Penn State fans older than myself don’t need an explanation of who Kerry Collins was. I’m sure it comes with no shock to them to see him enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. Many of them might even call him the greatest Penn State quarterback of all time. However, others born after his time — myself included — may not understand the true impact of Kerry Collins’ legacy, or how he established it in the first place.
For those uninformed, Collins’ Hall of Fame career as a Nittany Lion didn’t get off to a Hall of Fame start by any means. The Pennsylvania native joined the team as one of four quarterbacks in the 1990 recruiting class and was redshirted his first year. In 1991, he waited in the wings as senior quarterback Tony Sacca led Penn State to its fifth Fiesta Bowl victory and the No. 3 spot in the final postseason rankings.
With Tony Sacca’s graduation, the starting quarterback spot was wide open heading into the 1992 season. Ultimately, it was Collins’ spot for the taking, as his raw talent and arm strength set him apart from his competition, fifth-year signal-caller Matt Nardolillo and fellow 1990 recruiting class member John Sacca (Tony’s younger brother). Before the first snap of the 1992 season, however, Collins broke his right index finger, which put him on the sidelines for nearly half the season.
At the point he was finally healthy, it was still unclear whether Collins would even get a chance to play again that season. Tony Sacca had taken over and played quite well in his absence, going 5-0 as a starter before a home loss to No. 2 Miami. Nonetheless, Collins finally got his chance the next game when Sacca went down with a collarbone injury in the fourth quarter of a loss to Boston College.
Apparently, Collins showed Coach Joe Paterno something in his fourth quarter effort, because he reclaimed the starting position. Collins would go 2-2 in the remaining games on the schedule before losing to Stanford in the Blockbuster Bowl (which, like its sponsor, ceases to exist).
Things seemed to be looking up for Collins after his 1992 campaign, but he was not so fortunate. Shortly after the Blockbuster Bowl, he underwent corrective surgery on his right index finger — bad news for both Collins and the Nittany Lions, as the quarterback ended up missing all of spring practice that year.
Prior to the 1993 season, Joe Paterno named John Sacca the starter yet again. Penn State managed to win the first two games of its season despite a shaky start from the signal-caller. The team visited Iowa in its third game, which proved to be a turning point for the program, and for Kerry Collins.
After completing only 1-of-7 in the first quarter, Joe Paterno pulled Sacca, and again, put Collins at the reigns of the Nittany Lions’ offense. The following week, Penn State’s No. 12 was officially named the starter against Rutgers, and from there, Collins never looked back.
With Collins under center, Penn State finished the 1993 season 9-2. Two humbling losses in back to back games against Michigan and Ohio State were the only blunders on an otherwise perfect first season in the Big Ten for the Nittany Lions.
The team earned a bid to the Citrus Bowl to face No. 6 Tennessee in a game that would foreshadow Penn State’s offensive capabilities. Collins threw for two touchdowns as the Nittany Lions dominated the heavily favored Volunteers 31-13.
There might be merit in saying that without his 1994 season, Kerry Collins wouldn’t have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. That’s not a knock on the quarterback, but instead, a testament to what he achieved that fateful year.
In 1994, Collins led one of the most prolific offenses in Penn State history. The Nittany Lions coasted to an undefeated season, averaging a remarkable 47 points a game and posting an NCAA best 5722 total yards from scrimmage. Penn State dominated the Big Ten, winning its first conference title in only its second season as a member. Collins capped off his career with a 38-20 Rose Bowl win over Oregon, leading Penn State to a No. 2 finish.
Despite being robbed of the National Championship by the AP and Coaches’ Polls, Collins solidified his legacy with his 1994 season. He finished first among passers in yards per attempt (10.1) and passing efficiency rating (172.9) — good for fourth highest in NCAA record books at the time. That, combined with his 11th best 2679 passing yards and 9th best 21 passing touchdowns, earned him both the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien Awards, given to the best all-around player and best quarterback, respectively.
Furthermore, Collins finished fourth in the Heisman vote, only two spots behind teammate Ki-Jana Carter. He also earned consensus first team All-American honors and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
When the dust settled on his illustrious college career, or at least on his amazing 1994 season, Collins was bound for the Hall of Fame. He finished 21-5 as a starter in his career, and currently ranks 8th all-time amongst Penn State career passers with 5,304 yards and 39 touchdowns. Collins’ perseverance in the face of multiple setbacks and his on-field success define his remarkable legacy, making him deserving of his place in the College Football Hall of Fame.