On November 15, 1986 the Minnesota Golden Gophers upset Bo Schembechler’s #2 ranked Michigan Wolverines 20-17 in Ann Arbor. The Gophers won that game with kicker Chip Lohmiller hitting the game-winning 30 yard field goal as time expired. This victory was the most recent victory versus the Associated Press Top 10 for the Gophers as they entered the 1999 season.
The 1999 Golden Gophers got off to a 5-1 start (their only loss at #20 Wisconsin); however, Minnesota dropped two straight games at home versus #22 Ohio State and #18 Purdue. This losing streak appeared to be headed to three games as Minnesota traveled to State College to take on Joe Paterno’s #2 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions, a team very much in the running for the National Championship.
Penn State entered their 1999 homecoming game at 9-0 including victories over four ranked teams (versus #4 Arizona, at #8 Miami, versus #18 Ohio State, and at #16 Purdue). In addition to being Penn State’s 1999 homecoming, the Minnesota game was Joe Paterno’s 400th game as Penn State head coach. Minnesota entered this game as a 14-point underdog to Penn State. Interestingly, prior to the game Joe Paterno said that Minnesota was, “the best team we’ve played”.
The Nittany Lions had a dominating defense led by defensive end Courtney Brown and linebacker LaVar Arrington; the #1 and #2 overall picks in the 2000 NFL Draft. Glen Mason’s approach for this game was simple: Mason was going to be patient, but with a twist. If Minnesota was close in the fourth quarter, the Gophers would take some chances against the Nittany Lions. As further evidence that Mason was expecting a close game, he had his freshman kicker Dan Nystrom kicking field goals over a tall step ladder in practice (as Penn State had blocked several kicks in previous games).
Penn State got on the scoreboard first with fullback Mike Cerimele’s touchdown. The Nittany Lions had a chance to go up 10-0, but a Travis Forney 50-yard field goal bounced off of the upright. Minnesota got a field goal and then a touchdown to take a 9-7 lead; however, freshman kicker Dan Nystrom missed the extra point. A 25 yard Kevin Thompson touchdown pass to Bryant Johnson gave Penn State a 14-13 halftime lead.
Penn State held the lead in the third quarter with the Nittany Lions getting a 20-yard Travis Forney field goal. Following this score, Minnesota’s Billy Cockerham hit Alex Haas with a deep pass to the Penn State 3 yard line. Cockerham got the touchdown on a 3-yard run; however, the Gophers missed the 2-point conversion and Penn State held a 17-15 lead through three quarters.
In the fourth quarter Penn State got another Travis Forney field goal to go up 20-15. Minnesota responded with a deep Cockerham touchdown pass to take the lead on the Nittany Lions. The Golden Gophers again went for the 2-point conversation and missed, so the lead was just one point at 21-10. Penn State regained the lead 23-31 on Forney’s third field goal with about 9 minutes to go.
To this 33 year old (at the time) ‘writer’ it looked like Minnesota would come up short; just as they had in their previous trip to Beaver Stadium. After getting the ball back Minnesota completed a deep pass to Ron Johnson, moving into Penn State territory. Following a sack and two incompletions, Minnesota faced a fourth down and 16. Billy Cockerham’s pass tipped off the hands of Ron Johnson’s hands into Arland Bruce’s keeping the drive alive.
This set up the game winning field goal by freshman kicker Dan Nystrom. As can be seen in the video clip below, Penn State’s two All-American defenders Courtney Brown (#86) and LaVar Arrington (#11) get running starts to attempt to block the kick. However, Nystrom gets the kick off - perhaps aided by practicing field goals with a step ladder in front of him - and spit the uprights at the gun giving the Golden Gophers the 24-23 (edit) victory.
Penn State was stunned following this loss. LaVar Arrington’s father had to get him out of the Penn State locker room following the game. The Nittany Lions went on to lose their next two games to Michigan and Michigan State, settling for a fourth place Big Ten finish (tied with Minnesota) and an appearance in the Alamo Bowl.
The 1999 Minnesota Golden Gophers were the latest in a series of reclamation projects for Glen Mason. He turned around Kent State (despite former boss Woody Hayes advising Mason to not take the Golden Flashes job), led Kansas to a 10-win season in 1995 and two bowl games (after being advised to not take the Jayhawks job), and led the Minnesota to seven bowl game appearances (including 3 appearances in the Music City Bowl, aka the Glen Mason Invitational) and a 10-win season in 2003. There were other big wins for Mason’s Golden Gophers; such as at #6 Ohio State in 2000, and a double-overtime victory over #11 Purdue at the Metrodome. However, no other victory since that November afternoon in Happy Valley has equaled what the Golden Gophers accomplished in Happy Valley.
The Daily Gopher published Minnesota offensive lineman Derek Burns’ first-hand account of the upset victory at #2 Penn State. It provides some very interesting insights into the game; including the fun and joy of traveling to State College, Pennsylvania before the local airport was upgraded.
Northwestern - The Upset
Indiana - The Real Game of the Century
Nebraska - Surrender Whites
Michigan State - Earning a Rematch
Rutgers - A Program-Changing Season
Illinois - Running the Table
Maryland - Frank Reich’s First Comeback