The 1993 Penn State football season started a new era. After a long stretch as an independent—a stretch that included recent national titles in 1982 and 1986, and a #3 finish as recently as 1991—the Nittany Lions were joining the Big Ten. They were also looking to atone for what had been a disappointing 1992 season that ended at 7-5. 1993 saw the Lions get better and set the tone for even bigger things in the immediate future.
Kerry Collins was at quarterback and had a very long NFL career ahead of him. But as a junior in 1993 his numbers weren’t very good. The 51% completion rate was acceptable by the standards of the time, if nothing to get excited about. But the 6.4 yards-per-attempt wasn’t good and Collins threw eleven interceptions.
In spite of Collins’ numbers, Bobby Engram got All-American recognition at wideout, catching 48 passes at better than 18 yards per catch. Kyle Brady at tight end was the second option and caught 26 balls.
What really made the offense go was the running game. Ki-Jana Carter was explosive, averaging 6.6 yards-per-carry and going for over 1,000 yards on the season. Mike Archie wasn’t far behind, with 766 rushing yards at nearly six a pop. Carter and Archie lifted the Penn State offense to 17th nationally in points scored. The defense ranked #22 in the country and was led by defensive lineman Lou Benafatti, a second-team All-American.
Penn State was ranked #16 to start the season and opened with the first-ever Big Ten game in Happy Valley, a 38-20 win over a subpar Minnesota team. USC came to town the following week for a good non-conference game. This Trojan team was average and Penn State led 21-7.
But the defense was on the brink of coughing up the lead when a USC touchdown with 0:37 left cut the margin to 21-20. In the pre-1996 era of college football with no overtime, you had to decide whether to kick the extra point and take a tie or let it all hang out on a two-point conversion. USC went for the win. Penn State made the stop and survived. Then they went to Iowa and blew out a so-so Hawkeye team 31-0.
The Lions were now in the national top 10 and they closed out non-conference play with easy wins over Rutgers and Maryland. Neither opponent was very good and the Penn State offense dropped a combined 101 points in the two games.
A week off set the stage for the marquee home game on the schedule. Michigan, who had won or shared the last five conference titles, was coming into State College.
This wasn’t a vintage Wolverine team and they ended up losing four games. But Penn State missed a big opportunity when they were stopped four times on the goal line—shades of how 1978 had ended, for older Lion fans. PSU lost this game 21-13 and slipped to #12 in the polls.
Another week off led to another marquee date, this one on the road with Ohio State. The Buckeyes were having a big year and ranked #3 in the country. Although they would fade in November, they didn’t on this snowy and wet October 30 afternoon at the Shoe. Penn State couldn’t stop the run, turned the ball over five times and lost 24-6.
They were down to #19 on the polls and a home date with Indiana was no gimme. The Hoosiers were consistently competitive in this era under Bill Mallory and were ranked #17 in the country.
The Penn State offense got opened up in this game, but the defense couldn’t put IU away. Twice, the Lions gave up 14-point leads and this was a tie ball game at 31-31 with just over six minutes to play. Collins stepped up and hit Engram on a 54-yard touchdown strike. Indiana came driving right down the field and was in the red zone with a little over a minute left. Tony Pittman, the Lion defensive back who intercepted five passes on the season, came up with his biggest one in this spot. The pick preserved the 38-31 win.
Penn State went on to beat a pedestrian Illinois squad 28-14 and then rolled lowly Northwestern 43-21. The Lions were up to 8-2 and going to Michigan State to close the season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
It didn’t exactly go well for much of the game. Penn State trailed 37-17 late in the third quarter. Then Collins threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Engram. The defense forced a turnover and another quick touchdown. Then the defense forced a three-and-out. Collins hit Engram from 52 yards for another score. Suddenly, the Lions were ahead 38-37 and that held up. They were up to #13 in the polls and on their way to play sixth-ranked Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.
Health Shuler was the Vols quarterback, runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting, and about to become the second overall pick in the NFL draft. And he played well in this game, completing 22-for-24 passes. But Penn State kept Shuler’s passes underneath and held him to 205 yards. And the Lions shut down the run.
They got back into the game and when Engram caught a touchdown pass in the final seconds of the first half, PSU was ahead 17-13. Then they completely took over the second half. Collins threw two touchdown passes, including another one to Engram and Penn State won 31-13. They finished #7 in the final polls.
The strong finish was a tone-setter for a historic 1994 campaign. Collins came into his own. He, Carter, Engram and Brady formed an offense that was unstoppable. Penn State rolled to undefeated season and Rose Bowl win, even if pollsters left them #2 behind Nebraska. The groundwork for that great ’94 Lion team was set in 1993.