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Games that Ruined a Special Season: 1999 Penn State vs Minnesota

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Glen Mason, Ron Johnson, and the first of two freshman kickers named Dan to destroy a memorable year.

MARLIN LEVISON *mlevison@startribune.com 12/22/06 Assign# 107905- Coaches press conference leading up to Insight Bowl game. Minnesota’s Glen Mason reacted to questions from the press with a variety of expressions. NOTE: TEXAS TECH COACH MIKE LEACH WAS LA

Similar to the two seasons prior, Penn State entered the 1999 football season with hype, talent, and confidence. The Nittany Lions graced the cover of Athlon Sports’ Big Ten preview, and were ranked second to start the year. After a season-opening thrashing of Arizona in the Pigskin Classic, many people thought Penn State should be ranked ahead of Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Tennessee.

After soundly defeating Akron, and getting a blocked field goal to hold off Pitt, the Nittany Lions traveled to Coral Gables, and a Kevin Thompson to Chafie Fields bomb with around two minutes remaining lifted the road team over Miami 27-23 to enter the Big Ten at 4-0. Double-digit wins over Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio State followed, and even Drew Brees at home couldn’t get past this mighty defense led by LaVar Arrington, Courtney Brown, Brandon Short, and a host of others. A 27-7 win at Illinois pushed Penn State to 9-0, heading into a date with Minnesota.

Before we get into the aforementioned contest, it’s important to remember than the Gophers gave the home team a huge fight in 1997, losing 16-15 (despite five field goals by Adam Bailey), and held the 1998 game to a 10-point margin.

Okay, I think I’ve stalled this as long as I can.

As previously stated, Penn State entered the 1999 game with Minnesota on a nine-game winning streak, and determined to finish the season the way they failed to do so in 1997 and 1998.

Something that 10-year old me did know then, was that this game featured not one, but two great Big Ten defenses. In fact, the Gophers were top in the Big Ten in scoring defense coming into the game, and were facing a prototypical Penn State quarterback in Kevin Thompson.

The Nittany Lions’ defense focus was on shutting down talented tailback Thomas Hamner, so senior quarterback Billy Cockerham had more pressure to beat Penn State with his arm. What really made Cockerham dangerous was his feet as a very mobile quarterback (something that has plagued Penn State defenses for decades).

After a single first down, the Gophers punted back to Penn State, who took a deep shot to Chafie Fields on their first play. Unfortunately for the home team, Willie Middlebrooks made a great play to knock the ball away to prevent the early chunk play. However, Eric McCoo (one of the more underrated running backs in Penn State history), picked up 10 and 16 on his first two carries, and completions to Eddie Drummond and Corey Jones resulted in two more first downs. On first and goal, fullback Mike Cerimele bulldozed his way in for six, and Penn State led 7-0. Penn State had dominated the first two series, and all was right with the world. Adding to the good news, Minnesota fumbled the ensuing kickoff and then went three-and-out, while Bruce Branch took the punt into Gopher territory.

It’s at this point where you might be thinking, “How did they lose this game?” Well, Chafie Fields picked up one first down on the next play, but the offense missed on two straight completions, and Travis Forney clanked a 50-yard field goal attempt off the left upright.

The Gophers took the good field position and quickly drove into Penn State territory on passes from Cockerham to his tight end Zach Vevea and wide receiver Arland Bruce. Cockerham then ran for 29 yards on a scramble to set up Minnesota with first and goal. However, the defense stiffened, and freshman kicker Dan Nystrom (more on him later) knocked through the field goal to make it 7-3.

In the second quarter, the Gophers drove into Penn State territory and Ron Johnson made his first leaping catch of the day, this one for a 25-yard touchdown to take the lead. However, Minnesota missed the extra point to make their lead 9-7.

Penn State started their next drive from their own 10 after a penalty on the kickoff, and despite McCoo first downs on both a run and a screen pass, new quarterback Rashard Casey was blitzed like he was facing the New York Giants defense (you know, because they blitz too much.) and Pat Pidgeon was forced to punt. Minnesota took the ball at their own 40 and facing a LaVar Arrington-less defense for this series, Thomas Hamner took the ball for 18 yards into Penn State territory. However, Hamner was stopped just short on fourth down and three from inside the 30, and on the very next play, Thompson hit John Gilmore down the right sideline for 35 yards to the Gopher 39. As was the pattern, the offense couldn’t move any farther down the field, resulting in a Pidgeon punt and a very displeased Beaver Stadium crowd.

Penn State’s next offensive possession started at the opposing 35-yard line, and Cerimele (I forgot how good he was) picked up a first down on third and short before Thompson hit Bryant Johnson in the back of the end zone to re-take the lead 14-9 with just under four minutes left in the half. The defense stopped Minnesota deep in their own territory, but despite getting the ball back near midfield, only managed five yards on three plays. At the half, Penn State led Minnesota 14-9.

Coming out of the locker room, Eddie Drummond dropped a deep throw from Thompson-something Drummond was somewhat prone to in his career, and the Lions had to punt from their own 22. Pidgeon’s punt was partially blocked, giving Minnesota the ball from the 50.

After failing for the ninth time in ten tries on third down, Cockerham sneaked it on fourth and inches to sustain the drive, and three plays later, he hit Johnson who got by a Derek Fox missed tackle to take the ball to the 15. However, on second down, Johnson was stopped 27 yards behind the line of scrimmage by Fox on a wide receiver reverse pass, blowing up Minnesota’s chances of scoring on the drive.

Penn State’s offense started to move the ball again midway through the third. Thompson hit Drummond for 19, and McCoo’s first down on the next play was compounded by a late hit penalty, putting the ball at the Minnesota 22. Larry Johnson picked up 17 on the swing pass, but the offense couldn’t convert three plays from the five and had to settle for a Forney field goal to make it 17-9 with 5:23 left in the third.

Cockerham took the Gophers down the field, the highlight being a 49-yard toss to tight end Alex Hass on third and short. Cockerham took the hit from both Arrington and Brown, and fired to the wide-open Hass, who rumbled down the middle of the field, settling up first and goal. Three plays later, Cockerham ran it in on the option to make it 17-15, with Hamner just missing the end zone on the conversion attempt.

The fourth quarter saw Penn State take the ball into Minnesota territory, but Drummond dropped an open Casey pass in the end zone, leading to another Forney field goal to make it 20-15 early in the fourth. Right after this score, the television sideline reporter called Kerry Collins the quarterback for the 1994 “national champion team,” so there’s something to feel good about. We also can’t forget a Lenny Moore appearance! Okay, back to the game.

On the next drive, after picking up their fifth straight third down conversion, Cockerham hit a wide-open Hamner down the left sideline for a 49-yard touchdown. Cockerham was able to avoid the rush of Brown on the touchdown, but not on the conversion attempt, so Minnesota’s lead was 21-20 with 11:25 left in the game.

Penn State answered the Gophers on their next drive, moving the ball efficiently into Minnesota territory, but they couldn’t punch it in for seven and settled for yet another field goal by Forney to take their final lead of the game, 23-21.

To summarize the last eight or nine minutes: Penn State’s offense failed to put any insurance scores on the board, the key plays being a overthrow Fields on third down with 1:56 left, and a decision to punt the ball from the 34 rather than attempt a 51-yard field goal. Pidgeon’s punt went into the end zone, giving the Gophers the ball at the 20. Minnesota put together a heroic final drive in the last 1:50, capped by two Ron Johnson grabs, one on their first play down to the Penn State 35, and the latter a leaping attempt at a catch that was deflected into the arms of Arland Bruce on fourth and 16 down the left sideline. Three plays later, Dan Nystrom drilled the field goal, leaving those in section NA and elsewhere in a state of shock and dismay.

I know you all hate me right now-and don’t worry, I’m not proud of myself and the few hours I spent re-watching this game either.

Watching it in Beaver Stadium at 10, compared to now on YouTube does give you some perspective, however. If the current Nittany Lion coaching staff is in that game coaching that team, there’s no chance Minnesota wins. For some reason, that’s comforting to me. Penn State has come a long way in 21 years (even if they still have a game or two each other that is a devastating loss).

Have a great rest of your week, everyone!