Mere excellence can turn into greatness in one defining moment.
For Ali it was 15 rounds in Manila, for Doug Flutie six seconds in
Miami, for Secretariat two minutes and 24 seconds at Belmont Park.
For Penn State's 1994 football team it was six minutes at Memorial
Stadium in Champaign, Ill.
''No one,'' said Penn State senior quarterback Kerry Collins,
''will ever forget 96 yards at Illinois.''
The scene looked as if it had been shipped in from the prop shop:
the field shrouded in a haunting fog, the home team clinging to a
31-28 lead -- and the dream of a marvelous upset -- with 6:07 to
play. There were the Nittany Lions, backed up to their own four-yard
line, faced with the task of negotiating the rest of the rug against
one of the nation's top defenses.
As good as Penn State had been in its previous eight games, it was
even better now. The Lions drove those 96 yards in 14 plays, thrice
converting on third down. Collins completed all seven of his passes,
for 60 yards. Of the final drive, Collins said afterward, ''There was
no tension. All eyes were on me, and everybody was very focused.''
With 2:00 left Penn State had moved to the Illinois 34-yard line.
Collins then threw 16 yards to Bobby Engram for a first down. After a
run for no gain and a nine-yard completion to Engram, the Lions faced
third-and-one at the Illinois nine. From there fullback Brian Milne
crashed over the right side for seven yards. One play later Milne
scored his third touchdown of the day, with 57 seconds left, to give
the Lions a 35-31 lead. It was the first time all day they had led,
having started their remarkable comeback from a 21-0 first- quarter
Illinois did move the ball to the Penn State 31, but on the last
play of the game, quarterback Johnny Johnson was intercepted in the
end zone by safety Kim Herring. Afterward Penn State guard Marco
Rivera said, ''I'm still in shock that we won.'' The win clinched a
trip to the Rose Bowl for the Lions and made Joe Paterno the first
coach since Tennessee's Bob Neyland in 1951 to have led teams to all
four major bowls.
The Lions had come to Champaign averaging 533.5 yards (best in the
country) and 48.4 points (second best in the country) per game. For
its part, Illinois, though a frustrated 6-3, possessed the nation's
No. 2 scoring defense (11.3 points per game). The first omen of
trouble for the visitors came on the morning of the game, when a
power outage at the Lions' hotel forced them to eat pizza instead of
the arranged meal, which sat uncooked in the hotel kitchen.
The Lions suspected that the Illini defense would be stingy, but
they could not have foreseen the creditable performance by the
Illinois offense. Seizing on two rare Penn State mistakes -- a fumble
by tailback Ki-Jana Carter and an interception of Collins -- the
Illini's usually inconsistent offense ran out to a 21-0 lead in the
first quarter. By the half Penn State had rallied to within 28-14,
and Paterno saw reason for optimism. ''I told the kids at the half
that if we played our game, didn't lose our poise and didn't try to
make big plays, we'd be all right,'' said Paterno after the game.
By the third quarter it was clear that Penn State had righted
itself. The Lions' defense was performing better (it would hold
Illinois to a single field goal in the second half), so the only
question was whether enough time remained for Penn State to come all
the way back. With 7:50 to play, Milne slammed over from five yards
out, slicing the Illini lead to 31-28. Illinois punted on its next
possession -- a 67-yard missile by Brett Larsen -- and the Lions had
their chance to rise to greatness.
''I knew we had kids with a lot of character,'' Paterno said when
it was over. ''I never thought that we couldn't do it.''
This is an article from the Jan. 18, 1995 issue