Penn State football: Examining the similarities between the 1994 and 2017 Nittany Lions
Vincent Stewart — a senior leader of Penn State's undefeated 1994 team — has a group text with former teammates, strictly for Saturdays. Over the years, there have been plenty "Yay!" and more than a few "Oh no!" messages. Nowadays, it's much more of the former.
Still, Stewart views himself as a "nervous parent."
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"But it's still Penn State. It's still my family. I still care for these kids."
Stewart, like his teammates, wants nothing more than to see the 2017 Nittany Lions run the table and cement themselves in program lore.
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They also know how difficult that feat is. The 1994 squad is the last one of five Penn State teams to ever do it — and it was by no means easy.
Two years before, the '94 team went through a "trainwreck" 1992 season, finishing with a 7-5 record and an ugly bowl game loss. In 1993, a new quarterback and multi-dimensional offense sparked confidence, guided the Nittany Lions to a double-digit win season and set them up for a run at the national title a year later.
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"It's crazy," said Keith Conlin, a starting offensive lineman on the 1994 team. "It's very, very similar."
Everyone heard comparisons throughout the offseason about Penn State's current offense and the '94 attack -- and how Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley could lead Penn State like Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter once did.
That resemblance, that mirror image, might be the most obvious. But the 1994 and 2017 Penn State squads are similar in more ways than one, giving further credence to the idea that these current Nittany Lions can go undefeated.
'Never forget that feeling'
Wally Richardson called it an "up-and-down" campaign, while Stewart dubbed the finish "embarrassing." Brandon Noble simply used three words to describe the Nittany Lions his freshman year: "We were terrible."
In 1992, the Nittany Lions fell apart after a 5-0 start, losing five of their final seven games. The last one was a debilitating 24-3 loss to Stanford in the Blockbuster Bowl. (Remember Blockbuster?)
"I look at that '92 team my freshman year, and it was a class that was supposed to be amazing," Noble said. "They absolutely s*** in their hat."
Penn State suffered a similar fate in 2015. The Christian Hackenberg-led Nittany Lions started 5-1 but — like their '92 counterparts — dropped five of their last seven. That included a loss to Georgia in the heralded TaxSlayer Bowl.
The Nittany Lions wanted to end a sloppy season on a high note. They didn't.
Now, Richardson is hesitant to compare the 1992 Nittany Lions to those from 2015. "The guys three years ago had a different set of circumstances," the 1994 backup quarterback said, referencing the depth issues Penn State had in 2015 due to the NCAA's earlier scholarship reductions.
The makeup might've been different, sure. But the crappy feeling at the end of each season was identical.
"What you have though is, you have a group of guys who went through that and suffered and struggled," Noble said of the '92 squad. "They came out the other side understanding what it takes to win."
The former NFL defensive tackle, who "could barely watch" Penn State's 2015 campaign, thought those returning Nittany Lions learned the same.
Affirmative, says Penn State safety Marcus Allen.
"That humbles you," Allen said. "You definitely want to remember where you came from and always keep that chip on your shoulder and that fire in your gut. ...Where we were a couple years ago, you always remember that and never forget that feeling."
'Jumping off point'
In 1993, it clicked for the Nittany Lions.
John Sacca was benched in favor of Kerry Collins and despite falling to Michigan and Ohio State back-to-back in October, Penn State finished 10-2 in its first season as a Big Ten member. The Nittany Lions represented the conference well in the postseason, throttling No. 6 Tennessee 31-13.
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Penn State wrapped up 1993 as the No. 7 team in the nation — the same ranking the 2016 Nittany Lions had after falling in the Rose Bowl.
The two seasons weren't exactly the same; after all, the Nittany Lions were Big Ten champs last year.
But with newfound success on offense, the 1993 and 2016 teams used those respective seasons as a "jumping-off point."
"And that just carried over into the offseason," Conlin said.
After Penn State returned to State College from its Citrus Bowl win on Jan. 1, 1994, the rising seniors called a team meeting. The newly-minted 1994 leaders felt as if they were close to something special. Stewart, Collins, Bucky Greeley, Willie Smith and a few others spoke up and emphasized the need for everyone to be committed in the offseason.
"We came together, talked to the guys and said we have to really put our minds to it," Stewart said. "There's no reason why we shouldn't go undefeated and be Big Ten champs next year."
In a time when players didn't stay at school to workout in the summer, the Nittany Lions stuck around in '94 to train with former strength coach John Thomas.
Campus runs at 6 a.m. in the middle of the summer weren't fun, but necessary. If someone missed a workout, the team paid for it. "J.T. made the whole team run, but the kid blew the whistle," Conlin said.
The 1994 Nittany Lions took a business-like approach in preparing for the upcoming season, and so did this current crop of players.
James Franklin said in late August that this year's fall camp was "probably the most consistent" he's ever been associated with. "There wasn't a day where the coaches left the field angry and frustrated at the players, feeling like they could have gave more," the coach added.
Meanwhile, Barkley noted that he and the veterans took on more of an active role, coaching the younger players and setting an example.
"A team really becomes special when the coaches don't even really have to coach anymore," senior tackle Andrew Nelson said at Lift for Life in July. "When the players take the team over and the players become leaders and the players dictate and drive that culture of excellence."
Noble couldn't agree more.
"The older guys still held that level of accountability to everybody. That to me is where the greatness happened," Noble said of the '94 squad. "You know, I played football forever and I coached football. And on a team where the coaches don't really have to coach the little things, the little details, they're very good football teams. They're special teams. That's what we had."
The 2017 Nittany Lions have it, too.
'How do you want to get beat?'
Conlin remembers standing on the sidelines in 1994 and knowing how each game would turn out after only one series.
"You'd be sitting there saying, 'All right, I guess Ki-Jana is going for 200 today,' or, 'I guess KC is going to throw for three or four touchdowns today.' It was dependent on how the other team's defense wanted to play the game," the lineman said. "The 1-2 punch of those guys was crazy."
That's an understatement.
Carter and Collins -- who finished second and fourth in the 1994 Heisman voting, respectively -- were unstoppable. The former ran for 1,539 yards and 23 touchdowns during Penn State's undefeated season, while the latter threw for 2,679 yards and 21 scores. The duo drove the nation's most prolific offense (47.8 points per game).
But they weren't alone.
"We had Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, Mike Archie, Stephen Pitts, Bobby Engram, Kyle Brady, Freddie Scott. So it's like, how do you want to get beat?" Conlin said. "That's the decision the defensive coordinator has to make now. Do we want to stop Saquon Barkley or do we want to stop McSorley? If you want to stack eight in the box to stop the run, McSorley's going to pick you apart. If you want to sit back in a zone and not get beat deep, play a safe defense, Barkley's going to run all over you."
And the Nittany Lions know it.
Barkley -- who has 635 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns through three games -- said as much after Penn State's 56-0 demolition of Georgia State last week.
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"When you have Trace McSorley, DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, Juwan Johnson, the running back corps we have, we're explosive. We're capable of scoring at any moment," the Heisman contender said. "When you have that, you become a confident team and a confident offense."
Through the first three games of 2017, Penn State has averaged 47 points per game. The '94 Nittany Lions averaged 51.7 points per game in the same opening span.
That tenacity and desire to score has been on-par with Collins and Carter's squad so far, but the Nittany Lions need to keep it going.
In order to match the 1994 team's undefeated mark, the Nittany Lions have to win 12 more games -- including the Big Ten title and a pair of College Football Playoff matchups.
According to ESPN's Football Power Index, the Nittany Lions have a 4.2 percent chance of winning the remainder of their regular season games. It's the ninth-highest odds in the country, even if it does seem like a long-shot.
And yet, who thought the '94 team would roll through its slate without a hiccup? Those Nittany Lions were No. 5 in the country after three weeks, one spot back from where current squad is now.
Members of the '94 squad are "cautiously optimistic" that this Penn State team can pull off the improbable. Guys like Conlin, Richardson, Noble and Stewart know from first-hand experience how hard it is to do -- but they've also watched the 2017 Nittany Lions follow their path.
They went through a hellish season and rebounded, committed themselves in the offseason with a shot at the national championship in mind and built a devastating, quick-strike offense.
Like the '94 team before them, the 2017 Nittany Lions are positioned to make a run at 15-0, and those that made history before them would cherish watching that happen.
"I think anything's possible," Richardson said. "There are some things that are left on the table, and they got a taste of what's out there."
"It pulls on my heart and everyone of my teammates' hearts when we watch," Stewart added. "It's not just watching a game. It's yanking on your soul. You just want these kids to win."
This article is written by John McGonigal from Centre Daily Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.