Twenty years later, Penn State's stunning loss to Minnesota remains a heartbreaking memory

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
Glen Mason

Glen Mason, who coached Minnesota to its 1999 upset of Penn State, has commemorated the game’s final play on a wall of his home. Mason had a photo of Dan Nystrom’s game-winning field goal enlarged to the point that he can see just how much his linemen strained to block Penn State’s front.

The photo still makes him smile.

“Big photo, big win,” Mason said.

Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of Minnesota’s 24-23 win at Beaver Stadium, a game that derailed No. 2 Penn State’s undefeated season and remains a bitter memory. Mike Cerimele, the Allentown Central Catholic graduate who played fullback on the team, still can’t watch the highlights.

Teammate Justin Kurpeikis, a Pittsburgh Central Catholic graduate who was on the line for that field goal, said it ranks third on his list of most disappointing losses: one to high-school rival North Catholic and the other to hometown rival Pitt.

“We had a great group of guys, and I just really enjoyed the whole process with them,” Kurpeikis said. “And that day was heartbreaking.”

Penn State and Minnesota, which will meet Saturday with 8-0 records, have played some memorable games during their comparatively short rivalry. Three of Penn State’s Big Ten title runs have included wins over Minnesota.

In 1994, quarterback Kerry Collins completed 13 consecutive passes (then a school record), and Ki-Jana Carter ran for 210 yards in a 56-3 win. In 2005, the Lions held Minnesota’s Laurence Maroney to 48 yards rushing (he was averaging 175) in a 44-14 victory.

And three years ago, Penn State rallied from a 13-3 halftime deficit (at which point coach James Franklin said he heard fans chanting “Fire Franklin!”) to win 29-26 in overtime. Saquon Barkley’s touchdown run launched Penn State on a nine-game win streak and the conference title.

On Saturday, the teams will play in what Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck called “one of the biggest games in Minnesota history.” It will occur 20 years after the Gophers’ huge upset.

Mason’s strategy: Penn State was 9-0 and ranked second in the AP Top 25. Its lineup featured four all-Big Ten players, three first-team all-Americans and the top two picks in the 2000 NFL draft (Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington).

Mason’s team was 5-3 and coming off narrow losses to ranked teams in Ohio State and Purdue. So Mason, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network, began practice that week with two points of emphasis.

1). Play a patient game offensively. Mason didn’t want his team giving up game-changing plays to Penn State’s big-play defense. He was prepared to run quarterback sneaks on third-and-long just to punt safely, if necessary.

2). Make sure his kicker could get the ball in the air quickly. Mason had watched Arrington block a field goal to seal a win that season against Pitt. So at practice, Mason had Nystrom, then a freshman, attempt field goals against players standing on ladders. By Thursday, Nystrom was clearing them.

When Minnesota took possession late in the game trailing by 2 points, Mason let go of his first strategy. He called for a deep throw on first down, and quarterback Billy Cockerham hit receiver Ron Johnson for 46 yards. Very quickly, Minnesota was close to field-goal range.

“I’m not really that conservative a coach, but we really stayed with that," Mason said. "But the last time we did that, in 1997, we stayed close with [then-No. 1 Penn State] and lost the game by a point [16-15]. So I said, ‘Do you want to do that again? Let’s take a shot.'”

Three plays later, on fourth-and-16, Mason called a “Hail Jane." It was basically the same play as first down, but with the inside receiver (Arland Bruce) trailing to catch a potential tip.

That somehow worked, too, as Bruce got his fingertips under a ball Johnson deflected between two Penn State defenders at the 12-yard line.

“Still,” Cerimele said, 'I’m an optimist. I truly believed there was hope."

“Remember the ladder!” Minnesota had a 32-yard field goal to win. Mason watched Penn State’s sideline, sure that the players were thinking, "If we’re going to win a national championship, we’ve got to block this kick."

Which Kurpeikis was certain that Penn State would block.

“You do feel like you’re going to get it done,” the former defensive end said. “Unfortunately, as good as that team was, we put ourselves in a couple positions where it was maybe too close for comfort.”

On the Minnesota sideline, players shouted, “Remember the ladder!” referencing Nystrom’s drills all week at practice. As he watched the play unfold, Mason saw something elegant and perfect.

His straining linemen (“And I mean straining”) held off Penn State’s front. The hold was calm, and Nystrom’s kick cleared Arrington’s outstretched fingertips for the win as time expired.

“And Beaver Stadium went totally silent," Mason said.

“What if:” The former Minnesota coach has been in demand this week to relive that day, though he didn’t realize the anniversary date. His enduring memory of what he called Minnesota’s “signature victory” at the time is of the players’ reaction.

“The thing about it is, you really wonder, when you get on the plane and go play the No. 2 team in the country, how many guys believe when they get back on that plane that they would have won the game,” Mason said. “What a great experience.”

Meanwhile, Cerimele said he and teammate Eric McCoo sat on the bench as Beaver Stadium emptied wondering what had happened.

“We just sat there in awe, in shock,” Cerimele said. “I mean, that’s why I haven’t even thought about watching it. It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. We had a good thing cooking.”

Cerimele and Kurpeikis, roommates at Penn State, have built successful careers. Cerimele is a community ambassador for St. Luke’s Fitness & Performance, which is opening a new training center in Allentown. He also is an assistant coach at Central Catholic, which is in the District 11 playoffs.

Kurpeikis lives in State College, where he runs Atlas Therapy, a multi-location clinic that specializes in physical therapy. Kurpeikis occasionally sees current Penn State players (several recently visited his kids’ school) and said they “really represent the program well.”

He also has been impressed with Penn State’s 8-0 run this season. It prompts him to reflect on how good his 1999 team was.

“I think that, if we had beaten Minnesota, we probably would have run the table," Kurpeikis said. “The guys we had on defense were really good, but we played as a team. So with those guys, maybe it’s one of those things that, we know what happened but we don’t want to bring it up. But I can tell you for sure that sometimes we asked, ‘What if.’”