Ten Years in the Big10 - Part 7

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

In the spring of 1999 there was a strong feeling of optimism around the Penn State football program.  Penn State had lost only two significant players from the prior year's Outback Bowl winning team in DE Brad Scioli and OT Floyd Wedderburn and the sense was that the defense would be very good.

I can vividly recall, however, that not all fans were as confident that year as I was.  We had a QB controversy brewing between Kevin Thompson and Rashard Casey, there were lingering questions about our offensive line play, and the fans had legitimate gripes with the play calling in 1998.

Still, Sports Illustrated tabbed Penn State as the #1 team in the nation that summer and the initial AP Poll had our Nittany Lions at #2.  SI had an awesome photo of Lavar Arrington on the cover that August.  The optimism felt by most fans seemed justified when all the pollsters agreed.  When Penn State opened the season by trouncing 4th ranked Arizona in a late August Pigskin
Classic Game at Beaver Stadium the optimism turned into outright giddiness.

That summer was an interesting one on the various Penn State message boards.  The optimists were the majority, but the pessimists were absolutely strident in their conviction that Penn State would find a way to blow it that year.  Then you had the very loud and vocal Arizona fans, giddy themselves over their season ending bowl win over Nebraska from the prior year, telling Nittany Lions fans of the many ways they would come into Beaver Stadium and beat Penn State.

Penn State fans learned of the fabled "Camp Cochise" summer camp run by then Arizona head coach Dick Tomey.  Arizona fans proclaimed their starting QB, WR, D Line, LB's, secondary, and, last but not least, diminutive RB Trung Canidate, all to be the very best in the land. My favorite Wildcat fan claim was that Canidate would run all over Penn State and our star LB Lavar
Arrington.

Canidate had scored a lot of very long, think 50 yards or more, touchdowns the prior year, and that stat was used to justify all sorts of crazy claims.  The first claim regarding Canidate was that he needed only a 2 foot wide hole to get through to take it to the house.  After that it was an 18 inch hole that he required, and by the time the game had rolled around the claim was that all he needed was a mere 12 inch hole to score from anywhere on the field.

It was a crazy college football version of the vintage game show "Name That Tune."  All that was missing were the shag haircuts and tacky plaid disco outfits.  That show, you may recall, asked contestants how few notes they required to "name that tune," and the ever diminishing claims of the size of the hole Canidate required to take it to the house being made by the Wildcat Nation reminded me of the cheesy 70's game show.

ESPN sent their "A-team" of Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit to Penn State for the season opener against the Wildcats, something that just added to the big game atmosphere that sunny afternoon.  Jeff Nelson, Penn State's Sports Information Director, issued over 500 media credentials for that game, the most in Beaver Stadium history to that point.

Penn State hammered Arizona from the start.  The Wildcats, it seemed, were over rated. Penn State passed the ball and ran the ball at will in the game, and we stopped everything too.  The game was basically over at half-time.  Penn State subbed frequently in the second half and, amazingly, even the second unit kept Arizona off the scoreboard until the final minute of the game.  The
final score was 41-7 Penn State.

Despite the huge win, however, some fans noticed something wasn't right in the middle of our starting offensive line.

The following week Penn State would trounce an overmatched Akron Zips squad, but the line, again, showed some troubles in the middle.  The offense scored 70 points against Akron, but the line just didn't seem to dominate the much smaller Akron squad as you'd expect of a national top 2 team.

Eric Cole had been a 2nd team all Big10 center in 1998, but the staff took a calculated risk in 1999 by moving Cole to one of the guard spots and placing former walk on Francis Spano at center.  Spano started the Arizona and Akron games, but he struggled mightily and he would not start after that time.  Spano would eventually quit the team amid much fan frustration.

The experimenting with the O-Line began in earnest in the week following the Akron game.  The same players from the year before were all tried out that year.  Cole at guard and Kareem McKenzie and John Blick at tackle had pretty much nailed down starting spots, but we had trouble finding good play at the two other spots.  Rich Stankewicz, Jordan Caruso, Josh Mitchell, Joe Hartings, Greg Ransom, Gus Felder, and Joe Iorio, a true freshman walk-on were all tried out.

Mitchell was injured against Indiana and Iorio wound up getting the starting center position in mid season.  Joe Iorio became the first walk-on to ever start as a true freshman in the Joe Paterno era.

The others all seemed to switch in and out of the lineup from week to week, and it began to show almost immediately that fall. Pitt came to Happy Valley a 17 point underdog in week three and nearly toppled Penn State from the top of the college football world in what would have been a monumental upset.

Pitt could barely decide who their starting QB would be that year until John Turman had a big game against us.  Two costly interceptions thrown by Kevin Thompson, one which led to one outright touchdown for Pitt and the other which took what amounted to a guaranteed score off the board helped the Panthers that day.

A pair of long kickoff returns by Pitt return man Hank Poteat mixed in with pinpoint passing from Turman and a poor effort from our offensive line and we were looking at a 17-17 game with under four minutes to play and the Nits with the ball on our own 20 yard line.

Thompson would find Eddie Drummond on a deep sideline pattern and we would kick what amounted to the game winning FG with about a minute remaining, but the suspense did not end until the final play of the game.

Poteat took the ensuing kickoff and returned it to past midfield.  Trust is he almost broke it all the way for a game winning touchdown.  The Panthers were about 25 yards away from a game tying FG attempt and they completed a pass to get most of that right out of the gate on that final possession.  Penn State stiffened, however, and when Lavar Arrington blocked a last
play 50 yard FG attempt from Nick Lotz the game was finally over.

The following week Penn State traveled to Miami to play a resurgent Hurricane squad. Miami had beaten a rebuilding Ohio State to open the year and though they were loaded to the gills with unproven talent, talented they were.  As sunny as it had been in Penn State first three home games that year, this game would be played in weather that varied between a consistent rain and a general tropical downpour from the remnants of one of South Florida's natural Hurricanes.

The game was a zoo. All games against Miami in the Orange Bowl are like savage jungle warfare and this one was certainly no different from the norm.  Miami athletic officials did their normal best to sabotage the opposition, us in this case, by blaring the PA sound system in the Orange Bowl.  For those that have never attended a game against Miami in the Orange Bowl, it might be difficult to imagine what I'm talking about, so I'll try and give you a good description here.

Miami's Orange Bowl is built like a horseshoe.  The one open end has a scoreboard super structure that has to be 80 feet high, or close to it.  That giant structure contains some banner ad neon light screens, a huge Jumbotron, and two side walls filled from top to bottom with some of the largest stadium concert speakers you will ever see anywhere.  Those speakers are incredibly loud and, unlike anywhere else I have ever attended a game, they are pointed directly towards the field itself.

Normally one would expect loud speakers to point in various directions toward the fans, but not in this hell hole of a stadium. Nope.  Here they face them squarely aimed at the opposition--the players themselves.  It starts right from the time the players walk on the field too.

You enter the stadium 45 minutes before game time to the sounds of gothic war music.  The battle music never ceases for the next four hours except when they make announcements or try to sell you something, and oh, I almost forgot, they are nice enough to stop the music when Miami has the ball.

When Penn State has the ball it's wartime music aimed right at the players at a decibel level typically reserved for a Metallica or Megadeath concert.  Combine this with the weather, an emerging Miami team that didn't need any more help than it was already getting, and an 86 yard Rashard Casey touchdown called back for one of the worst clipping penalties I've ever witnessed and we had a real barn burner on our hands.

Penn State's defense actually dominated the first half of the game.  In fact, Miami didn't get their initial first down until roughly 5 minutes remained in the first half. But the Canes took full advantage of a handful of nice plays to carve out 3 points on our defense. The halftime score was 10-3.

In the second half Miami made some good adjustments and started to move the ball very well.  The Canes started spreading the ball around the drove the ball right down the field. The teams traded 3rd quarter touchdowns.  Miami dominated much of the 4th quarter.  The music seemed to get louder as the game went on and it was pretty obvious that Penn State could not effectively communicate the play calls at the line of scrimmage.  This was not good for an already struggling offensive line unit.

Miami managed to get up by a 23-20 count and Penn State looked thoroughly beaten down when Miami decided to go for it on a 4th and 2 play from the Penn State 23 yard line with just over a minute and a half remaining in the game. In a turn of events given how we were giving up some rather large chunks of territory on seemingly every down at this point, somehow Penn State managed to stop the play to take over on downs just outside their own 20 yard line.

The next play will go down in the annals of Penn State lore and be retold for years to come.

Penn State's fans had taken a lot of abuse that day.  The weather, the rough neighborhood, the unruly Miami fans giving us the finger (you can guess which one) from the closed end zone all day.  Yes, it was a zoo all right.  I honestly believe our fans did not expect us to pull this game out.  Even with the big stop, I think the fans were resigned to accepting this one in the loss column.

I think the fans didn't know which QB would even come out onto the field. I could have made a case for either one of them at that moment in time. The staff chose Kevin Thompson.  Thompson would sit exhausted and worn out in the media room after the game telling reporters that he knew the players could not here him as he repeatedly yelled out the signals at the line of scrimmage.  He would recant a late pre snap hand signal made towards Chafie Fields that signaled a stop and go sideline streak route.

On the snap Thompson almost appeared to lose his footing and fall backwards.  Miami had a serious blitz coming up the middle from former Pennsylvania high school player turned future Miami All-American MLB Dan Morgan, heretofore best known as the straight man for one of Lavar Arrington's prized one liners, "Who's Dan Morgan?".

As Thompson gangly struggled to keep his footing on the soaked Orange Bowl sod, Fields had somehow managed to get another future All-American cornerback Mike Rumph, to bite on the one fake he should not have bitten on given the circumstances.  As Rumph bit the initial stop by Fields, Chafie sprinted past him to catch as perfectly a thrown pass as I have ever witnessed under such difficult circumstances.

The pass fell out of the rain clapped sky near midfield just beyond the outstretched arms of Rumph who was vainly trying to catch up the play and just inside of safety Edwin Reed's reach as well.  Fields caught it on his fingertips, quickly sidestepped Reed, and sprinted down the west sideline to the delight of Penn State fans everywhere.  PSU Radio play by play announcer
Fran Fisher's call was immortalized when he excitedly screamed out, "no flags! no flags!"

Miami got the ball back and promptly threw an interception, and through clever clock management they managed to get it back a second time.  They threw yet another interception and the game mercifully came to it's end.  Penn State 27-Miami 23.

The Miami fans mostly left the stadium in a state of shock. Some were angry too.  Smart Penn State fans knew enough to keep their traps shut until getting back to their hotels, but even that wasn't enough everywhere.  One Miami fan spent the better part of two hours that night ranting and raving in the bar at the Airport hotel I was staying at.  Such is life in college football.

The team came home euphoric.  An assault on the top spot in the polls will still in the works and things looked like they could be placed on a bit of cruise control with Indiana and Iowa coming up.  Penn State would easily dispatch both the Hoosiers and the Hawkeyes before Ohio State came to town.

Let it be known that on October 16, 1999 Ohio State QB Steve Bellisari became very much acquainted with Penn State All-American LB Lavar Arrington.

Penn State jumped Ohio State early that day when Eric McCoo would take the handoff on the 2nd play of the game and go nearly 80 yards with it.  McCoo, to the kidding of his team mates, managed to be caught from behind by a 270lbs.  OSU defensive end, but no matter, Penn State still punched it into the end zone to take a very quick 7-0 lead in the game.

Penn State played a defensive game that would rival any game the Nittany Lions had played in many years. It was a total domination of Ohio State.  Our Nits racked up 422 yards that day to only 143 for OSU. The Buckeyes managed only 11 first downs.  When you consider that Ohio State gained roughly 50 yards on their first play of the game you can appreciate just how
difficult the rest of the game became for them.

Penn State would win the game by a 23-10 final score.  If not for the Buckeyes scoring a defensive touchdown it would have been even worse.  Bellisari took a beating that day, mostly at the hands of Arrington who made multiple very hard hits on him. This would not be a good year for Ohio State, but better things were on their horizon, things their fans could not have predicted that day.

Penn State traveled to Purdue the following week and the offense, especially the running game, stunk out the joint.  Thank heavens for defense.  This turned out to be the game where Penn State became well acquainted with a play known as the bubble screen.  This is a play where the offense lines up three WR's in a triangle formation out on one of the wide hash marks and runs a package of plays depending upon how the defense lines up.

Jerry Sandusky attempted to defend Purdue's bubble screen with two players.  Not only with just two players, with two players lined up right in front of the two leading WR's.  Bad idea.  Purdue ran that play a dozen times in that game, almost every time throwing the ball to Vinny Sutherland who used the two leading WR's as blockers.  Penn State never stopped it until there
were 3 minutes left in the game and we put a third man right up on the line of scrimmage in front of the three Purdue wideouts.

Up to that point in time, Purdue ran that one bubble screen play 12 times for more than 200 yards.  Acckkkkkk!

This choice to defend Purdue on that play had to be born out of the way we manhandled them the year before, but it was still a poor defense for that kind of play.  Think about this - suppose Penn State had placed a third back over on that side of the ball, then what would have been the likely outcome?

Well, a few things come to mind. One, we'd have had one more defender out there making it more likely they'd have actually run a play that didn't involve the three man formation of receivers in the first place.  Two, the other 8 players on the Purdue squad would have been the 5 OL, Brees at QB, a RB, and another WR set to the other side of the field.  Penn State would have
defended those 8 players with Courtney Brown and Justin Kurpekis at DE, the two DT's, one defensive back out on that lone WR, and Lavar Arrington and either Short or Morrison as the other LB.

The three d backs on the bubble could have been used to effectively take those guys out of the play mix while still being able to quickly rotate back towards the middle of the field, thus allowing Arrington the freedom to either blitz or rotate over to help the one defensive back on the other side playing man coverage.

This how Penn State would defend this play the following year, but in 1999 they really let it get away from them.  Purdue racked up 444 yards in total offense that day and probably should have won the game.  Penn State could barely run the ball and threw it only marginally well. PSU won that game because of two incredible highlight reel type defensive plays - a second quarter stripping and taking away of the football by Arrington on Drew Brees down near the Purdue goal line that resulted in Lavar walking free into the end zone for the score and an early 3rd quarter perfectly timed jump and snare interception where Courtney Brown stepped in front of yet another bubble screen, snatched it from the air, and then waltzed 25 yards to
pay dirt.

Take those plays out of that game and we lose. As dominating as our defense could be at times, our offense was struggling.

The following week a bad Illinois team hosted Penn State and the Nittany Lions just hammered the bejeezus out of them.  Illinois scored first, but after that it was all Penn State. Penn State rolled up 440 total yards to 248 for Illinois, and the Illini were held to 12 first downs as Penn State sacked QB Kirk Kittner 7 times.  Final score: Penn State 27-Illinois 7.

Next up, improving Minnesota, then Michigan, and finally Michigan State.  Run this stretch and it's party time for the Tostitos National Title Game, lose and you are just plain toast.

The Gophers had 3 very narrow losses on their card leading into our game, and they had a pretty darn good football team, but no one, and I mean no one I knew, felt Penn State would lose this game.  We were all stunned when it happened.

True, Penn State had struggled at times in 1999, sure, our offensive line lacked consistency, but we had a very good defense and we seemed to have an uncanny ability to find ways to win games.  Plus, Minnesota might have been good, but they were still considered a notch or two below Penn State and we were big favorites entering the game.

I can recall taking to Minnesota RB Thomas Hamner that morning in the lobby of the Ramada Inn on South Atherton Street.  I was a little surprised by how calm he was that day. In contrast, when our captains emerged from the tunnel that afternoon to represent Penn State for the coin toss, I sensed an uneasiness about their demeanor.  As the game went on I thought I must
be crazy even making such an observation to myself, but I still had that impression and it just wouldn't go away.

The game was a true see saw affair. The teams exchanged the lead several times that day.  I thought we had some chances to put the Gophers away for good a couple of times but they always seemed to make a play when they needed one.

First it was a broken play 50 yard touchdown on a half back bailout pass from Minnesota QB Billy Cockerham to Hamner. Hamner never had to break a single tackle of evade a single would be tackler on that play because no one covered him.  He essentially drifted out to his left and no one went with him.  50 yards later he had a touchdown.

Despite the tense play, PSU had a 23-21 lead late in the game when the Nits faced a 4th and 2 at the Minnesota 32 yard line. Travis Forney had already kicked a pair of 44 yard FG's that day and some thought we should send him out to attempt a 49 yarder with the wind at his back.  That could have given us a 5 point lead with little more than three minutes left.

Others thought we should just go for it. Coach Paterno elected to punt. His thinking was to pin Minnesota back near the goal line and make them go a long way to get into position for a game winning FG attempt. The punt play backfired as the trailing wind was just strong enough to push the ball into the end zone for a touchback and the net gain was a mere 12 yards of field
position.

Minnesota's first play was a huge gainer as Billy Cockerham threw the ball 45 yards to a WR who was covered by two Penn State defenders who both managed to trip on the play, thus allowing the pass to be completed in Penn State territory just mere yards from where they needed to be to convert the game winning FG attempt.

Penn State managed to push the Gophers back 7 yards on the next three plays causing what amounted to a hail Mary type of situation.  Both teams used a time out to decide what to do.  In the end, the Gophers hit for lottery when Cockerham heaved a jump ball type pass that Derek Fox batted down only to see the ball carom off of one player into the diving outstretched arms of a trailing receiver.

The play was about as lucky for Minnesota as they come, but plays like this count in football and this is a game I'll never complain about.  True, Minnesota got a lot of good luck that day, but If Penn State was truly good enough we wouldn't have placed ourselves in such a precarious position to lose the game.

The headlines noted the shocking nature of the loss.  A great many Penn State fans felt jilted and angry after the game. Some were plain sad.  Me, I had to go and cancel Sugar Bowl Hotel and flight bookings I had made the week prior out of fear that all the good rooms would be booked up had I not done so.

The following week Penn State had Michigan on the docket.  Our running game flat out stunk that day, but somehow Penn State led the game by a 27-17 score after Bhawoh Jue had returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown with 9:44 left to play when all sense left the vacuous collective brains of the officials doing the game.

To the delight of Michigan fans everywhere, virtually every Penn State fan I know feels we were hosed in the final 9 minutes of the game. Final score: Michigan 31-Penn State 27.

The final week of the season saw Penn State travel to 9-2 Michigan State.  The Sparties had beaten Michigan earlier that year and they became the first team all season to actually be favored to beat Penn State by Vegas odds makers.  Michigan State jumped Penn State early. Lavar Arrington was not playing due to a slight injury and the wheels just came off the team in
the first half.

A plethora of first half turnovers deep in our own territory, some hard running from T.J. Duckett, and a big punt return allowed Michigan State to jump out to a 28-7 first half lead. Penn State settled down after that and actually dominated the rest of the game.  The Nittany Lions would gain over 400 yards that days to 253 yards for MSU and for a while it was all Penn
State as we tied the game at 28 apiece.

Penn State actually had the ball and a chance to win it with 4 minutes left when Kevin Thompson threw a pass just behind one of our receivers. That ball was picked off leading to a game winning score for Michigan State and a long dejected flight home for the Penn State squad.

Some venting and some soul searching took place on that plane ride back to State College. Some wounds were bared open and others were doctored to, but in the end this was about an opportunity that many felt we let slip away.

Instead of playing Florida State for the National Title as had been hoped for, Penn State wound up drawing Texas A&M from the Big12 in the Alamo Bowl.  Many of our fans yawned at this match up and for the first time in a long time the Nittany Lions did not come close to a good showing of fan support for the holiday season bowl game.

The game was a yawner too, unless you had a rooting interest in Jerry Sandusky's defense pitching a shut out on the Aggies, which is exactly what happened.  Penn State's defense dominated the game, particularly Lavar Arrington who made numerous big plays.  The final outcome was a 24-0 whitewashing of a merely decent, but not great, Aggie football squad.

The team finished the year at 10-3 having outscored it's opponents 417 points to 234 points, but the close games eventually caught up with us.  The three game stretch of heartbreak was just that - heartbreak.  Penn State easily could have won all three of those contests to get into the national title game, and as the naysayers would accurately point out, they could have lost three more close games.  Such is football.  The thrill of victory sometimes walks closely with the agony of defeat.

1999 was a year of the close miss.  Many seniors departed after that year.  Courtney Brown and Lavar Arrington were picked #1 and #2 in the upcoming NFL draft.  David Macklin and Brandon Short were also drafted and a few others
were picked up as free agents in the NFL.  The draftees are all still there on NFL rosters.

But it was still a season of what ifs and what could have beens.  With the departure of that star power and the realization that we were struggling yet again with our offensive line, struggling big time in fact, there were clouds on the horizon for 2000.  There would be no #1 proclamations the next year, just questions.  The kind of questions that bring fans, and coaches, to worry.

Marsh Creek


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