Minnesota win leaves Lions at a loss

David La

STATE COLLEGE, Penn.,– Penn State coach Joe Paterno, a man who’s sampled every item on the college football menu over the last 50 years, looked like he still needed a few moments.
Postgame sweat matted the 72-year-old’s generous crop of hair to his wrinkled forehead and glistened just below his pronounced nose.
His glasses — spectacles so thick he could see the future — magnified eyes left glossy by the immediate past.
Though he’s coached the Lions to many big wins and suffered through a few crushing losses, JoePa struggled to explain his team’s 24-23 homecoming loss to then-unranked Minnesota.
So, he resorted to an ‘I-told-you-so’ address.
“Minnesota only lost by 10 points combined to three pretty good football teams,” Paterno said. “When I tell you guys someone’s going to be tough, you have a tendency not to believe me.”
Like traveling evangelists, the Gophers made believers out of the Beaver Stadium congregation of 96,753 long enough to get out of town with the collection plate.
If the roaring crowd suffered from disbelief, the winning Minnesota team made a profound impact on the Penn State players.
“(The Gophers) were one hell of a football team,” Lions linebacker Brandon Short said.
“They were reeling,” linebacker LaVar Arrington said. “We had them where we wanted them. Obviously they had us where they wanted us.”
As Arrington sat providing his best answers for the loss, faint remnants of eye-black were visible under his eyes. On this day, however, it might be mistaken for run mascara.
After all, Arrington said he laid on the field and cried upon the realization that his team lost.
The loss is no reflection on Arrington. The junior ‘backer flew around the field Saturday, making 15 tackles. On Minnesota’s final drive, Arrington sacked Gophers quarterback Billy Cockerham for a 6-yard loss.
On a normal day, a big play by an already legendary defender gives Penn State its 10th win. But on Saturday it didn’t matter.
Cockerham pulled himself up off the grass to throw a miraculous, 27-yard, fourth-down, deflected completion to Arland Bruce. The catch gave Minnesota a first down on the Lions 13-yard line.
“We were playing straight-man,” Penn State’s bewildered Derek Fox said. “We knew they were going for a jump-ball situation. I thought I tipped the ball away. I thought it was an incomplete pass.”
On the sideline, Paterno also thought his team just gave him a win in his 400th career game.
“All of a sudden someone was yelling, ‘He caught it, he caught it,'” Paterno said. “I guess they just got it before it hit the ground.”
Four plays later, Penn State’s hope of a national championship came crashing to the ground as Dan Nystrom converted a 32-yard field goal attempt.
“I’ve been here before,” Paterno said of his mood. “I feel sorry for the kids, the seniors.
“But they still can have a great season, and they’ve got to keep that in perspective.”
Though not completely dashed, the Lions’ hopes of playing in the Sugar Bowl for the national title are now in serious peril.
“They pulled it off,” Arrington said with an incredulous laugh. “They came into our homecoming and they beat us.”
David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]