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Mention of Minnesota stirs up 1999 nightmare

This week’s topic doesn’t specify good or bad memories, and at the risk of being a wet blanket while the Nittany Lions are 8-0, there’s really no doubt for me.

I, like most Penn State followers who witnessed it, will never forget — 20 years later — the 1999 game/nightmare at Beaver Stadium.

In my estimation, it was the most painful loss in Beaver Stadium history.

A short version: Penn State was 9-0, ranked No. 2 behind Florida State and had dreams of a national championship game — Joe Paterno vs. Bobby Bowden — dancing in its head.

Minnesota, a 14-point underdog, didn’t cooperate. The Lions underestimated the Gophers, were totally flat and got caught looking ahead to Michigan the next week. They let Minnesota hang around just long enough to be stunned on a Hail Mary pass from Billy Cockerham to Ron Johnson that set up Dan Nystrom’s 32-yard, game-winning field goal (24-23) as time expired.

Paterno literally trudged into the post-game press conference, the most disappointed I had ever seen him.

I can still remember Buck Frank’s headline the next morning: “10 AND — OH, NO!”

With 20 years of hindsight, there were signs the upset loomed.

Two years earlier, the Lions — ranked No. 1 following a midseason win over Ohio State — barely survived, 16-15, against a Minnesota team that finished 3-9. A late-game fumble sealed the Gophers’ fate as did some officiating that was bad enough for Paterno to visit the Minnesota locker room to console the Gophers.

He told Minnesota coach Glen Mason, a close friend, “You got robbed. Your kids outplayed mine.”

The matchups between the two were typically close because they both preached the same offensive style (Mason was a Woody Hayes protege), and Minnesota won in 2003 and ’04.

Further, while the 1999 team had a touted defense (or at least great players, including LaVar Arrington, Courtney Brown, the first two picks in the 2000 NFL Draft, and Brandon Short), the offense lagged behind.

In ensuing interviews over the years, including this week with PennLive.com, Arrington has admitted he’s never gotten over the Minnesota loss.

It really marked a beginning of the end of the Paterno era — the first chapter, anyway — as the Lions would lose three straight to close the 1999 regular season and followed that up with four losing seasons in the next five years.

But even if they had avoided the upset by Minnesota would they have beaten Michigan — with Tom Brady — the next week and won in East Lansing — against Nick Saban — a week later?

We’ll never know, and that’s one reason the loss is so haunting.

Though this year’s PSU team is ahead of schedule, there’s a much anticipated matchup with Ohio State looming in two weeks, and if Minnesota, unbeaten but largely untested at 8-0, ruins that, too, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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