Following First College Football Playoff, 20th Anniversary of Rose Bowl Win Remembered For What Could Have Been
Jan. 2 marks the 20th anniversary of Penn State’s win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl, as dominating a performance anyone has ever seen in the game’s 113-year history. That is, until Oregon’s 39-point thrashing of Florida State on Thursday night in Pasadena. But unlike the Ducks, the 1994 Lions weren’t afforded the opportunity to advance to the National Championship game like this year’s Oregon team.
Penn State’s 1994 season is fondly remembered in State College and by alumni across the country for being one of the most successful teams in program history. Led by Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins, Bobby Engram, Kyle Brady, and Jeff Hartings, the offense soared to unprecedented heights, turning the Nittany Lions into the nation’s most feared offensive attack, capable of scoring at will.
Despite the team’s early success, there were still a few in Happy Valley waiting for the other shoe to drop. Malcolm Moran, the former Knight Chair of Sports Journalism and Society for Penn State’s John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, wrote a premonition on November 6th, 1994, predicting a raw deal from the AP pollsters.
“When does a victory become a defeat?” Moran wrote. “When does the preservation of a perfect season include the possibility that national championship chances have been jeopardized?”
Moran was summarizing a Penn State win against an Indiana team that would prove to be the downfall of the undefeated Nittany Lions. Despite having defeated No. 5 Michigan in thrilling fashion, 31-24 and convincingly thrashing No. 21 Ohio State, 63-14 on homecoming weekend, Penn State dropped to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll, thanks to then No. 3 Nebraska’s shellacking of No. 2 Colorado, 24-7.
“I don’t have to talk about ‘em and I’m not gonna talk about ‘em,” stated Paterno when asked about the national rankings following a win over the Buckeyes.
The second-ranked Lions arrived in Bloomington 7-0 looking for a statement win to solidify their place as one of the nation’s top teams.
Paterno’s team took a comfy 35-14 lead in the fourth quarter when he decided to pull his starters, which was customary during the ’94 season – the offense was arguably the best Penn State has ever seen. Because of the move, Indiana made a resurgence, scoring three times in the last six minutes of the game. Though not enough to knock off the Lions, it was sufficient enough for poll voters to keep Penn State as the number two team for the rest of the year.
The Lions were eventually jumped by No. 3 Miami come bowl season and didn’t get the chance to take on Nebraska for a national championship. Penn State’s final stop of the 1994 season was Pasadena, California to take on No. 12 Oregon. The Nittany Lions’ first play from scrimmage was an 83-yard run by Ki-Jana Carter for a touchdown and…well…you get the rest. Penn State would take the game handily, 38-20.
Most media personnel didn’t know how to cast their vote at the end of the year and many were adamant about a playoff system (keep in mind this was 20 years ago).
“What I do know is that we need a playoff and we need one now,” wrote L.A. Times reporter Mike Downey. “An NCAA football tournament is a must. Paterno says so and I’m with Joe. Joe thinks we should get ourselves a Final Four and slug this thing out right there on the gridiron…”
It certainly wasn’t the first time a team had been overlooked for a national title, and it wasn’t the last. The trend of championship snubs persisted through the years for teams across the country, with the computer rankings of the BCS eventually drawing the most ire.
The four-team semi-final isn’t perfect, but if the New Year’s Day bowl games proved anything, it’s that college football is unpredictable. Had the BCS computers had their way, we’d be watching Alabama vs. Florida State play for the National Championship on Jan. 12 in AT&T Stadium in Dallas, with title contenders Oregon and Ohio State watching at home.
For Penn State, the change comes 20 years too late. We’ll never know how Penn State would have fared against Tom Osborne’s undefeated Nebraska team. But with Paterno’s Final Four Slugfest™ firmly in place, should the Nittany Lions once again rise to the top four of the final poll, they’ll have a chance to prove they’re the best team in the country.
Here’s to the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Photo: The Morning Call/ Nittany Lines