The problem from the start was that Michigan and Penn State both expected justice from the same football game. Both felt wronged by fate, but both knew that only one of them could find redemption, that for whichever team lost, there would no longer be a real season, just six more games and a hollow New Year's Day ending with a placement somewhere in the second half of the Top 10.
So here were the Wolverines last Saturday, back in the same redbrick bowl where three weeks earlier Colorado had hung a Hail Mary on them in a last-second 27-26 Buffalo win. The Michigan players had watched replays of Colorado's pass that night on television and in their film room the next evening. "Thirty. 40 times, maybe more," said defensive tackle Trent Zenkewicz last week. Then they watched ESPN break the play down, second by second. They saw themselves die a hundred lingering deaths, sprawled on their own grass.
"Every time I see it, I think about what I could have done differently," said Wolverine cornerback Ty Law, who wrapped his arms futilely around Buffalo wide receiver Michael Westbrook as Westbrook cradled the miracle in the end zone. "I expect it'll be with me for the rest of my life."
But it wasn't the loss that galled Michigan most. "It was the way Colorado acted after the game," said Wolverine nose-tackle Tony Henderson. "They had guys saying, 'We knew we were going to win." Come on. We won that game; they just came in and stole it like a thief who robs your house." Michigan players talked of "leaving it behind" and of "not living in the past," the kind of words that coaches teach football players. But the wound remained open. The game against Penn State would settle the debt.
And here were the Nittany Lions, 5-0 and back at Game 6, in which for two consecutive years promising seasons had been fouled. For Penn State the luster of Joe Paterno's two national championships, in 1982 and '86, had begun to recede into the past. "We haven't been one of the elite teams in the country," said Kerry Collins, the Lions' fifth-year senior quarterback. "Sure you want to concentrate just on this game, but in the back of your mind, you know what's riding on it."
The Nittany Lions knew what was lost a year ago in State College, when Penn State blew a 10-0 lead and was stopped—embarrassingly—in a stubborn goal line stand that bridged the third and fourth quarters of a 21-13 loss to Michigan. That series, four downs and no gain from the one, came back to haunt the Lions on a TV screen last August, when Penn State coaches were schooling their offensive linemen in goal line play. "When that series came up, you could hear a pin drop in the room," said senior center Bucky Greeley. "It's the hardest piece of film I've ever had to watch." The game against Michigan would settle the debt.
The two teams brought all this baggage with them to the line of scrimmage early last Saturday evening with less than three minutes to play, in a gloom that was eerily similar to the evening when Colorado worked its magic. Penn State was on offense, third-and-11 at the Michigan 16 with the score 24-24. It had been a wonderful show, featuring a second half in which the Wolverines rushed back from a 16-3 deficit to a 17-16 lead. That recovery had been powered by two brilliant runs by running back Tyrone Wheatley, who is the best player in the country who won't win the Heisman Trophy. The fact that previously unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Florida had lost earlier in the day—the announcement of the score produced a roar that shook the stadium—only raised the stakes.
Collins leaned into Penn State's huddle and called, "Sixty-two, Z-post." Once he was under center, Collins saw that Michigan was in a zone defense. Wolverine senior cornerback Deon Johnson, one of those who helped stuff the Lions on that memorable goal line stand a year ago, was across from primary receiver Bobby En-gram, who would run a post pattern from the right side. Junior safety Chuck Winters was inside Johnson, on the hash mark. Just before the snap Winters advanced when a Penn State back went in motion, leaving Johnson alone on Engram. If Johnson expected to have help on the inside, he was wrong. "As soon as I saw that safety move up," Collins said, "my eyes just lit up. I knew exactly where I was going with the ball."
Collins and Engram are both symbols of Penn State's brief dip into mediocrity and of its return to national-title contention. The former is a senior from West Lawn, Pa., who has overcome injuries, a full-blown quarterback controversy and his own impatience. The latter is a wideout from Camden, S.C, who two falls ago was doing odd jobs in a State College restaurant while sitting out a semester after having been suspended following his arrest for stealing a stereo.
At 6'5", 233 pounds, Collins summons up visions of a defensive end taking snaps. He was a three-sport high school star, a twice-drafted baseball pitcher. "He came in here with great natural ability, a big raw, strapping kid, but with a lot of bad habits," Paterno says. "For one, he threw a football like a baseball pitcher." In other words, he wound up like Roger Clemens. Poised to win the quarterback job as a third-year sophomore in 1992, after throwing for more than 400 yards in the spring game, Collins broke his right index linger in a volleyball game and was sidelined until October. After starting the last four games of that season, he broke the same finger again in the Blockbuster Bowl and began '93 on the bench behind John Sacca. Collins won the job back in the fourth game of the season, but as Penn State crumbled in midseason losses to Michigan and Ohio State, Collins was booed and criticized while Sacca loomed in the bullpen. "There was a lot of strain on me, and a lot of strain on the position," Collins says. His father, Pat, a social worker, says, "He was frustrated about the way the fans and the press were treating him."
Then the Nittany Lions won their last five games of 1993, all behind Collins, and Sacca transferred to Eastern Kentucky. "And now," says Engram, "there aren't any more distractions for Kerry."
Engram would know something about distractions. A prized recruit, he was one of two true freshmen to make the trip to Giants Stadium for Penn State's 1991 Kickoff Classic matchup against Georgia Tech. His father, Simon, was killed when his car collided with a train at an unmarked crossing a week before the game. "Forty-four years old," says Engram, still emotional at the telling. "That was a very tough thing." The next summer Engram was arrested and charged with theft after he and a teammate were caught with stolen stereo equipment in State College. The charge was removed from his record after he performed community service.
During his suspension from Penn State, Engram worked at The Tavern, a local eatery owned by a man named Pat Daugherty, and also lived with the Daugherty family. "There's something special about Bobby," says Daugherty. "I saw the same thing in his dad. The whole time Bobby was with us, he never blamed anybody for anything." Says Engram, "I made a mistake, and I take the blame for it." Last season Engram rejoined the Nittany Lions, caught four touchdown passes in his first game and has been a brilliant offensive light since.
So yes, there was something appropriate going on early Saturday evening as Engram crossed smoothly in front of Johnson, squared his body ever so slightly toward Collins—who threw not at all like a pitcher—and caught the touchdown pass with 2:53 to play that gave Penn State the victory, 31-24.
It was a win that belonged not only to Engram but also to Collins (20 for 32,231 yards), to junior tailback Ki-Jana Carter (165 yards on 26 carries, injured right thumb and all), to senior tight end Kyle Brady (six catches for 63 yards) and to a Penn State defense that was berated all week by senior linebacker Brian Gelzheiser for allowing the likes of Temple and Rutgers to score touchdowns in the lackluster Lion victories that preceded the game against Michigan. "I don't like to get vocal," said Gelzheiser. Well, he added, "just a tad."
And perhaps most of all—and he wouldn't like to hear this—the win belonged to Paterno, the 67-year-old active icon. He wouldn't like it because one of the lessons he has relearned in these twilight years of his coaching career is that "it's not my team, it's their team." That was a lesson taught him by his coach at Brown and his mentor and predecessor at Penn State, Rip Engle. Paterno has thought often of Engle lately, because he is now past the age at which Engle retired (never mind that Paterno looks barely different than he does in the weathered, 30-year-old team pictures that hang in Penn State's Recreation Hall) and because he admires much of what Engle accomplished late in his career.
"The thing that made Rip such a great coach," says Paterno, "is that he never 'lost' a squad." Engle's accomplishment makes Paterno think back to 1992, when the Nittany Lions started 5-0 but dropped five of their last seven games. "We lost them," Paterno said. "And that embarrassed me."
The ensuing two years have been for Paterno—and by extension for his program—a renewal. In the week before the game against Michigan, Penn State players saw Paterno running about the practice field, as spry as a child, in sweats and cleats. "It's funny, sure, but it's inspiring, too," said Gelzheiser. Paterno lives for games like the one with the Wolverines. "It's what I would miss if I was watching TV," he said. "The one thing I've thought about pro football is that it would have given me a chance to coach in a Super Bowl. I've never been in a Super Bowl."
On Saturday there was a final chance for Michigan. The Wolverines started from their own 20 with just that 2:53 left, moving toward the same end zone in which Colorado celebrated in a heap. Wheatley, who rushed for 144 rushing yards on the day, including touchdown runs of 67 and 21 yards, picked up 30. A bomb from Michigan quarterback Todd Collins to Amani Toomer fell tantalizingly incomplete, brushing Toomer's fingertips. Tshimanga Biakabutuka ran for nine and then for nothing. On fourth down, with 1:32 left, Collins's sideline throw, under pressure, was intercepted by Penn State's Brian Miller.
Wheatley, still playing his way into shape after missing two games because of a preseason shoulder injury and still 13 pounds under his best weight of 230, slowly walked to the sideline. He stopped short, removed his helmet and slammed it hard to the ground. "Who do you get mad at?" Michigan coach Gary Moeller asked at his postgame press conference.
The victory elevated the Lions to No. 1 in the polls and dashed Michigan's Rose Bowl hopes, not to mention its national-title aspirations. "Penn State isn't going to lose—it's going to go undefeated, go to the Rose Bowl, probably play for the national championship," said Michigan center Rod Payne.
The final 86 seconds were Penn State's to exhaust. Kerry Collins handed off to Mike Archie, then twice carried the ball himself, killing the clock. Behind him in the end zone, a couple of thousand Nittany Lion fans howled at the night. "The whole last three years were going through my mind," Collins said. "That and holding on to the ball." Engram, too, celebrated as the clock died. "I always think about the good and the bad together," he said. "It's hard to put one or the other out of your mind."
Moments later, Paterno gathered his players in the cramped visitors' locker room. "Good win," he told them, looking through the famous glasses, wearing the famous cleats. And he made them look two weeks ahead to their next opponent. "Let's a have a good week of practice," he said. "Ohio State is Step Seven."
Two teams were owed something Saturday, but justice in a football game is measured harshly: A scoreboard clock with yellow zeroes glowing against the night sky, a final score and only one debt paid.