No Lion: U bowl bound
Michael DoughertySTATE COLLEGE, Penn. — Three hours before the Gophers’ implausible 24-23 upset against the second-ranked Lions, a Penn State employee brought fruit platters to Beaver Stadium’s luxury boxes.
The woman was on edge as she spoke to a co-worker.
“I woke up at 4 a.m. sweating because I had visions of Minnesota beating us,” she said. “But I reminded myself it was just a dream.”
About six hours later she sat with 97,000 other Lions fans in stunned silence. The homecoming crowd watched a nightmare unfold as Gophers freshman kicker Dan Nystrom booted a 32-yard field goal as time expired to give Minnesota (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) a one-point win.
A team that entered the game with a 36-72 record in the 1990s doesn’t go on the road and knock off a team with a 96-23 record in the same period.
A team that hasn’t had a winning record since a 6-5 campaign in 1990 doesn’t heave up two successful Hail Marys in the last two minutes of the game.
A team that aspires to the Motor City Bowl doesn’t roll into town, strap on the helmets and knock Joe Paterno and his boys out of Bowl Championship Series contention.
Or does it?
It did on Saturday, and the Gophers brought home the Governors’ Victory Bell that the two teams battled for. With apologies to Gov. Jesse Ventura, Minnesota shocked the world — or at least the nation.
“Typically, losing programs like (Minnesota) don’t win at the wire,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “That’s why you expect Penn State to win at the wire, and everyone goes out to their tailgate party and says, ‘Another lousy win.'”
But not on Saturday. On Saturday, everything seemed to bounce Minnesota’s way. Literally.
Penn State kicker Travis Forney bounced a 50-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright in the first quarter.
Lions receiver Eddie Drummond let a sure touchdown pass from quarterback Rashard Casey bounce off his hands early in the fourth quarter.
And then the final bounce. The bounce the Pennsylvania press labeled the “Immaculate Deflection.” The bounce Minnesota fans will remember forever.
On fourth-and-16 from the Penn State 40, Gophers quarterback Billy Cockerham flung the ball 27 yards downfield. Waiting for it was wide receiver Ron Johnson. Also waiting for it were Penn State defensive backs David Macklin and Derek Fox.
The trio leapt for the ball and somehow, some way, the ball bounced off Johnson’s chest and floated into the outstretched arms of a diving Arland Bruce.
Bruce said it was one of those moments that seemed like slow motion.
“Billy put it up, and Ron tipped it. Then I saw it just hanging in the air, saying, ‘Come get me. Come get me,’ and I just grabbed it,” the Minnesota senior said. “I’m still thinking about it, and I don’t know how I did it.”
How did he do it, coach Mason?
Mason wasn’t sure. He had to refer to videotape to find out.
“I had my eyes closed,” he said. “I did. I can’t lie. I’m an honest man. I had my eyes closed.”
Bruce’s catch gave the Gophers a first down at the Penn State 13. After three straight rushes up the middle and a Minnesota timeout with 2 seconds left, it was all left up to an 18-year-old kicker.
Nystrom got up from the knee he was praying on. He jogged out to the 25-yard line to set up for the 32-yard field goal that meant so much to so many.
For Nystrom and running back Thomas Hamner it meant redemption. Redemption for Nystrom and the extra point he missed early in the second quarter, which turned the game into a chess match.
It was redemption for Hamner and his fumble at Happy Valley two years ago when the Gophers lost 16-15. So it came as no surprise that Hamner was at the forefront of Mason’s jumbled mind after the game.
“I want to tell you something about that kid,” Mason said of the workhorse who ran the ball 38 times. “He fumbled the ball on third-and-three two years ago, and everyone wanted to point the finger at him and say, `You lost the game.’
“He was devastated. A lesser kid would have just said, ‘Hey, I don’t like football anymore. I’m going to go home and mow the yard.’ But Thomas Hamner is the heart and soul of our offense,” Mason added.
Hamner ran for 96 yards and caught three passes for 58 yards, including a 49-yarder for a score. The 38 carries are the most by a Penn State opponent — ever.
Hamner said he felt like the Gophers had to “lose won to win one” against Penn State. Rubbing his face with both hands, Hamner tried to describe feelings that most can’t even begin to comprehend.
“I think I jumped outside of myself,” Hamner said, shaking his head in disbelief. “For real, man. When (Bruce) caught it, my heart dropped to my feet. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Mason ran on to the field and jumped into senior tight end Alex Hass’ arms and raised his arms like Rocky Balboa — as if he just won the heavyweight title.
What about JoePa?
In his 50th year at Penn State, Paterno watched Nystrom’s field goal standing on the same sideline so familiar to him and all of college football.
He stood wearing his familiar high-water khaki pants and his trademark black Nike football shoes cushioned with white sweat socks.
He watched the ball split the uprights. Through those thick spectacles he saw something so unfamiliar: David — clad in maroon, gold and white — in a wild celebration of ecstasy, and Goliath — wearing blue and white — sprawled on the field in Happy Valley in agony.
Michael Dougherty covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]