The second five seasons of Penn State football’s quarter century in the Big Ten had some pretty high highs (the top two players selected in a single draft?) coupled with some pretty low lows (Joe Paterno’s first losing seasons in Happy Valley). Overall, though, it ended on a high note, with a Heisman finalist and expectations trending up – hopes that would be dashed shortly after.
1998 - “A Day In The Life”
Most football teams at PSU, historically, were able to reload rather than restock – even the down years weren’t too far down, with bowl games by far the norm. The 1998 season, fresh off the heels of a rather disappointing 3-loss 1997 season that saw the team ranked as high as #1 but losing 3 games (including by 30 to an unranked MSU), took this philosophy and ran with it.
The team had much of the same in 1998 - preseason ranked number thirteen, finishing the year at number fifteen - but this season only saw losses to the best three teams in the Big Ten, Ohio State (which didn’t get a spot in the title game against Tennessee, despite winning the Big Ten with only one loss), Wisconsin, and Michigan. Led by Kevin Thompson, Eddie Drummond, Brandon Short, LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown, the team that rose as high as number seven before losing a game finished the season on a high note with a pair of double digit wins - one a complete demolishing of the Michigan State team that was Ohio State’s only loss.
1999 - “Within You Without You”
Only having lost two players (Floyd Wedderburn and Brad Scioli) to the draft, Penn State entered the 1999 season (incidentally, this blogger’s freshman year in State College) as one of the top teams in the nation. The talent was there, with players like Arrington, Brown, Short, David Macklin, Kareem McKenzie, and Eric Cole, the culmination of four stellar recruiting classes in a row, and the team seemingly put it together much of the time – including freakish plays like this:
The Nittany Lions were number two in the nation and looking towards a showdown against #1 Florida State headed into their showdown against Minnesota in November with four wins over ranked teams (including an absolute beatdown of #4 Arizona in the kickoff classic), along with their talent and confidence and a recent dominant win at Illinois the week before - which included the above LaVar Leap - should have been fresh in their minds.
Golden Gopher kicker Dan Nystrom had other ideas. He’d been practicing kicking higher than normal, knowing that Arrington had a preternatural ability to jump up and block kicks, and it paid off as Minnesota kicked a last-second field goal for the one-point victory against a squad on its way to the title game. The mood inside Beaver Stadium was incredulous, as the stands took a while to empty out – and it wasn’t just the fans who exhibited letdown. The loss spurred a Lions slide as they lost the final two regular games of the season, against Michigan and Michigan State, before rebounding against Texas A&M, shutting the Aggies out in the bowl game.
2000 - “Fixing A Hole”
Penn State tried to rebound in 2000, but losing the three best defenders on your team (and two in the top two picks of the draft) along with their starting quarterback (Thompson), most prolific wide receiver (Chafie Fields), and three major contributing defensive backs (Askari Adams, Derek Fox, David Macklin), coupled with recruiting misses in 1999 and 2000, meant it was a recipe for a down year.
The second losing season of Paterno’s Penn State career was a memorable one, if only for the expectations that came crashing down around a program once perceived to be invulnerable to losing seasons. The Lions, despite a lot of young blood, started the season at number 22, but a four-score loss to USC in the Kickoff Classic portended things to come. In addition to double-digit losses to ranked Ohio State and Michigan, the Lions fell to Toledo (24-6) and Iowa in double overtime (26-23), both at home, and on the road, Minnesota (25-16) and Pitt (12-0) in the last game of that rivalry until this past season (poor Rashard Casey).
2001 - “With A Little Help From My Friends”
The losing was similar in 2001 (though the team played one less game), as calls for Paterno to step aside got louder as the Nittany Lions lost their first four games and failed to make a bowl game for the second year in a row. Even worse than the losses? Three of the wins were by a combined 10 points.
Led by quarterback Matt Senneca before he was replaced by the freshman Zack Mills halfway through the season, and running back Eric McCoo, the 2001 Nittany Lions were incredibly young - only a handful of seniors on the squad - and it showed with a not even mediocre defense (60th in the nation) coupled by an even-worse offense (85th) against one of the toughest schedules in the nation, including an opening-week slaughter at the hands of the eventual national champion Miami Hurricanes.
Mills finished the year with a respectable 1669 yards through the air with Bryant Johnson able to provide some respite - but when neither McCoo nor Larry Johnson can break 400 yards on the ground in 11 games, there’s not much going on. Even John Gilmore, who spent ten seasons in the NFL after being drafted following this season, was unable to break 300 yards receiving. Then-freshman Robbie Gould was another eventual NFL stalwart who didn’t show his potential quite yet, only hitting 6 of ten field goal attempts on the season.
But hey, at least we weren’t 2001 Northwestern, which started the season ranked #16, only to finish 4-7, right? At Penn State headed into 2001, the expectations weren’t too high.
2002 - “Good Morning Good Morning”
The expectations for 2002 were also not too high, though talent was not an issue for Penn State in 2002, the one rebound year amidst what the fans call “The Dark Years” on the football field. Looking at the Nittany Lion roster, even, it is not difficult to argue that the team, which went 9-3, underachieved on the field in its first winning season of the aughts – with future NFL talent like Larry Johnson, Jimmy Kennedy, Bryan Scott, Michael Haynes, Anthony Adams, and Bryant Johnson - all of whom were drafted in the first two rounds of the 2003 draft - they played everybody close but let four teams get the best of them by a combined total of 20 points, including a six-point loss in the Horseshoe to the eventual national champion Buckeyes, and a four-point loss to Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
Larry Johnson Jr, of course, was the star of the 2002 squad, taking home the Doak Walker and Maxwell Awards, being named the Walter Camp Player of the Year and coming in third in the Heisman trophy race as the first 2,000 yard rusher in Penn State’s history. The bounceback season saw arguably the best game of this five-year-span when the Nebraska Cornhuskers, ranked and with a fanbase that guaranteed victory, rolled into Happy Valley for a night game, and then this happened:
The Lions went on to be ranked themselves, and the Huskers dropped out soon after, their stock plummeting.
The rest of the Penn State season played out with the Lions beating the teams they should beat, and losing to all their other ranked foes - in a conference season that was top-heavy (with two undefeated in-conference teams, both of whom PSU lost to), 2002 will always be a team that was incredible and could have (and did) play anybody on any day - with a record ever so close to undefeated.
Most of the talent that led Penn State back to a bowl departed after the season, leading the squad to the worst pair of years the program has seen to date. But the half-decade still gave a glimpse as to what Penn State still was, and still could be, even if that brightness wasn’t realized for two more seasons.
The second five years in the Big Ten showed the Nittany Lions they were still the new kids on the block, and it would be rougher than any fans thought to gain traction - the world, on the field and off, was changing, as was the coaching and recruiting game. And it would take a few more years for Happy Valley to catch up.