20 Years Later: Gophers upset #2 Ranked Penn State in Happy Valley

A win over Penn St. 20 years ago lines up dramatically with the game this year

Lindsey Peterson
October 31, 2019 - 3:11 pm

(Getty Images / Justin Berl / Stringer)

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November 6th, 1999:  I was 23 years old, and a couple of months into my career working at WCCO Radio and sitting in what we then called "Master Control".  One of my first jobs was working those Saturday afternoon games, producing Gopher football games with Ray Christensen, Dave Mona and Darrell Thompson.  It was an exciting time to be a part of Gopher football, as they finally looked like they were on the upswing.  This Saturday, however, they took on the legendary Joe Paterno and Penn State in Happy Valley.  It would become a memorable day for all of us.  

By that time, Ray Christensen was beyond a hero. Ray was iconic.  He was literally the sound of Gopher sports.  This was Ray's second-to-last season doing Gopher Football (he finished at the Micron PC.com Bowl the following December and who could forget that classic bowl game). 

He didn't get a chance to call many wins those last few years, and it had been a long time since he called a really big Gopher upset (probably Michigan in 1986).  That day, he would get the chance.    

    (Entercom)

    The 1999 game between these two teams bears an incredible similarity to the game this Saturday, including the fact they're almost exactly twenty years apart (3 days). 

    • Both Gopher teams were trying to make a statement.  In '99 they wanted to get to a bowl game and become relevant in the Big Ten again.  This season, they want to get into the Big Ten Championship game and become relevant nationally.  
    • Penn State comes in heavily favored (currently it's Penn St. by 7).  We don't have the odds from 1999, but we can assume it was a significant spread as Penn St. was #2 and the Gophers..... weren't.  Plus the game was in Happy Valley in '99.  
    • Both featured a Gopher coach in his 3rd year.  Glen Mason came in to turn around a derelict program, had two losing seasons and got them back to a bowl game in '99.  P.J. Fleck inherited a team that was in better shape, had two seasons of moderate success, but now has them on the brink of a championship in '19.  
    • Both Gopher teams had: strong defense, a solid QB (Billy Cockerham and Tanner Morgan), really good running backs (Thomas Hamner and Rodney Smith) plus record-setting wide receivers (Ron Johnson and Tyler Johnson).  
    • Both Gopher teams have a freshman kicker (Dan Nystrom and Michael Lantz).  One made a game-winner to beat Penn State.  So far.  

    Wins were hard to come by for those 90's Gopher teams though.  They hadn't been to a bowl game since 1986, and there hadn't even been a winning season since 1990.  Glen Mason did have something started though, and fans were starting to believe. They were 5-3 going into the November 6th game against Penn St.  One more win and you became Bowl Eligible, something that would be a big step forward for Mason and the program.

    Penn St. was in the middle of an unbelieveable run of success. 9-0, ranked #2 in the AP poll.  They'd already beaten four Top 25 teams.  They were coming off back-to-back 9-3 seasons.  They had played in six straight New Year's Day bowl games.  They had the eventual winner of the Bednarik, Butkus and Lambert Awards, LaVar Arrington, who was the most dominant defensive player in the country.  And they had Joe Paterno.  

    Minnesota had played Penn St. four times since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993.  Penn St. was 4-0.  But the Gophers scared the pants off then #1 ranked Penn St. in 1997 in a 16-15 loss during which they actually lead by 12 points before a late rally by the Nittany Lions.  Penn State won in Minneapolis 27-17 in a good game in 1998.  The Gophers went into that 1999 game confident they could play with Penn St.  And in what has traditionally been a sign of disrespect, Penn St. scheduled Homecoming around this game.  

    A game in Happy Valley in 1999 meant a crowd of over 90,000 fans (now 107,000).  Beaver Stadium was a very intimidating place. 

    Talking to the Daily Gopher, former Gopher Derek Burns remembered that game and said, "What sets Beaver Stadium apart in my opinion is the vertical nature of the stands. You truly have a sense that the fans are on top of you, especially in the closed horseshoe end. It's almost as if fans could leap from their upper deck seats and land on the field.  By game time I was amazed by the fact that every single seat in the stadium was filled. It's hard to describe being down on the field in front of a full stadium like that. You feel like you're in a fishbowl with all of these bodies in chairs pointed towards you."

    As the game started, the Gophers knew they had the fight of their lives against that Penn St. defense.  It was big, fast, strong and very good.  The margin for error was small.  "What might work against a lesser opponent didn't work against Penn St.," Burns said.  The Gophers had to be at their best.  This day, they'd not only have to play their best, they'd need some luck.

    The Gopher defense had been very good too, and they kept holding Penn St. to field goals all game.  Then, in the 3rd quarter, the Gophers struck for two touchdowns and suddenly were up 21-20 with QB Billy Cockerham leading them back.  

    In the 4th quarter, another Penn St. field goal gave them a 23-21 lead with 9 minutes left.  After drives by both teams stalled, the Gophers got the ball back on their own 20 with 1:50 left.  

    On the first play, Cockerham fired a deep pass down the right sideline to star receiver Ron Johnson.  46 yards down to the Penn St. 34-yard line.  The Gophers were set up for a long field goal attempt at worst.  Then Arrington blasted through for one of his game-high 15 tackles, sacking Cockerham for a big loss.

    Two incomplete passes, and the Gophers were down to their last chance.  4th and 16, 1:22 left in the game and well outside field goal range.  Penn St. brought the house, blitzing Cockerham and forcing a quick throw.

    The pass down the left sideline bounced up off of the hands of Johnson.  Receiver Alrand Bruce, trailing the play, dove under the batted ball, scooping it barely off the grass at the 13-yard line.  27-yard gain.  First down. 

    Three plays later, Dan Nystrom had a chance to be a hero.  Earlier in the game, Nystrom, who was a freshman, missed an extra point.  Which is why two other times Mason chose to go for the 2-point conversion instead of kicking.  But, Nystrom said he was still confident with a game-winning 32-yard field goal attempt in front of him.  

    Another thing to consider was Arrington and the Penn St. special teams, which were phenomenal.  Arrington was one of the best athletes ever to play linebacker at a school labled "Linebacker U".  He had a massive vertical leap to go along with a 6'3" frame.  He had already blocked two kicks that season.  Nystrom had actually been practicing for Arrington on the sidelines by kicking over a ladder that was six yards in front of him.  

    "I felt like I was prepared", Nystrom said at the time.  

    As the players lined up, the great Ray Christensen said it best:

    "Rackley will snap, Rindels will put it down for Nystrom.........the snap!  The place!  And the kick!  He got it away, and, it, is GOOOOOOD!  It is good and the players swarm onto the field!  The clock says zero.  And the Gophers have upset the number two team in the nation Penn State, 24 to 23!"

    The Gophers stormed the field.  Coach Glen Mason leapt into the arms of his players.  The celebration was on.  Not only did the Gophers knock off a heavily-favored team and beat Penn St. for the first time in school history, they were eligible to go to their first bowl game in 13 years. 

    That 1999 Gopher team went on to win at home against Indiana and then at Iowa (the last time they won in Iowas City by the way).  They went to the Sun Bowl, where they fell to a very good Oregon team 24-20 in a terrific game. 

    Looking back now, this was easily one of the biggest wins for the Gophers in the last 50 years (along with 1977 and 1986 against Michigan, and the 2000 win at Ohio State).  

    They'd go to a bowl game in 8 of the next 10 seasons.  That win over Penn St. jump-started the program to the best period of sustained success the Gophers had since the Rose Bowl teams of the early 60's.  They never quite got over the hump, you could say, under Mason (who was fired after the 2006 season).  The Tim Brewster era was a disaster.  There were ups (Citrus Bowl) and downs (health) under Jerry Kill.  There was one and a half years of Tracy Claeys that ended with a player revolt and another firing.

    Now there's P.J. Fleck.  They stand here today, November 6th, twenty years to the day after that win over Penn St. at 8-0, facing the Nittany Lions at home, and trying to get to 9-0 for the first time in 115 years.  You read that right....1904 folks...they also allowed 12 points that year.  All year. And all of those 12 came in a 16-12 win over Nebraska.  Nobody else scored a point.   

    This modern day synergy for the Gopher program is kind of crazy.  Launched back into Big Ten relevance by the win in 1999.  Launched into national relevance by a win in 2019?  All with a potential win over Penn State.  

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