CHICAGO – Going into Homecoming weekend of 1999, Penn State’s football team was flying high. Ranked second in the nation and boasting a 9-0 record, it seemed as if nothing could go wrong for the Lions.
Current starting quarterback Matt Senneca – a sophomore at the time – remembers it well.
“We were floating on cloud nine then,” Senneca said yesterday at Big Ten Football Media Day. “We didn’t think anything could stop us.
“But we hit a big brick wall.”
A maroon and gold brick wall to be exact.
Minnesota entered Beaver Stadium on Nov. 6 after narrowly losing its last two Big Ten games. Penn State took a slim 14-9 lead into halftime, leaving a window of opportunity for Minnesota.
Down 23-21 in the fourth quarter, the Gophers started their final drive on their own 20-yard line with 1:50 to play. A 46-yard pass to Ron Johnson moved Minnesota to the Lions 34-yard line.
Four plays later, a pass intended for Johnson was tipped and wound up in the hands of a diving Arland Bruce at the Penn State 13-yard line.
Four plays later, freshman place-kicker Dan Nystrom punched the winning field goal through the uprights as time expired. The nearly 97,000 fans in attendance were silenced. Penn State’s shot at a national title was ruined.
“It hurt,” linebacker Shamar Finney, then a sophomore, said. “It took a lot out of us emotionally.”
Although disappointed, Penn State head coach Joe Paterno knew his team was not invincible.
“Earlier in the season we were lucky to beat Pitt, we were lucky to beat Miami, so we weren’t dominating anybody,” Paterno said. “So when we lost that game it started a snowball effect.”
The snowball effect continued through the rest of the season. Penn State lost its next two games to Michigan and Michigan State before recovering to shutout Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl.
During the offseason, star-quarterback Rashard Casey was arrested for allegedly assaulting an off-duty police officer in his hometown of Hoboken, N.J., a charge for which he was eventually acquitted.
Despite the acquittal, the incident loomed over the program going into the 2000 season.
Penn State had hoped to leave the disappointing end to the 1999 season behind, but picked up where it left off, dropping the season opener to USC 29-5.
After losing two of their next three games, the Lions traveled to Columbus for a tilt with rival Ohio State. The Buckeyes won in a 45-6 rout, but Penn State suffered an even bigger loss that day.
With only 1:39 left in the game, freshman cornerback Adam Taliaferro suffered a severe spinal injury while making a tackle. The prognosis was Taliaferro would most likely never walk again.
“I learned that you can’t take anything for granted,” Finney said. “Football is just a game, but we’ve got to live the rest of our life.”
The season continued to be disappointing as Penn State garnered a 5-7 record. Five wins left Paterno two victories short of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s record for the most career wins in NCAA history.
All the adversity and disappointment swirling around the team made it nearly impossible for the Lions to regain their footing. In the end, the 2000 season was Penn State’s first losing campaign under Paterno since 1988.
“It did seem out of control, we went through a lot,” Finney said. “The adversity was really on our back. The season was a roller coaster. It was tough for us.”
Moving into 2001, optimism abounds in Happy Valley. Players and coaches are confident Penn State can regain its status as a top team in the Big Ten.
In addition, Taliaferro has defied the odds by walking again and continues to join the team at workouts and practices. Taliaferro’s presence and Paterno’s bid to overtake Bryant’s record will help motivate a team trying to get back what was lost following Minnesota’s upset win in 1999.
Losing season or not, conference foes are still wary of the Lions – and believe the roar will soon be restored.
“Penn State is the type of program and Joe Paterno is the kind of coach that one big victory or one devastating loss normally doesn’t upset the apple barrel,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “I don’t think that we had anything to do with it.”
Anthony Maggio welcomes comments at [email protected]