Editor’s note: In June 1917, the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives invited Michigan back into the league, increasing membership to 10 and eventually spawning the iconic “Big Ten” nickname. One hundred years later, Land of 10 will spend the summer looking at the history of America’s legendary conference and its teams.
20. Curt Warner, running back (1979-82)
Curt Warner finished his career as the all-time leading rusher in Penn State history, and only Evan Royster has passed him since (though a certain tailback on the 2017 roster is probably going to do so as well this fall). He had two 1,000-yard seasons and really a third if his output in the 1981 Fiesta Bowl counted toward his official stats.
He had three 100-yard games in postseason contests, and 18 total, which is still a program record. Since the question probably just popped into your head, Saquon Barkley needs eight 100-yard games to tie Warner.
One of those games was the 1983 Sugar Bowl, when Warner produced 117 yards and 2 touchdowns. He outplayed Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker and helped deliver Penn State’s first national championship.
It’s worth noting that Warner had nine non-rushing touchdowns in his career, including six on receptions and three on special teams. He was the No. 3 pick in the 1983 NFL Draft and inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Check out this highlight reel of spectacular Warner runs (and make sure the sound is on).
19. Bobby Engram, wide receiver (1991-95)
Bobby Engram is the best wide receiver in program history, and it’s pretty hard to even try to debate that. He is Penn State’s only 3,000-yard receiver, and produced three of the best 11 individual seasons in school history.
He’s also first with 31 touchdown catches, six more than anyone else, and has six more 100-yard games (16) than the next guy on the list. Engram was a three-time first-team All-Big Ten wideout, and he won the inaugural Fred Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in the nation as a junior in 1994.
Engram actually had a better season in 1995 (and more touchdowns in 1993), but the team wasn’t as good either year. He was a second-round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 1996 NFL Draft and had a fine professional career.
His son is going to be an intriguing prospect in the 2019 recruiting class, and Penn State is definitely going to be interested in securing his services.
18. Larry Johnson, running back (1999-2002)
Here is a quick summary of Penn State football from 2000-04: Bad, bad, The Larry Johnson Year, bad, bad. The Nittany Lions finished .500 or better in every season from 1939-99 save for one — a 5-6 year in 1988.
From 2000-04, Penn State won 5, 5, 9, 3 and 4 games. The biggest reason for that 9-win season in 2002 was Johnson. He had three rather nondescript seasons — less than 900 total rushing yards and 8 touchdowns while splitting carries with Eric McCoo and others.
The 2002 season started well for Johnson as Penn State thumped Nebraska and rose to No. 12 in the rankings after a 3-0 start. Johnson had 362 yards and 4 touchdowns, but he was just getting started. He had four games with more than 250 yards, including a combined 603 yards and 8 touchdowns in the last two regular-season contests.
He finished the season with 2,087 rushing yards, another 349 on 41 receptions and 23 total touchdowns. Johnson won the Doak Walker Award, Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Player of the Year. He finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.
It was the third-most rushing yards in a season in Big Ten history, and the sixth-most yards from scrimmage in NCAA history. It was, well, The Larry Johnson Year.
17. William Dunn, linebacker/center (1903-06)
The first college football All-America team was chosen in 1889. For 16 years, all of the players on what became known as the Walter Camp All-America team played for Ivy League schools.
William “Mother” Dunn was the first player to be a Walter Camp All-American that wasn’t an Ivy Leaguer. He was a center, linebacker and captain for Penn State in 1906. That also makes him the first great linebacker … at the school that likes to be known as Linebacker U.
That Penn State team went 8-1-1, with a 10-0 loss to Yale the only game all season that the opposing team scored. The Bulldogs went 9-0-1 and have retroactively been bestowed the consensus national champion from that season. Penn State outscored the rest of its schedule 93-0.
16. Ki-Jana Carter, running back (1992-94)
The next two guys on this list are hard to separate. Ki-Jana Carter and the guy who handed the ball to him formed the best backfield in program history, better than all of the times the Nittany Lions had two or three future NFL running backs splitting carries.
Carter had a really good season in 1993, then became a force of nature in ’94. He rushed for 1,539 yards on just 198 carries, and then added 156 more yards in the Rose Bowl.
He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, and anyone in Happy Valley will tell you it was only because that team was too good. The next guy on this list finished fourth in the voting, so they obviously split some votes.
The guy who won, Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam, had a wonderful year, but he also had 100 extra carries. Carter rarely saw the ball in the fourth quarter for much of the season because Penn State was so dominant. Carter averaged 0.9 yards per attempt more than Salaam and had one less touchdown.
Carter became the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, and a major knee injury as a rookie forever altered the trajectory of his career. When he was at Penn State, there were times when he looked unstoppable.
15. Kerry Collins, quarterback (1991-94)
There were a few hints of greatness in 1993, Penn State’s first season in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions went 10-2, beating everyone but Ohio State and Michigan, including No. 6 Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.
With all of the key players back in 1994, Penn State unleashed one of the most lethal offenses in the history of the conference. Led by Kerry Collins and Carter, the Nittany Lions led the nation in scoring at 47.8 points per game.
Penn State went 12-0 and finished the season at No. 2 in the nation behind Nebraska in one of the last great end-of-season what if debates before the arrival of a true national championship game. Collins threw for 2,679 yards on 264 attempts with 21 touchdowns. He led the nation in quarterback rating.
Collins was the Big Ten offensive player of the year. He also won the Maxwell Award and the Davey O’Brien Award and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, two spots behind Carter. Carter, Collins and tight end Kyle Brady were three of the first nine picks in the 1995 NFL Draft.
There was a demolition of Southern California early in the season and the 94-yard drive to save the perfect season against one of the best defenses in the nation against Illinois. Maybe the best display of Penn State’s firepower came in a 63-14 dismantling of No. 21 Ohio State that gave the Nittany Lions a two-game cushion in the league standings.
14. Lydell Mitchell, running back (1968-71)
Picking the best Penn State running back is pretty easy … for now. It’s the guy with the only Heisman Trophy in program history, John Cappelletti. The second-best back, well, that’s a little tougher.
The two guys listed above (Johnson and Carter) could make a decent case. Barkley might be in the discussion at No. 1 or No. 2 in a few months. For now, however, we’re going with Penn State’s current touchdown king, Lydell Mitchell.
He scored 41 times for Penn State, three more than Curtis Enis for most in school history. Mitchell was so good that he prevented a future Pro Football Hall of Fame back (Franco Harris) from ever really being a star in college.
Mitchell had nearly 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground in his first two seasons, splitting time with both Harris and Charlie Pittman in 1969 and then Harris in 1970. He became the feature back in 1971, and racked up 1,567 rushing yards.
He added another 154 yards on receptions that season, and Mitchell’s 29 total touchdowns was an NCAA record at the time. Mitchell was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
13. Ted Kwalick, tight end (1966-68)
For as much as people talk about how difficult it is for a defensive player or an offensive lineman to win the Heisman Trophy, it’s even harder for a tight end to get close. One defensive player has won (Charles Woodson) and several other defensive players and offensive linemen have gotten close.
Ted Kwalick finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 1968, a clear sign that he was considered the best player on a team that went 11-0 and finished No. 2 in the country. The only other player at the position to finish in the top 10 of the voting since there became clear delineations between wide receivers and tight ends in the 1960s was Notre Dame’s Ken McAfee, who finished third in the voting in 1977.
Mike Gesicki might be the best tight end in the country this season, but imagine what sort of numbers he’d have to produce to be a Heisman contender. A more-reasonable goal for him will be to pass Kwalick as the program’s leader in career receptions (86) and yards (1,343) for a tight end.
Kwalick was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989.
12. Bruce Clark, defensive line (1976-79)
Bruce Clark is one of three players in Penn State history to earn consensus All-America honors twice. He became the first junior to win the Lombardi Award in 1978 as the best lineman or linebacker in the nation.
He had 21 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and recovered 3 fumbles. The following year, Clark was again a consensus All-American despite missing the end of the season with a knee injury. He collected 3 more sacks and recovered 3 more fumbles.
Clark was the No. 4 pick in the 1980 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers, but chose to play for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL instead. He did eventually play seven seasons in the NFL.
11. Steve Suhey, offensive line (1942, 46-47)
There are plenty of traditions at Penn State. Linebacker U, the plain uniforms, the black shoes, etc. Producing Penn State football players has also been something of a family business, for many families.
So many players on this list either had fathers or sons or uncles who also played at Penn State. But no family has produced Nittany Lions quite like the Suheys.
Steve Suhey married the daughter of former star player and longtime Penn State coach Bob Higgins, and eventually had three sons and two grandsons who played for the Nittany Lions.
The eldest Suhey was also a fantastic player. He was an All-America selection in 1947, helping a team coached by his future father-in-law to a spot in the Cotton Bowl. For a long time, people credited Suhey with creating the “We Are” chat at Penn State because of his actions leading up to that game.
There are many differing accounts of essentially the same story: There was consternation, either from SMU or the Cotton Bowl officials — or both — about Penn State having a desegregated roster. Suhey, a team captain, has been credited with saying, “We are Penn State …” and then a few different variations of the rest of the quote exist. His sentiment was clear: Everyone on the roster was going to the Cotton Bowl.
Onward State provide a pretty clear and definitive argument that the “We Are” chant did not come from what Suhey did or did not say. It doesn’t diminish what Penn State stood for at the time.
Penn State broke the color barrier at the Cotton Bowl, one of the most famous college football institutions. The Nittany Lions also canceled a game the year before in 1946 against Miami because the Hurricanes did not want Penn State bringing its two black players to South Florida.
Suhey, who interrupted his college career to serve in World War II for three years, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1985.