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.
So here were the Wolverines, 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. 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,'' says 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.'' 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'
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 had been lost a year before in State
College, when they blew a 10-0 lead and were 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,'' says 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 in the early evening of Oct. 15, with less than three
minutes to play in the game, 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 was powered by two brilliant runs by running back Tyrone
Wheatley. 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 had helped stuff the Lions on that memorable goal line
stand a year before, was across from primary receiver Bobby Engram,
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 both serve as symbols of Penn State's brief dip
into mediocrity and of its return to national-title contention. The
former, a senior from West Lawn, Pa., had overcome injuries, a
full-blown quarterback controversy and his own impatience. The
latter, a wideout from Camden, S.C., had been doing odd jobs in a
State College restaurant just two autumns before as he sat out a
semester after being suspended following his arrest for stealing a
At 6 ft. 5", 235 pounds, Collins summons visions of a defensive
end taking snaps. He was a three-sport high school star, a
twice-drafted pitcher. ''He came in here with great natural ability,
a big, raw, strapping kid, but with a lot of bad habits,'' Paterno
said before the Michigan game. ''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 finger 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. As his father, Pat, a
social worker, says, ''He was frustrated about the way the fans and
the press were treating him.''
Then the Nittany Lions won their last five games of 1993, all
behind Collins, and Sacca transferred to Eastern Kentucky. ''And
now,'' said Engram, ''there aren't any more distractions for Kerry.''
Engram would know something about distractions. A prized recruit,
he was one of two true freshmen to make the trip to Giants Stadium
for Penn State's 1991 Kickoff Classic matchup against Georgia Tech.
His father, Simon, had been killed when his car collided with a
train at an unmarked crossing a week before the game. ''Forty-four
years old,'' recalled Engram, still emotional at the telling. ''That
was a very tough thing.'' The next summer Engram was arrested and
charged with theft after he and a teammate were caught with stolen
stereo equipment in State College. The charge was removed from his
record after he performed community service.
During his suspension from Penn State, Engram worked at The
Tavern, a local eatery owned by a man named Pat Daugherty, and also
lived with the Daugherty family. ''There's something special about
Bobby,'' Daugherty said a few days before the Michigan game. ''I saw
the same thing in his dad. The whole time Bobby was with us, he never
blamed anybody for anything.'' Says Engram, ''I made a mistake, and I
take the blame for it.'' In '93 Engram rejoined the Nittany Lions,
caught four touchdown passes in his first game and has been a
brilliant offensive light since.
So, yes, there was something appropriate going on early on this
Saturday evening in Ann Arbor as Engram crossed smoothly in front of
Johnson, squared his body ever so slightly toward Collins -- who
threw not at all like a pitcher -- and, with 2:53 to play, caught the
touchdown pass that gave Penn State the victory, 31-24.
It was a win that belonged not only to Engram but also to Collins
(20 for 32, 231 yards), to Ki-Jana Carter (165 yards on 26 carries,
injured right thumb and all), to tight end Kyle Brady (six catches
for 63 yards) and to a Penn State defense that had been berated all
week by senior linebacker Brian Gelzheiser for allowing the likes of
Temple and Rutgers to score touchdowns in the lackluster Lion
victories that preceded the game against Michigan. ''I don't like to
get vocal,'' said Gelzheiser. ''Well,'' he added, ''just a tad.''
And perhaps most of all -- and he wouldn't like to hear this --
the win belonged to Paterno. He wouldn't like it because one of the
lessons he has relearned in these twilight years of his coaching
career is that ''it's not my team, it's their team.'' That was a
lesson taught him by his coach at Brown and his mentor and
predecessor at Penn State, Rip Engle. Paterno had thought often of
Engle recently, because he was now past the age at which Engle
retired (never mind that Paterno looks barely different than he does
in the weathered, 30-year-old team pictures that hang in Penn State's
Recreation Hall) and because he admires much of what Engle
accomplished late in his career.
''The thing that made Rip such a great coach,'' said Paterno
before the Michigan game, ''is that he never 'lost' a squad.''
Engle's accomplishment makes Paterno think back to 1992, when the
Nittany Lions started 5-0 but dropped five of their last seven games.
''We lost them,'' Paterno says. ''And that embarrassed me.''
The ensuing two years had become for Paterno -- and by extension
for his program -- a renewal. In the week before the game against
Michigan, Penn State players saw Paterno running about the practice
field, as spry as a child, in sweats and cleats. ''It's funny, sure,
but it's inspiring, too,'' said Gelzheiser. Paterno lives for games
like the one with the Wolverines. ''It's what I would miss if I was
watching TV,'' the coach said. ''The one thing I've thought about pro
football is that it would have given me a chance to coach in a Super
Bowl. I've never been in a Super Bowl.''
There was yet a final chance for Michigan to overtake Penn State
as their showdown neared its conclusion. The Wolverines started from
their own 20 with just that 2:53 left, moving toward the same end
zone in which Colorado had celebrated in a heap. Wheatley, who rushed
for 144 rushing yards on the day, including touchdown runs of 67 and
21 yards, picked up 30. A bomb from Michigan quarterback Todd Collins
to Amani Toomer fell tantalizingly incomplete, brushing Toomer's
fingertips. Tshimanga Biakabutuka ran for nine and then for nothing.
On fourth down, with 1:32 left, Collins's sideline throw, under
pressure, was intercepted by Brian Miller.
Wheatley, still playing his way into shape after missing two games
because of a preseason shoulder injury and still 13 pounds under his
best weight of 230, slowly walked to the sideline. He stopped short,
removed his helmet and slammed it to the ground. But, as Michigan
coach Gary Moeller asked at his postgame press conference, ''Who do
you get mad at?''
The victory elevated the Lions to No. 1 in the polls and dashed
Michigan's Rose Bowl hopes, not to mention its national-title
aspirations. ''Penn State isn't going to lose -- it's going to go
undefeated, go to the Rose Bowl, probably play for the national
championship,'' said Michigan center Rod Payne.
The final 86 seconds were Penn State's to exhaust. Kerry Collins
handed off to Mike Archie, then twice carried the ball himself,
killing the clock. Behind him in the end zone, a couple of thousand
Nittany Lion fans howled at the - night. ''The whole last three years
were going through my mind,'' Collins said. ''That and holding on to
the ball.'' Engram, too, celebrated as the clock died. ''I always
think about the good and the bad together,'' he said. ''It's hard to
put one or the other out of your mind.''
Moments later, Paterno gathered his players in the cramped
visitors' locker room. ''Good win,'' he told them. And then he made
them look two weeks ahead to their next opponent. ''Let's have a good
week of practice,'' he said. ''Ohio State is Step Seven.''
Two teams were owed something that day, but justice in a football
game is measured harshly: a scoreboard clock with yellow zeroes
glowing against the night sky, a final score and only one debt paid.