In a series that started at Black Shoe Diaries, SB Nation Pittsburgh is chronicling 15 of Penn State's best games since joining the Big Ten in 1993. For more on the series, click here. Today, Tony Pittman and Lou Prato recount Penn State's victory in the 1995 Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl carries special significance in the hearts of countless Big Ten football fans. It's the traditional postseason home of their conference champion, and many of the league's greatest moments have come about on on that carefully manicured turf in Pasadena, Calif.
For that reason, Penn State's trip there to meet Pac-10 champion Oregon in 1995 was a baptism of sorts. Yes, the Nittany Lions had already played two full conference schedules leading up to the game, but the Rose Bowl appearance was announcement to its league-mates that it had found a home and wasn't going anywhere.
Running back Ki-Jana Carter put an exclamation point on that announcement when he ran 83 yards on No. 2 Penn State's first play from scrimmage to stake the Lions to an early 7-0 lead against the Ducks. He also let many in the college football world who had already conceded the national championship to No. 1 Nebraska after its win against No. 3 Miami in the Orange Bowl the night before know that the Lions weren't going down without a fight.
Oregon, however, proved to be a tough out for Penn State. Following Carter's big run, the Ducks held strong, restricting the dynamic Lions' cast of offensive stars (including Carter, quarterback Kerry Collins and wide receiver Bobby Engram) to just a 14-7 halftime lead, then came out strong after the break, tying the game with 4:54 remaining in the third quarter with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Danny O'Neil to Cristin McLemore.
Unfortunately for Oregon, though, it was then that the quick-strike Penn State offense decided to stop playing with its food. A big return of the ensuing kickoff set up Carter for a 17-yard touchdown run with 3:53 left in the quarter, and fewer than two minutes later, Carter was in the endzone again after an interception set Penn State up inside Oregon territory. All of a sudden, it was 28-14 Penn State and the Lions were on their way.
The Ducks didn't go away quietly, as O'Neil kept chucking his way to a final line of 41-for-61 for 456 yards and two touchdowns (he was later named player of the game). But the Penn State defense did enough to contain him and seal the Lions' first-ever Rose Bowl victory.
Carter finished the game with 156 yards and three scores on 21 carries, Collins went 19-for-30 for 200 yards, and Bobby Engram led the team with five catches for 52 yards. After the game, coach Joe Paterno stumped for his players and their efforts in hopes of swaying some last-minute voters to Penn State's national championship cause.
"All you can do is win all your football games," Paterno said. "We've gotten criticized for our schedule by some people who don't know what they're talking about. We shouldn't get a rap that we didn't play a tough schedule. We deserve [the national championship] just as much as [the Cornhuskers] do."
Big Ten voters abandoned Penn State in the final AP, vote, however, and Nebraska was crowned the 1994 national champion. To be sure, it was a disappointing end to an outstanding season. Penn State fans can take solace, though, in the fact that the Nittany Lions, and not the Ohio State Buckeyes or Michigan Wolverines, were the ones walking off the Rose Bowl field undefeated Big Ten champions.
Tony Pittman: What a special one this was! When most of us who who played in that game signed on to come to PSU, we certainly didn't consider the Rose Bowl to be a possible destination. Then, when it was announced that we would be joining the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl took on a much bigger meaning for us. So, when we found ourselves there after only our second season in the league, we were very proud.
Now, that 1995 game was played on January 2, not January 1. So we had the pleasure of being able to watch most of other bowl games on TV prior to our game. Of course, our eyes were glued to undefeated Nebraska's game against Miami in the Orange Bowl. A win by Miami would mean that we would play Oregon for the undisputed National Title in the Rose Bowl. Of course, it wasn't to be, as Nebraska pulled out a close victory over the Hurricanes.
Still, we knew what a special occasion the Rose Bowl was going to be for us. We came ready to play, as evidenced by the fact that our talented offense scored on its first play from scrimmage - Ki-Jana Carter off right tackle. The game would be a tough one, however. The Oregon Ducks were no slouches. They had a good game plan, and they attacked our underneath zones very well. Fortunately, we played our typical bend-but-don't-break style of defense, and we were able to force a couple of key interceptions when it really mattered. Also, to this day, I tell Ambrose Fletcher that his long kickoff return to start the second half was the play of the game!
Even though we didn't end up getting enough votes to formally claim the National Title, we left that field as champions ... undefeated. For me, it was the last time I would put on a football uniform, and I will never forget it.
Lou Prato: Of course the play everyone remembers who was in Pasadena or watching on national television that January 2 is the explosive 83-yard touchdown run by Ki-Jana Carter on Penn State’s first offensive play of the game, six minutes after Oregon received the opening kickoff. That not only set the tone for the game, but it is the lasting image of the sudden power of what was one of the greatest offenses in the history of college football. However, what I remember most is what happened the night before, on New Year’s night, because that was when Penn State lost any chance of winning the national championship by beating Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
This was before the BCS set up, Miami was playing No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and we all knew Miami had to win to give No. 2 Penn State a shot. I was having dinner with another former Penn State journalism graduate, Ira Miller, and his wife, Sharon, and a couple of other friends at a restaurant down the coast from Santa Monica. Ira was then the pro football writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and was covering the Rose Bowl game for his paper. From the time we sat down in the restaurant, all our eyes were on the television set carrying the Orange Bowl game. It has been tough to root for any Miami team ever since the controversy over the national championship games in 1985 and 1986, but this was different. If underdog Miami could somehow beat Nebraska, the Rose Bowl game became the national championship game. Long before our dinner was over, Nebraska won. That meant what would happen the next afternoon as far as the national championship was moot, and we wondered if Penn State would have a letdown the next afternoon.
When Oregon methodically drove downfield after taking the opening kickoff, we wondered if this was going to be another of those days where the better team is outplayed and upset by a 17-point underdog. But the defense forced a punt at the Penn State 48-yard-line, Carter made his dramatic run, and thousands of Nittany Lion fans were thinking this might be easier than anyone expected. It was - but not until midway through the third quarter. In the first half it took a a pair of missed Oregon field goals, an interception at the Penn State 9-yard line by fourth-string, redshirt sophomore cornerback Chuck Penzenik, and a 44-yard pass to sophomore Joe Jurevicius to keep the Lions ahead by just a touchdown, 14-7.
After Oregon tied it up in the opening minutes of the second half on a short touchdown drive following a Kerry Collins interception, we wondered again if this was going to be Oregon’s lucky day. But then redshirt freshman Ambrose Fletcher took the ensuing kickoff and ran it back 72 yards, setting up another Carter touchdown. Then Penzenik quickly picked off another Oregon pass that led to Carter’s third touchdown, and the game was virtually over. However, when you ask thousands of Nittany Lion fans about the game, they remember Carter’s first stunning touchdown run and perhaps the Ambrose kickoff return, but not many can recall the unsung hero of the game, Chuck Penzenik.
Oh, and one thing more I remember about that day. Once the Rose Bowl game is over, the officials there force the fans out of the parking lots within a couple of hours. No long tailgaiting or overnight parking like back at the Beav. However, we were one of the last tailgaiters to leave. Ira Miller had gotten us parking spots in the media area right near that picturesque front gate where the words appear with the name Rose Bowl. So we were allowed to continue tailgating until he had completed his work. I remember we ran out of food and drink and were shivering in those cold January nighttime Southern California temperatures by the time Ira had finished his work. Maybe that’s the way the day was supposed to end, just like Penn State’s season that year. It was a great day and a great season, but in the end we tailgaiters and the Penn State football team striving for a national championship were left out in the cold.