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Penn State football: Best wins over 2023 opponents – Illinois

One of the most memorable moments in a historic season for Penn State football, today we look back on the game that gave us “The Drive.”



Penn State Football
Jan 1, 1994; Orlando, FL, USA; FILE PHOTO; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Kerry Collins (12) in action against the Tennessee Volunteers during the 1994 Citrus Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Photo By USA TODAY Sports

Today we continue our series on Penn State’s best games against its 2023 opponents. Next up: Illinois. Despite not facing off against Illinois annually, Penn State football has played memorable games against the Fighting Illini.

There was the 2011 contest in Happy Valley. The game itself was sloppy, partly caused by a rare October snowstorm. A last-second missed field goal by Illinois preserved a 10-7 Nittany Lion victory, and made Joe Paterno the winningest coach in Division I history.

The following season in Champaign is simply known as “the Michael Mauti game.” In the wake of the NCAA sanctions against Penn State football in the summer of 2012, coaches from other schools actively recruited Penn State players. No school was more bold about it than Illinois. Mauti took this personally and backed up his words when the two teams squared off in the fall. In addition to six tackles and half a sack, Mauti recorded two interceptions. He came up just a yard short of returning one for a touchdown after scampering 99 yards to end the first half.

But for the Nittany Lions’ best win against Illinois, we must return to their last undefeated season, 1994. This season is still my personal favorite that I was able to witness.

Nittany Lions face adversity for the first time

Through most of Penn State’s first eight games during the 1994 season, the Nittany Lions did not face much resistance. Sure, the game in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines was a tough battle, but the Lions led for most of the game.

Penn State’s high-powered offense scored nearly 50 points a game and smashed almost all opponents in its path early in the season. The Nittany Lion offense could score in any fashion it wanted. Quarterback Kerry Collins was a top gunslinger in all of college football. He was surrounded by all-star talent in running back Ki-Jana Carter, receivers Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott, and tight end Kyle Brady. The offensive line was superb, anchored by future NFL first-round picks Jeff Hartings and Andre Johnson. Every player on Penn State’s 1994 offense went on to the NFL, including several backups.

On the other side of the ball, the defense was not one of Joe Paterno’s best units in his long coaching career. It was serviceable, but would live in the offense’s shadow all season.

Conversely, Illinois’ defense was great that season. Entering the game versus Penn State, the Illini were ranked second in the country in points allowed (11.3) and fourth in total defense (254 yards). The linebacker corps was especially star-studded with Simeon Rice, Dana Howard, and Kevin Hardy.

“The Drive” goes down in Penn State football history

Things went wrong for Penn State even before the game started, as a power outage at its hotel caused disruption to its pregame routine. The disturbance carried into the game, as two early turnovers and a short punt led to three quick scores for Illinois. The Illini led 21-0 before five minutes of the game clock had ticked off in the first quarter.

The offense, used to opening big leads early in games, looked out of sorts. But there would be no panic. This group of Lions knew all they needed to do would be to settle down, stop the mistakes, and they would be able to score points as they had all season.

In the second quarter, still down 21, Penn State was pinned at its own 1-yard line. The Lions proceeded to go on a 99-yard drive, capped off with the first of three touchdowns by fullback Brian Milne. Penn State eventually went into halftime down 28-14.

In the second half, Penn State football continued clawing away at the Illini lead. With Milne’s second score, the Lions trailed 31-28 with just under eight minutes left.

The Nittany Lion defense stood tall and got the ball back for the offense. The problem was the Lions started their drive at their own 4-yard line. Penn State football was 96 yards away from victory, its first Big Ten championship, and a trip to Pasadena.

As Milne crossed the goal line with 57 seconds to go, Penn State would take its first lead. The defense then held on to preserve the win. Besides the game-winning drive in the video above, I encourage every Penn State fan to rewatch the whole game. It is well worth your time.

A champion goes uncrowned

Penn State would finish the regular season 11-0. The college football landscape at the time did not allow second-ranked Penn State and top-ranked Nebraska to meet in a bowl game. The Lions were obligated to play in the Rose Bowl, whereas the Huskers were sent to the Orange Bowl.

Penn State capped its season with a 38-20 win over Oregon in Pasadena. But I will always maintain the Lions would have beat the Huskers that season if given the chance. Despite being an uncrowned national champion, the 1994 season was memorable for Penn State fans. The Illinois game from that year won’t soon be forgotten.

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Shane has been a Penn State fan since he attended his first game in Beaver Stadium when he was 8 years old. A Class of 2005 alum, he has been a contributing writer for Victory Bell Rings, Saturday Blitz and now Basic Blues Nation. He also hosts The Nittany and Badger: A Big Ten Football Podcast. Shane lives near Pittsburgh with his wife and son.


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