From our September/October 2014 issue: A sleepless night. Broken elevators. Pizza for breakfast. What better way to prepare for the toughest game of the year? Twenty years ago this fall, the Nittany Lions went to Illinois with an unblemished record and dreams of a national championship. They came home with memories of a farcical road trip and an unforgettable win.
In November 1994, the Penn State football team traveled to Champaign, Ill., with an 8-0 record, the nation’s No. 2 ranking, and designs on an undefeated season. In Illinois, the Nittany Lions’ record-setting offense would face arguably the best defense in college football—a sufficiently daunting challenge, and one Penn State was at least expecting. What the Lions couldn’t have prepared for was one of the weirdest and most disruptive road trips imaginable.
They won, of course, pulling out a come-from-behind, 35-31 victory that stands as the most memorable game from Joe Paterno’s last unbeaten season. To do so, the Lions had to overcome a terrific defense, a hostile crowd, and a surreal pregame stay in Champaign. Here, some of the players, coaches, and managers recall the craziest 24 (or so) hours of one of the greatest seasons in Penn State football history.
FRAN GANTER, OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: I remember everything that could go wrong, did.
KIRK DIEHL, STUDENT MANAGER: We get there Friday afternoon, and we do what we always do: We get to the hotel, get off the bus, get our itineraries. The meetings are on the 20th, 21st floor, dinner on the 22nd floor, and the rooms were on the third and fourth floors.
TONY PITTMAN, CORNERBACK: The University Inn. I still have my room key.
DIEHL: We get to dinner, dinner’s fine. Then, throughout the night, the phones are ringing.
STEPHEN PITTS, TAILBACK: They were letting prank calls through all night. You would call down and say, “Please stop putting calls though.” It was ridiculous.
TERRY KILLENS, LINEBACKER: We were next to a fraternity house or something. They were basically partying all night.
BOBBY ENGRAM, WIDE RECEIVER: Urban legend has it that some frat boys cut the power.
A long, mostly sleepless night for the Penn State traveling party ended Saturday morning with the discovery that the hotel was indeed without power.
BRANDON NOBLE, DEFENSIVE TACKLE: We wake up in the morning, the power’s out, and the managers are running around banging on doors.
ENGRAM: Our training room was up high, like the 20th floor. So they had to move everything downstairs [closer to the players].
DIEHL: I remember going out and hitting the elevator—nothing. And I remember Spider [Brad Caldwell ’86 H&HD] going, “Well, boys, this is what we get paid for.” There were six of us carrying the big trunk down, and all the video equipment—and this is 1994 technology, not like now, when you can put them in your pocket—and we’ve got to do 22 flights of stairs.
GANTER: It brought back a memory of a great story Joe told about Lenny Moore ’56 Lib. Rip Engle was head coach, Joe’s an assistant, and they used to go out to Stone Valley the night before games, stay in these individual cabins, then get on the bus in the morning and drive back over the mountain. Well, they woke up one morning and there’s two feet of snow on the ground. They were nervous. Rip got a couple of linemen together, and they started up toward one cabin, and they come back carrying Lenny Moore to the bus. Rip said he didn’t want Lenny’s legs to get tired. I can tell you Joe definitely had that in mind when guys were walking up and down all those stairs.
BRAD SCIOLI, DEFENSIVE END: You go on these trips, everything is very regimented. When something like that happens, it’s like, “Uh-oh….” Especially with Coach the way he was.
NOBLE: Coach Paterno was not a huge fan of change, and all of a sudden that happens? I just remember thinking, “Don’t make eye contact with him.”
GANTER: There’s the old saying about how important routine is, but that really didn’t bother me. I didn’t think that was gonna affect those guys. It was almost a good distraction in one respect. You sit around those hotels, the night before and the morning of, and at least me, you’re a nervous wreck. There were a lot of distractions, and before you know it, you’re out on the field. So it took some of the tension off.
It’s one thing to disrupt a routine. It’s quite another to disrupt breakfast. With the power out, a hot meal prepared by the hotel kitchen was out of the question. This hungry pack of Lions would have to figure out another way to eat.
KIM HERRING, SAFETY: We had to order pizza for breakfast. Who eats pizza and goes out and plays football? Your stomach’s not gonna be right.
KEITH CONLIN, OFFENSIVE TACKLE: We’re up on the 30th floor or whatever, eating hoagies and drinking Pepsi.
DIEHL: The managers got to the stadium early, and the Illinois guys took care of us, got us some hot breakfast. They were great. The TV’s on, and they said, “Hey, your guys are on the news right now. They’re eating pizza in the hotel bar.”
Neither well rested nor well fed, the team made its way to Memorial Stadium for the 2:30 kickoff. With no hope of getting back on their usual pregame schedule, the Lions could only hope that talent and experience would be enough once they got on the field. The omens, as they had been since arrival, were dark.
BUCKY GREELEY, OFFENSIVE GUARD: We were late to the stadium. The bus driver got lost on the way. Born and raised in Champaign, and he got lost.
ENGRAM: We get to the stadium late, and we literally have 20, 25 minutes to warm up. Everything was rushed.
DIEHL: When we came out for warm-ups, their crowd was nuts. Their band and their student section are strategically placed right behind the visiting team bench. To that point, that was the loudest Big Ten stadium we’d heard.
CONLIN: We got out on the field, we’re laughing and joking. We weren’t mentally prepared. Joe was like, “Get focused, get focused.” We were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re good.” And they just jumped us.
The first quarter was a horror show. Ki-Jana Carter fumbled on the Lions’ third play, and Illinois called five straight running plays to score. Not three minutes later, Kerry Collins threw an interception, and the Illini once again turned a short field into a touchdown. The next two Penn State drives ended in punts, and with 12 seconds left in the opening period, Illinois scored again. The Lions entered the second quarter—on the road, against arguably the nation’s top defense—trailing 21-0.
GREELEY: They had our number in the first quarter. It was ugly. We couldn’t have played any worse.
KYLE BRADY, TIGHT END: Dana Howard [the 1994 Butkus Award winner as the nation’s best linebacker] had promised that if their offense scored 28 points, they’d win the game.
CONLIN: We’d heard what Howard said. We’re averaging 50-some points a game, and he says that?
KI-JANA CARTER, TAILBACK: We had a lot of confidence in ourselves. Even down 21-0, there was nobody worrying. It was like, “We know we messed up. Let’s go get that job done.” It was calm. Kerry really helped that—he had that type of demeanor.
KERRY COLLINS, QUARTERBACK: Sometimes you go into a game, and for whatever reason, the other team is more ready to play. It happens. Fortunately, we got it back. They scored really quickly and left us a lot of time. There really wasn’t any panic. I think everybody just said, “Let’s get back to doing what we do.” It just took just a couple of plays here and there.
VINCENT STEWART, DEFENSIVE TACKLE: I had broken my foot, so I was back home. I sat in my apartment, tears coming out of my eyes, and I turned off the TV. It was off for like five minutes. Then one of the younger guys came running in and said, “We’re coming back.”
The second quarter was halfway over before Penn State finally got on the board, with Brian Milne capping an 11-play, 99-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. Less than two minutes later, Collins found Freddie Scott on a 38-yard touchdown pass. The Illini scored late in the half to take a 28-14 lead, but their runaway momentum had been slowed.
GREELEY: I remember going in at the half, thinking to myself, “Holy cow, we played terrible, we’re going to let the whole season slip away.” Joe walked in, and we were waiting for him to light into us, but he called us together, calm as can be, and said, “I want to tell you guys something: We’re going to win this game. Don’t think anything different. Now break up into offense and defense, and figure out how.”
BRIAN MILNE, FULLBACK: Coach Paterno had a way of saying things: “You know, guys, we just have to play football. We have to do what we do.”
BRADY: I remember Fran talking to us at halftime—we’d made some adjustments to some of the things they were doing, and we knew we could score. We just told the defense, “Listen, you gotta hold them.” If they scored 56, we didn’t know if we could beat them.
KILLENS: The thing about our defense that year: Our offense was so good, and scored so fast, our defense never really got an opportunity to rest. We were constantly back on the field.
MARLON FORBES, CORNERBACK: We used to curse at the offense—“You guys can’t keep scoring in a minute 33 seconds!”
NOBLE: We didn’t want to be the weak link. Especially when you saw how special that offense was, you don’t want to be the reason you lost a game. It was good, because it pushed you.
HERRING: We knew, if we did our part, our offense would come back out and score.
MIKE ARCHIE, TAILBACK: The defense came up big whenever we needed them to.
Indeed, Illinois went three-and-out on the opening possession of the second half, and the Lions responded with a 59-yard drive capped by Carter’s 4-yard touchdown run. The Illini managed a field goal on their next drive to extend their lead to 31-21 going into the fourth quarter, but both teams seemed to sense that field goals weren’t going to keep the Lions at bay.
BRADY: The Illinois players might not admit this, but there comes a point where a unit gains the upper hand, and the other team knows it. And at some point in that second half, we gained the advantage on that defense, to the point that they weren’t having success stopping even the most basic of plays. They didn’t have any more answers.
GREELEY: In the second half, you could just see it.
GANTER: We never underestimated Illinois’ defense, I’ll tell you that. They had some great players. But our guys just had unbelievable poise and confidence.
SCIOLI: I think we just knew we were the more talented team. We knew this was it—this was our chance. Were we gonna let it slip away to this team?
The teams traded punts early in the fourth before the Lions took possession at their 46-yard line with 10:24 on the clock. Two and a half minutes later, Milne had his second TD run of the game. The Lions kicked off, the defense forced another three-and-out, and Illinois lined up to punt from its 29. Penn State figured to get decent field position, but a misread by Archie and a fortuitous bounce meant Penn State started on its 4-yard line, trailing 31-28 with 6:07 to play.
ENGRAM: It was dark, the rain had started to fall—this is stuff you can’t write a movie script for. And then the kick—boom.
ARCHIE: I didn’t field the punt.
COLLINS: I remember watching that punt sail over Mike’s head, like, oh crap….
ARCHIE: I’m feeling bad—I knew I should’ve come up and caught that ball. And as I’m running off the field, you know what my linemen said to me? “Don’t worry about it, dude. You just had to make it look hard.” (laughs)
CONLIN: We were running on the field kidding Mike, like it was a joke. By that time, we were cocky as hell.
ARCHIE: I ran off the field with a big smile on my face. That was just the kind of team we had.
GREELEY: That last drive, we’re huddled in our end zone, and we were laughing. The fans are right on top of us, and I can still remember looking at this one guy’s face. I could read his lips: “They’re laughing?!”
CONLIN: Even in the Chicago papers the next day, people were saying, “They were laughing in the huddle.”
GREELEY: Kerry’s on the sideline, and he comes running in like, “Guys, this is gonna be fun.”
COLLINS: There was no panic.
GANTER: With Kerry, we’d be talking to him, and right before he left the sideline, he’d wink at you.
BRADY: There was an awareness among our offense and their defense that they couldn’t stop us anymore. Even when we got the ball on our 4-yard line, we knew they couldn’t stop us—and they knew it, too. When we came out of the huddle, you could almost see it in their eyes. It was as if both units knew it was inevitable.
GANTER: Somebody just had to make some plays. And boy, did they ever.
Five minutes, 10 seconds. Fourteen plays—seven runs, seven passes, all of them complete. Ninety-six yards. All of it with a game, a Rose Bowl trip, and a perfect season hanging in the balance. In the end, it was Milne—the cancer survivor and symbol of this team’s resilience—who sealed it with his third touchdown of the day. Twenty years later, it’s simply “The Drive.”
ENGRAM: We kind of knew, “This is it, man. It’s all or nothing here.”
MILNE: You couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t hear the snap count. It was just watch the ball and go. It didn’t matter what plays were called. We just had to execute them.
COLLINS: We executed great on that drive. Coming out, it wasn’t like we were bombing it down the field. It was kind of methodical. It was execution, taking what was there, and of course, I had all kinds of time.
GREELEY: Everything was just like we practiced it.
CONLIN: Remember how in Pop Warner, defensive linemen would take a knee? We’re going down the field at Illinois, and they were on their knees.
CARTER: When we got to the 50, you could hear it in the crowd. Like, “You packed us in, now we’re on your side of the field.”
ENGRAM: I remember looking over at the sideline, and every one of our guys were off the bench holding hands.
PITTMAN: We’re standing on the sidelines, everyone’s holding hands, just willing the team down the field. To me, that was college football.
MILNE: I was hoping to get the ball. I remember getting airborne—I think I took off around the 4. I think I hit Dana Howard.
He did, lunging through a gap on the right side of the line and leveling the All-American linebacker whose “28 points” guarantee proved hollow. Illinois had a final shot, reclaiming the ball with 57 seconds left and driving to Penn State’s 31-yard-line before Herring intercepted a last-gasp heave in the end zone. The Lions had survived, their dream of a perfect season intact. Twenty years later, that strange, exhausting, wonderful trip to Champaign still stands out.
GREELEY: Sometimes I’ll look at old stats, or find a clip on YouTube—my 5-year-old son found one, “Penn State-Illinois, The Drive.” “Daddy, is that you playing?” You look at the talent on that team, it’s like, holy cow, man. I think that was just the perfect storm.
MILNE: It was really magic, for lack of a better word. It was one of those teams where we all depended on each other, we all knew what we had to get done, and it just worked. It was magic. It really was.
KILLENS: That ’94 team was probably the tightest I was a part of. We had great leadership, it was a fun group, and there were no egos. Everybody was in and out of each other’s apartments, everybody’s families hung out after games.
GANTER: The thing that stands out in my mind about that team—when you have that many great players—is how unselfish they were. They weren’t looking at this as individuals. They were unselfish and tremendously dedicated. When you have superstars, which some of them were, sometimes that doesn’t work out. Sometimes it’s one sour apple. You could have some problems. We had no problems.
FREDDIE SCOTT, WIDE RECEIVER: I think it went to the “Grand Experiment” that Joe had orchestrated. He recruited the right kind of guys. He didn’t recruit guys that were selfish and had to have the ball.
GREELEY: I think for four or five years, we were there to accomplish a task, to play for an undefeated season, to keep that tradition alive.
PITTMAN: I feel like that team goes down as one of the best ever. I think that was just a team for the ages.
COLLINS: It came together for us, and it wasn’t easy. We hung together through adversity. It was really a special bunch of guys, a special place, and a special season.
Fran Ganter ’71 H&HD, ’73 MEd Edu, offensive coordinator
Kirk Diehl ’96 Com, ’05 MEd Edu, student manager
#24 Tony Pittman ’95 Eng, ’02 MBA GPS, cornerback
#40 Stephen Pitts ’96 Com, tailback
#92 Terry Killens ’04 Com, linebacker
#10 Bobby Engram ’95 H&HD, wide receiver
#93 Brandon Noble ’98 Lib, defensive tackle
#5 Brad Scioli ’98 H&HD, defensive end
#3 Kim Herring ’97 H&HD, safety
#53 Keith Conlin ’95 Lib, offensive tackle
#60 Paul “Bucky” Greeley ’94 H&HD, offensive guard
#81 Kyle Brady ’95 H&HD, tight end
#32 Ki-Jana Carter ’95 Bus, tailback
#12 Kerry Collins ’94 Lib, quarterback
#78 Vincent Stewart ’94 Lib, defensive tackle
#22 Brian Milne ’96 Lib, fullback
#46 Marlon Forbes ’94 Lib, cornerback
#2 Mike Archie ’96 H&HD, tailback
#31 Freddie Scott ’96 Lib, wide receiver
From the nail-biter in Ann Arbor and the Homecoming blowout of Ohio State to that long-awaited return to the Rose Bowl, the high-scoring ’94 Lions were one of the best teams in school history. For more on that star-studded squad, check out the comprehensive oral history of Penn State’s last unbeaten team at TheFootballLetter.com.
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From our July/August 2017 issue: It took two years to convince the skeptics—and those were just the guys on his roster. For fans, media, and even some Nittany Lion lettermen, it took last season’s inspiring Big Ten title run to convince them that James Franklin was the right man to lead Penn State football. His secret? Preaching family, recruiting serious talent, and maybe even learning a thing or two along the way.