an armful of consolation prizes.
They got hats and shirts from Nike founder Phil Knight, an Oregon alumnus but also a close friend of their coach, Joe Paterno. Though the merchandise boldly proclaimed them “94 National Champions,” the players like everyone else knew that title belonged to Nebraska. Some donned the clothing. Others discarded it. By night’s end, a limo driver outside Penn State’s hotel had accumulated a sizable
collection of hats.
A few weeks later, the Nittany Lions, who finished behind Nebraska in the final coaches and writers polls, found diamond-studded rings in their lockers. They were engraved with their 12-0 record, and their status as Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions. But the NCAA wouldn’t allow the words they wanted most — “National Champions” — or even words they would have settled for — “co-National Champions.”
Perhaps from pity, State College, which had honored Paterno’s 1981 and 1986 national champs with parades, planned one for them on Feb. 4. But it snowed and the postponed event was never rescheduled.
“The night before the Rose Bowl, Joe got us all together in an L.A. hotel and we watched the Orange Bowl,” said Keith Conlin, an offensive tackle. “Nebraska wins the game and Bob Costas goes, 'Congratulations to Tom Osborne on his first national title.’ We were like, 'Wait, we didn’t get a shot at this yet. We didn’t play yet. What if we go out and win, 100-0?’ But we knew we were screwed. It infuriated us.”
The 1994 Lions were one of five unbeaten Paterno teams that didn’t win a national title. But their explosiveness, particularly on offense, set them above the others, above perhaps even the coach’s two national champions. When, earlier this year, ESPN ranked the 150 greatest college teams ever, the 1994 Lions were No. 16, higher than any other Penn State squad (The 1994 Nebraska team was ranked No. 15).
Ironically, Penn State might have won that title had the historic independent school not begun play in the Big Ten a season earlier. But in that final year of the failed Bowl Coalition, which proposed matching up the top two ranked teams in a major bowl, the Big Ten champ was locked into a Rose Bowl matchup with the Pac-12 winner.
So No. 1 Nebraska got No. 3 Miami instead in the Orange Bowl, while No. 2 Penn State was left to face No. 12 Oregon.
Had there been a playoff then, it’s hard to envision how even the Cornhuskers’ stingy defense could have slowed a Lions offense that Paterno, normally a master of understatement, called “one of the greatest in college football history.”
While Penn State employed the same I-formation, two-back, two-wideout attack Paterno favored for most of his long tenure, the 1994 team’s remarkably deep talent lifted it to another level.
“We had a big-time guy at all the most important positions,” recalled then-offensive coordinator Fran Ganter in 2014, “and at most of those positions we had two.”
Their average touchdown drive took under 2 minutes, a dizzying pace that accounted for an unusually yielding Penn State defense. They scored 47 points a game — 63 on Ohio State, 61 on Iowa, 59 on Michigan State. They ran for 251 yards a game, passed for 269.
Tailback Ki-Jana Carter led the nation with 7.8 yards per carry, quarterback Kerry Collins with an average of 10.1 yards per pass attempt. Wideout Bobby Engram caught 52 balls for 1,029 yards (19.8 a catch) and seven touchdowns.
Five offensive players were first-team all-Americans — Carter, Collins, Engram, tight end Kyle Brady, and guard Jeff Hartings. Three — Carter, Collins, and Brady — were among the first nine players selected in the 1995 NFL draft. Nine others were picked in ’96 — Hartings and tackle Andre Johnson in the first round, Engram in the second, fullback Brian Milne in the third.
Collins was sacked just five times, only three times when the starting offensive line of Conlin, Johnson, Hartings, Marco Rivera — all of whom would be drafted — and center Bucky Greeley were playing.
“You look at the numbers we put up, it’s ridiculous,” said Greeley. “There was no spread. There was no five-receiver sets, no rush the pace. It was a traditional offense … and we still put up those kinds of numbers.”
Ultimately, however, it was numbers — poll numbers — that, along with sentiment for Osborne, the Nebraska coach who in his 22nd season had yet to win a national title, doomed Penn State.
The peculiarities of polling — a process by which writers and coaches, many of whom hadn’t seen Penn State play, determined its fate — might never have been more evident than on Oct. 29, 1994.
That Saturday, No. 3 Nebraska downed No. 2 Colorado, 24-7. Meanwhile, No. 1 Penn State appeared to more-than-validate its top ranking, drubbing No. 21 Ohio State, 63-14.
And yet in the ensuing polls, Penn State dropped to No. 2. It would not pass Nebraska again.
“Three years later in 1997, the exact same scenario happened,” said Conlin. “Nebraska and Michigan both finished unbeaten and were declared co-national champions. Why was that OK to do in ’97, but not in ’94? Looking back, it was total BS.”
Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1992 but didn’t start conference play until the next year. From the start, Conlin said, the Lions were seen as unwelcome intruders.
“They didn’t like us being in their league,” said Conlin, who played at La Salle High. “They sure as hell didn’t like us winning their title in our second year.”
Penn State lost to both Michigan and Ohio State in its debut season. At the latter, opposing players mocked them as “soft.” And when the 1994 season began Sept. 3 at Minnesota, the derision continued. During warm-ups, Golden Gophers fans called them “D-3” and predicted they’d never survive in the black-and-blue Big Ten.
“We heard it all,” said Carter. “And I remember thinking, ‘We’re going to make these guys pay for this disrespect.’ ”
They did. Carter rushed for 210 yards. Collins, completing all but four passes, threw for 260 yards and 3 touchdowns. In the lopsided 56-3 victory, the offense generated almost 700 yards.
They began to ripen midway through their 10-2 inaugural conference season, when Paterno made Collins, who’d been splitting time with John Sacco, his full-time quarterback.
“John was a good player, a good leader, but Kerry was perfect for that system,” said wide receiver Freddie Scott. “He was big and strong and fairly mobile and he knew what Joe wanted him to do.”
Collins and the Lions closed 1993 with five straight victories — including a 31-13 rout of No. 6 Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl — averaging better than 35 points.
After Minnesota, the ’94 Lions won three straight at home -- against 14th-ranked Southern Cal, Iowa, and Rutgers, outscoring that trio, 154-62. When, on Oct. 15, they beat No. 5 Michigan in Ann Arbor — a victory that ignited a mass celebration in State College — they moved to No. 1 in both polls.
Next they exacted revenge on Ohio State, a 49-point rout of a ranked opponent that somehow caused them to drop in the polls.
“How do you explain that?” asked Conlin. “How the hell does that happen?”
Then came the game many insist cost Penn State the championship. While Nebraska was beating sad-sack Kansas, the Lions had a comfortable 35-14 lead over Indiana with 6 minutes, 9 seconds to play.
But the Hoosiers backup quarterback threw two late TD passes, the second on a last-play Hail Mary, and the final score, 35-29, apparently led some poll voters to presume the Lions had struggled.
“They scored twice in the final minutes and we had two fourth-quarter touchdowns called back by penalties,” said Conlin.
In the next AP poll, Nebraska’s 33-28 first-place lead over Penn State grew to 39-22. It likewise expanded in the USA Today-CNN coaches ratings.
Then, a week later, whatever chances remained nearly evaporated when Penn State fell behind 6-3 Illinois, 21-0, before rallying for a nail-biting 35-31 win.
The Lions blamed their slow start at Illinois on a power outage at their hotel. They’d been forced to walk up and down 25 flights of stairs and to eat a breakfast of pizzas and hoagies.
“For the first quarter, we were burping onions,” said Conlin.
Even after Nebraska concluded its perfect regular season with a 13-3 win over rival Oklahoma, the unbeaten Lions remained hopeful. Miami (10-1) was a formidable Orange Bowl opponent for the Cornhuskers. So as the players gathered in an L.A. hotel ballroom to watch that New Year’s Eve matchup, the atmosphere was alive with anticipation. A few hours later, it was quiet as a church.
“That room,” Penn State assistant Craig Cirbus recalled in 2014, “was dead silent.”
The next day Carter went 80 yards on the Lions’ first Rose Bowl play. A letdown followed, but the Lions prevailed, 38-20, giving Paterno victories in each of the four major bowls.
It was small consolation. Nebraska finished atop both polls. Maybe the best Penn State team ever was left with questions and regrets that will never be resolved.