Ten Years in the Big10 - Part 6

The sixth installment in a series of articles through which Marsh Creek takes a look at Penn State's experience in the Big Ten Conference.<br><br>

In the spring of 1998 Curt Enis, Joe Jurevicious, and Phil Ostrowski were drafted into the NFL.

Curt was taken with the 5th pick in the draft by the Chicago Bears and looked certain to be headed for stardom when the dreaded curse of the Penn State running backs in the NFL, also known as the anterior cruciate ligament tear, hit him.

Curt's career was short lived after that knee injury but Joe Jurevicious has been a standout WR in the NFL. Joe started out with the New York Giants where, for a period of time anyway, he caught passes from former Penn State QB Kerry Collins. Joe was later traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he starred in Tampa's Super Bowl run last winter.

Where the fall of 1997 in State College, Pa. was about star power - think Curt Enis here - the spring of 1998 was all about team.

The 1998 squad had a very talented group of incoming freshmen including future NFL players such as Anthony Adams, Eddie Drummond, Michael Haynes, Larry Johnson, and Jimmy Kennedy, along with a few other highly touted recruits such as RJ Luke, Shamar Finney, and Eric McCoo. The key players on that team, however, were, of course, the upper classmen.

Mike McQueary had graduated in 1997 and Penn State had a pair of QB's fighting for the starting nod in Kevin Thompson and Rashard Casey. The battle was close enough that many Penn State fans were not sure which would be under center for the season opener against So. Miss. The answer to that question was that both would take snaps against the Golden Eagles, but
that time sharing experiment was short lived as Thompson would become the starter before the time the Big10 season opener at Ohio State had rolled around.

The fullback spot had Anthony Cleary, Chris Eberly and Mike Cerimele returning and Cerimele won the job. What was interesting that year was that Aaron Harris had been moved to tailback despite the serious ACL injury he had suffered the year before against Minnesota. Also interesting was that the staff had switched from using mainly the I formation with Enis to a
split backs formation in 1998.

We had a bevy of tailbacks that had good potential that year including Omar Easy, Kenny Watson, Cordell Mitchell, Harris, and true freshman Eric McCoo.

The WR corps in 1998 were Chafie Fields, Corey Jones, Joe Nastasi, Sam Crenshaw, Titcus Pettigrew and Bruce Branch. That group certainly had numbers, but that can be both good and bad. Jones would lead the squad
with 27 receptions in 1998, but our receivers were spotty at best that year. Consider that the top three WR's on that 1998 squad - Jones, Fields, and Nastasi caught all of 58 passes for 1090 yards between them. In stark contrast, the top two receivers on the 2002 squad that we all watched last fall - Bryant and Tony Johnson - had 82 grabs for 1466 yards.

Looking at the passing game in 1998 from another angle, the top 3 leaders in receptions that year - Jones, Fields, and TE Cuncho Brown - caught 73 passes for 982 yards. Again, in stark contrast, the top 3 reception leaders in 2002 - the three Johnsons - reeled in 113 passes for 1815 yards. The differences here are fairly staggering and they make you wonder just how we beat teams that year, but I'll get to that later.

Cuncho Brown, Tony Stewart and John Gilmore were all talented players manning the TE spot and our offensive line that year consisted of Eric Cole at center, Jordan Caruso, Floyd Wedderburn, Greg Ransom and Josh Mitchell at OG, and Kareem McKenzie and John Blick at OT. That year would see many permutations along the OL as injuries, and inconsistent play, would be the norm.

Penn State had a formidable defense in 1998. There was no bend but don't break with this unit at all. Far from it in fact.

It all started up front for our 1998 defense. Penn State had Brad Scioli and Courtney Brown starting at the DE spots, and Justin Kurpeikis came off the bench from time to time to spell one or the other. That's three future NFL players there, two of whom were high draft picks and one of whom was the #1 pick overall in 2000.

Dave Fleischauer was at one of the DT spots and guys like Imani Bell, Rick Bolinsky, and Jason Wallace were supposed to fight it out for the other spot, but redshirt freshman Bob Jones wound up beating everyone out.

Behind that talented front four were a trio of bigtime linebackers named Brandon Short, Lavar Arrington and Mac Morrison. Those three players would go 1-2-3 in that order in the race for team leader in tackles that year as Jerry Sandusky used them in a variety of ways to make plays in both the run and pass defenses.

Morrison and Short were both borderline prep all Americans in high school, but as good as they were the real buzz among the Nittany Nation that year was reserved for Lavar Arrington. There was nothing even remotely borderline about him. No, he was all of a gazelle, a thoroughbred, and a warrior wrapped up into one special package in high school and Penn State fans couldn't wait to see him unleashed. He would not disappoint.

Derek Fox nailed down the hero spot that year while James Boyd and Shawn Lee manned the free safety position. Askari Adams  would play a back up role at safety that year.

The two corners that year were returning starters David Macklin and Anthony King. These two would prove to be formidable defenders with Bhawoh Jue and Joe Dawkins providing relief duty.

Travis Forney would go 20-29 on field goal attempts that year and Pat Pidgeon would average 42.6 yards per punt attempt for the Lions in 1998, both very good results on a season long basis.

Penn State opened the year in a hurry with a 34-6 whipping of Southern Miss. Kevin Thompson was workman like going 10-15 for 140 yards and one touchdown. Rashard Casey was 3-6 for 28 yards in this game, but he looked uncomfortable in this game compared to Thompson. This would be an ongoing theme in 1998. If you take away a four completion effort the following week against outmanned Bowling Green, Casey would go 11 for 39 the rest of the year. Thompson would have him clearly beaten out and would throw 226 passes on the year, completing 121 of them.

The ball was very much spread around on offense that day. Joe Nastasi led the squad with 4 grabs for 73 yards while Cordell Mitchell had 16 carries for 99 yards. Ten different players had carries that day including true freshman Eric McCoo whose first carry was a scintillating 34 yard romp off tackle where he made several Golden Eagle defenders miss him.

The defense was plain suffocating that day. A blocked FG attempt, blocked punt, and full court press from the front four which was so stifling that it forced So. Miss. to resort almost solely to three step drops marked a vintage shut down performance which did nothing but get the loyal Nittany Lion fan base anxious for more.

In the coming two weeks Penn State would route overmatched Bowling Green by a 48-3 count and stave off a feisty Pitt team by a 20-13 score in a turnover marred game.

Penn State had two weeks off at the end of September to prepare for a road trip to Ohio State to play a Buckeye team that many college football fans would come to feel was perhaps the best team in the nation that year. It didn't matter. Ohio State smoked the Nits in a steady rain that day by a 28-9 score.

Penn State could barely run the ball that afternoon and the passing game wasn't a lot better. Penn State held tough for most of the first half, but in the end Ohio State made all the plays when it counted. OLB Jerry Rudzinski blitzed and created a Kevin Thompson end zone fumble that he himself would recover and one of their young d backs would block a punt for another touchdown as well. That's 14 points scored by their defense, add one more score in each half by their offense and that was the difference.

Penn State would rebound to defeat Minnesota on the road the following week, but not without some difficulty. The defense played it's typical stellar game that day in shutting down the Gopher attack, but Minnesota would lay some wood of their own. Hard hitting strong safety Tyrone Carter, an All-American, would lay out Joe Nastasi that afternoon with a bone jarring
hit that would break Joe's right wrist forcing him to miss three games.

The defense was it's usual suffocating self that day. Brandon Short was in on ten tackles that afternoon and the front four, with some help from Short and Arrington, accounted for seven sacks. Penn State forced two interceptions and one fumble against Minnesota that day as well.

The big play on offense came when Thompson hit Corey Jones on a perfectly timed deep post route that went for a 65 yard touchdown play. Penn State's offense certainly wasn't great that day, but the defense manhandled Minnesota limiting them to 12 first downs en route to the 27-17 victory.

After three straight road games Penn State would play at home the following week against a Purdue team that was playing a lot better than it's record would have indicated. The week before the Boilers took Wisconsin to the wire just as they had previously done to Notre Dame, but close losses masked what was a very good Purdue team.

I can vividly recall the ABC lead in promo piece on my game tape where the announcers are suggesting Purdue stood a very good chance of beating Penn State that afternoon. But it would not come to pass. Not even close.

In what was perhaps our best overall performance of the year on defense against a quality opponent, Penn State totally shut down Drew Brees and the potent Boilermaker offense. Few teams have been able to put real pressure on Purdue's QB's like Penn State has in recent years, and this game was the pinnacle of success in that regard.

Purdue would manage only 12 rushing attempts for 21 net yards that afternoon. Drew Brees would throw 58 passes that day, completing 39 of them, but it seemed as if every time they got close we shut them down. The Boilers would go only 7 for 18 in 3rd down conversions and Penn State would nail Brees for 6 sacks as Scioli, Brown, Short, and especially Arrington
just terrorized their offense. Brown and Arrington combined for 7 tackles for loss and 40 yards in net losses that day, and in the end the ABC crew was signing a different tune.

The big star on offense that day was freshman tailback Eric McCoo who ran for 163 yards. Thompson, along with WR's Fields and Jones, did just enough damage to consistently get the ball down field. The final score would be 31-13 Penn State.

Penn State enjoyed it's second off week following Purdue before dismantling overmatched Illinois and their young QB Kurt Kittner to the tune of a 27-0 shutout. Kevin Thompson and Corey Jones enjoyed a nice productive day and ten players ran the ball that day, but the storyline again was defense.

This was the game that featured what became known as the Lavar Leap.

Illinois was having your basic miserable game on offense. The Illini ran the ball decently to the tune of 39 carries for 139 yards, but they got all of 14 first downs that day and were a meager 4 for 17 on 3rd down conversions. Everything was a struggle for them. Midway through the 4th quarter with Penn State already up big the Illini went for a first down on a 4th and one play
near our 40 yard line. Lavar Arrington perfectly timed the snap and leaped high into the air over both the defensive tackle and the center. He would eventually land shoulders first with a descending blow on the ball carrier just as the QB was handing over the pigskin. Let's just say it was sensational. Many fans dropped their jaws in disbelief at what they had seen and a legend was born.

Next up was road trip to Ann Arbor. As good as the Purdue and Illinois games went, this one went the other way. It was ugly right from the start. Amazingly, I can recall an internet poll before the game that had roughly 80% of our fans and 50% or more of their fans thinking we were going to win the game. It didn't happen.

Quite the opposite occurred. In a scoreboard reversal from the previous week, Penn State dropped a 27-0 game to Michigan. Penn State had poor 3rd down efficiency, couldn't pass the ball hardly at all, didn't run it much
better, and we turned the ball over 5 times. That was too much even for our very good defense to hold up against.

The 1998 thru 2000 games with Michigan marked the height of predictability in our running game, and this led to some post game commentary from one of their more vocal defenders, Marcus Ray, who said "Penn State is so predictable, we know what they are going to run before they even run it." This didn't sit well with Penn State fans who got their noses way out of joint, not because of Ray's wisecracking nature mind you, but because they felt he was right.

Penn State would bounce back to thump Northwestern by a 41-10 count the following week, but the fans were getting a little restless and weary of big game losses. Beating the lower tier teams soundly while getting trumped by the other upper tier teams was already starting to get old. With league leading Wisconsin coming up the fans were ready to turn the tables.

Penn State entered Madison on November 21, 1998 thinking win, but left with yet another demoralizing big game loss. The two teams played even ball in the total offense game, which is to say neither team played great with the ball in their own hands. Neither team managed 300 yards, but once again it was the other team making the plays when it had to make them.

Wisconsin forced two turnovers while we could not force any, and the Badgers converted a couple of additional third downs than we did, and they got the big play. Wisconsin was not a very good passing team that year, and we basically shut down their passing game cold, but you need to get ahead of teams like this because the Badgers had a powerful rushing attack with
Ron Dayne running behind some real good linemen.

But Wisconsin made the big play in the second quarter when sophomore punt return man Nick Davis took a punt nearly 80 yards for a score. This play would anger some Penn State fans because of the fact that Justin Kurpeikis was laid out with a vicious block in the back right in front of an official who just let it go, but the real story was a continued inability to
make plays on offense. Final score: 24-3 Badgers.

Penn State came right back and just routed Michigan State ten ways to Sunday in Beaver Stadium to close out the regular season. The defense placed incredible pressure on the MSU offense and the Lions whomped up with a 51-28 final in a game that wasn't nearly that close.

Penn State wound up in the Outback Bowl that January against Kentucky and their prized QB Tim Couch. Penn State won that game too, by a 26-14 count. TE Tony Stewart had a big game that day, but the story once more was defense. Penn State was all over Kentucky and it's WR's and just pressed them into submission that day.

When the season closed, however, their was a sense of disappointment with many Penn State fans. The team went 9-3 and beat an SEC team on New Year's Day, but the fans were grumbling. Three big losses by lopsided scores were not sitting well with the fans. They wanted to see things reversed.

Some pundits apparently felt the team was on the verge of bouncing back. Most of the defense would return intact and the same was true on offense. This would eventually lead to Sports Illustrated placing Lavar Arrington on it's 1999 preseason cover and a #1 ranking.

1998 was in the books and a new dawn was on the horizon.


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