There’s no question Nov. 6, 1999, was a seminal moment in the resurgence of Minnesota’s football team. Walk by the weight room in the Bierman athletic complex, and the gargantuan photo of kicker Dan Nystrom drilling a 32-yard field goal over a leaping LaVar Arrington for a 24-23 victory over No. 2 Penn State makes the point pretty clear.
But as big as that game was for the Gophers – it propelled them to a final No. 18 national ranking and the first of four bowl games in the last five years – it’s become just as crucial in the demise of the Lions and their legendary coach, Joe Paterno.
Penn State, which was 9-0 at the time and entertaining visions of its second national championship in six years, is 25-30 since the kick and hasn’t beaten Minnesota since.
When the Lions (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) come to the Metrodome on Saturday, they won’t look anything like the juggernaut Minnesota shocked in 1999.
The Lions’ top quarterback, Zack Mills, is questionable for Saturday’s game because of a shoulder injury he suffered against Wisconsin. Backup Michael Robinson, who lost feeling in his left side for approximately an hour after a hit in the Badgers game, is definitely out.
Things haven’t been any better off the field. The coach’s son-in-law, Chris Hort, is in intensive care after a bicycle accident last weekend.
And Paterno, at 73 years old, is trying to rebuild.
“We have tried to make people realize football is important, but we want to respect each other regardless of what happens,” Paterno said.
Once the Division I-A all-time victories leader, Paterno has been passed by Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and is currently three wins off Bowden’s pace.
Paterno has only taken the Lions to one bowl game since 1999, and some have called for the 73-year-old, in his 39th year at Penn State, to step down.
But you’ll never hear those words from Gophers coach Glen Mason. In fact, Mason took every chance he had to salute Paterno this week.
“Quite frankly, the guy never ceases to amaze me,” Mason said Tuesday. “Obviously, he’s been a giant in our profession for a long, long time.”
Mason, who has worn a shirt and tie on the sidelines in tribute to Paterno on several occasions, said he’s bothered with the contention Paterno should resign.
“We are so hypocritical at the college level. I’m not a pro coach; I’m a college coach,” Mason said. “I’m held responsible for a lot of things than just winning games. But if you don’t win enough games, people are going to say you’re a bad coach.
“You talk about all of the positive things he’s done; everyone talks about how he’s getting old. I’ll probably retire before he does.”
It would be natural for Minnesota (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) to look past the slumping Lions, with a defining game at No. 19 Michigan looming next weekend.
But if there’s one thing the 18th-ranked Gophers know, it’s that no team with Paterno on its sideline should be taken lightly.
“When we got to (Penn State) last year, I just kind of looked at him for a few minutes,” quarterback Bryan Cupito said. “He’s a great coach, he’s proved that through the years, and we know they’ll be ready to play.”
Ticket sales up
The athletics department’s ticket office reported it has sold between 45,000 and 46,000 tickets for Saturday’s game, and expects walk-up sales to push the crowd near 50,000.
That would be the largest crowd of the year at the Metrodome, which has seen 50,000 fans for a Gophers football game only five times in the last three years.