The superfans were expecting a saucy coronation that night along with their baby backs, but the contest proved to be far stickier than expected. Penn State fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter. From there the battle was engaged, but the Lions still came into the fourth quarter trailing by 10 points. To make matters worse, they were facing a tough Illinois defense that featured future NFL players Simeon Rice, Kevin Hardy and Dana Howard. But fullback Brian Milne scored with 7:59 left to make the score 31-28. (College football didn't have tiebreakers then, so Penn State still needed a TD to preserve its unblemished record.) Collins got the ball back on his own four-yard line with 6:07 left. What followed was the season's masterpiece—a 96-yard march into a strong headwind that ended when Milne crashed across the goal line on a two-yard plunge with 57 seconds left. One woman, watching with her son, a Penn State student, exhaled and told me that the plane tickets she had already bought to Pasadena were looking a whole lot better. The win brought a sigh of relief and touched off a wild celebration.
The 1994 team beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl but didn't get a national title. The voters in the polls elected to award coach Tom Osborne of undefeated Nebraska his first national championship, rather than give Paterno his third. (We have a BCS because of years like this.) I know the snub still rankles some folks, but I'll take the minority position that it doesn't matter. Anyone who followed the Nittany Lions in '94 knows what they saw.
Maybe I'm ready to brush off the polls because I believe the experience of Penn State football is about so much more. In my three years in State College, I spent many afternoons mixing with Nittany Lions devotees—the people who come streaming, banners aflutter, from all around Pennsylvania to converge on the stadium. I saw that these fans were blessed to live a life with six extra holidays on their calendar. Just as family and friends gather around the turkey on Thanksgiving or the tree on Christmas, these fans collect around the stadium for those precious home Saturdays. They know the family in the next parking spot as well as they know their neighbors back home. They have shared burgers and beers and memories. They can hold the great linebacker debate: Jack Ham or Shane Conlan? (Or how about LaVar Arrington? Paul Posluszny? Dan Connor?) They saw quarterbacks from Chuck Fusina to Michael Robinson mature before their eyes. They were there for those big wins and heartbreakers against Pitt and Notre Dame and Ohio State.
They've also seen what hasn't changed over the years—those plain-as-can-be uniforms, no logo on the helmet and no name on the back. And, of course, there is the coach with the Coke-bottle glasses, still stalking the sideline. For 58 years Paterno has been found a few miles south and west of Mount Nittany.
There are worse guideposts to help find your way.