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."