Looking Back At Penn State’s 1999 Heartbreaker Against Minnesota
No. 4 Penn State football (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) will square off against No. 18 Minnesota (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) at noon Saturday in Minneapolis. The game is undoubtedly the most important of the season for James Franklin’s squad thus far.
It’s probably redundant to call a national championship contender’s next game the most important of the year. Whether it’s against an undefeated, ranked opponent on the road or an FCS side, every game is the most important for a team right in the thick of the title conversation — especially in the College Football Playoff era. This was also true in the early days of the BCS era, which is the last time a top-five Penn State team took on the Minnesota Golden Gophers in a game that now serves as a perfect example of why that’s the case.
Earlier this week, we remembered an iconic turning-point win against Minnesota. Today, we remember another time a match-up between the Nittany Lions and Golden Gophers proved to be a turning point. In 1999, though, the outcome certainly wasn’t as rosy as 2016.
The then-No. 2 Nittany Lions were 9-0 entering a meeting with Minnesota at Beaver Stadium, but the Golden Gophers stunned the college football world by beating Penn State 24-23. Freshman kicker Dan Nystrom drilled a 32-yard field goal as time expired to sink the Nittany Lions’ national title hopes. Penn State dropped its final two regular-season games of the year, and a 24-0 shutout in the Alamo Bowl seems almost meaningless when you compare it to what could’ve been.
The loss sent the once-mighty Penn State football program into a downward spiral that lasted nearly half a decade. Paterno’s team went a combined 11-15 in the two-plus seasons after that defeat against Minnesota. A 9-4 record in 2002 was quickly overshadowed by 3-9 and 4-7 marks in the 2003 and 2004 seasons, respectively. Peaks of success and valleys of mediocrity are common for most college football programs, but you can’t boil down the vast majority of teams’ dark ages to one particular loss in the regular season.
Obviously, there are plenty of differences between this year’s Penn State-Minnesota meeting and the 1999 game. First of all, Joe Paterno’s team was an absolute juggernaut with national title expectations that, until the clock hit triple-zeroes on that fateful Saturday afternoon, it was fulfilling. Penn State had taken down No. 4 Arizona, No. 8 Miami, No. 18 Ohio State, and No. 16 Purdue before falling to Minnesota.
Standout defensive end Courtney Brown and linebacker LaVar Arrington were the top two picks in the following spring’s NFL Draft and the two best players on a star-studded defense. Everybody knew that Penn State was a heavy favorite to win the Big Ten and a serious contender to claim a national title, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case this season.
This year’s band of Nittany Lions didn’t have the same expectations. They started the season at No. 15 in the AP Top 25. Defense was seen as Penn State’s strongest point — led by star defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and a charismatic, uber-talented, and No. 11-wearing linebacker in Micah Parsons — but no one expected the unit to be this good.
The team’s offense was expected to struggle under the leadership of first-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford and his young, but talented passing targets. For the most part, however, that hasn’t happened, and the team hasn’t missed a beat following Trace McSorley’s graduation.
James Franklin’s team has a few signature wins — including one on the road against No. 18 Iowa and another against No. 14 Michigan at home — but nothing on the 1999 team’s level. Beating two top-10 teams in the first four weeks of a season is almost unheard of today, but that’s a testament to just how good Penn State was 20 years ago.
Minnesota’s 1999 squad was also much different. The Gophers weren’t unbeaten. In fact, they had posted an 0-2 record against ranked opponents entering their trip to Happy Valley. Third-year head coach Glen Mason’s side was good, but it also wasn’t expected to take down a national-title favorite on the road. Unlike the 1999 team, Minnesota has aspirations beyond fulfilling the “spoiler” role entering its game against Penn State this weekend.
The Golden Gophers are unbeaten themselves and control their own destiny in the Big Ten West. Minnesota currently has a two-game lead over Iowa and Wisconsin in the West, so a loss doesn’t ruin its chances of playing for a conference title.
However, a win over Penn State could put PJ Fleck’s side in the driver’s seat for a Rose Bowl bid if, of course, Ohio State wins the conference and qualifies for the College Football Playoff. If Minnesota can run the table and pull off a stunner in the Big Ten title game, however, anything is possible.
Saturday’s game will kick off at noon Saturday and be broadcast nationally on ABC. From a national title shot to Big Ten seeding, everything will be on the line when both teams take the field of TCF Bank Stadium.
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