GoAUpher note: Back in 2015 former Gopher offensive lineman Derek Burns reached out to TDG to share his complete recollection of Minnesota’s upset of undefeated and #2 ranked Penn State in 1999. The post he wrote is one of my favorites ever posted at TDG.
Today is 20 years to the day since that amazing upset! Since Minnesota is playing a huge game against Penn State this weekend we had to re-post this amazing article for you all to enjoy. If a little nostalgia will help get you hyped for Saturday, watch the 1999 upset after reading this piece and enjoy the ‘99 Upset #TBT.
Also make sure to listen to my conversation with Derek from earlier this week for even more on the 1999 game as well as his schematic thoughts heading into Saturday. And if you want to enjoy his football knowlege on a regular basis, give him a follow on Twitter (@Derek_S_Burns)!
Without further delay we share Derek's fine recounting of one of the biggest upsets in Minnesota Football history. Enjoy!
Early November, 1999. Penn State was 9-0, had beaten four Top 25 teams, and was ranked #2 in the country. Minnesota had finished with a winning record only once in the previous nine seasons, was unranked, and was 5-3 having lost two games to Top 25 opponents by a combined six points. It was homecoming week at Penn State.
I think the first thing I remember about preparing for Penn State that week was looking at the opponent lineup in the locker room Tuesday afternoon before practice. During game week, either Sunday or Monday was spent reviewing the game film and correcting mistakes from the previous game during practice. No opponent scouting was done until the film sessions before Tuesday's practice. As a side note, this always made the weekly media day on Tuesday afternoons interesting because as a player if you attended you were usually asked several questions about the upcoming opponent before you'd even scouted them! You really needed to brush up on your generic, canned answers before attending.
Anyway, I remember looking at the opponent lineup before film and practice on Tuesday afternoon. Each week a large bulletin board in the locker room (this is where the phrase bulletin board material comes from) was covered with the opposing team's 2-deep depth chart for the players to see. Each opposing player's bio was listed including height, weight, year, statistics, etc. In my years as player I can't say I ever took much from this other than small tidbits of information, except during this Penn State week. I looked at the defensive tackles and started reading:
"Jimmy Kennedy...6' 4"...340lbs...wait, 340lbs!?!? Holy [crap]!" I thought to myself. "This guy is going to be hard to move." I wasn't scared or intimated, because as a player you go through so much preparation, so much blood and sweat on the practice field and in the weight room that you are really ready for anything on game day. At the time, I don't even remember taking note of the rest of their defense on that board, but our offense would learn plenty about all of them that week of practice and we would experience their capabilities on that coming Saturday.
The Game Plan
It might sound very cliche, but many of the big plays which occur on a Saturday (and sometimes even the win itself) actually happen earlier in the week (or at the very least get their start there). The big play action post that finds a streaking receiver wide open for a 50 yard touchdown was mostly likely drawn up in the mind of an offensive coordinator or position coach sitting in a dark film room by himself on Monday night.
This was the case with several successful plays in the Penn State game that year and, in fact, the whole philosophy and game plan was hatched by the coaching staff before we hit the practice field Tuesday afternoon. It went something like this:
"We will pound and grind our way through this game without getting discouraged," I recall offensive coordinator Steve Loney saying, "but we will have a few bullets too. When the timing is right, we will fire a bullet."
I always liked that metaphor and several of those bullets would find their mark on Saturday. What Coach Loney was trying to say without saying it was we were going to be conservative but dial up some explosive plays when the time was right. You will never hear a coach use the word conservative with his players because conservative somehow implies a lack of all out effort, like you're holding back. While you may be holding back some riskier strategies, playing conservative does not mean you don't give maximum effort. Either way, the message was received.
The 1999 Minnesota Gophers
I can't say enough about our coaching staff's game plan and preparation that week. Penn State was a better team than we were, they had more talent. The coaches knew this which is why they chose the route they did. To this day I believe in this type game plan for teams who find themselves as big underdogs. If you play against a team with more talent, more speed and more athleticism and you try to run big risky play after big risky play you're going to get torched. At the same time, you have to have some "bullets" ready to go. If you think you can sit on the ball three times every series, punt and wait for the other, more talented team to beat themselves chances are you'll be out of luck. Sure, once in a millennium the other team might absolutely fall all over themselves with turnovers or some other self-inflicted errors, but I don't believe your team's entire game plan should be built on the other team failing. Stick to what you do best (for us it was zone running) and fire a few bullets when the timing is right.
The week of practice leading up to the Penn State game was like many others, but a few things stand out. First, I remember stretching before one of the practices talking with linebacker Shawn Hoffman.
"Are you ready to go to Penn State? It's my favorite place to play" he told me.
"Why?" I asked.
"It's college football man. It just embodies college football. Oh, and you're going to get really sick of the lion roar they play on the PA system."
Of course I didn't yet understand what he meant but I would definitely find out.
I also distinctly remember our special teams unit practicing all week for Penn State's field goal block team. Every single play of every single game is examined by the coaches on film. Penn State had blocked at least two kicks in games earlier that year and our coaches had seen it. To prepare for Penn State's field goal block our coaches brought out a tall ladder and placed it directly in front of Dan Nystrom all week while he practiced kicks. While this looked somewhat ridiculous it served its purpose. Of course we had no idea the final play in the game would come down to a field goal but we certainly hoped to be kicking some extra points and field goals and they had the best field goal/pat block team we'd ever seen.
Lastly, I can remember watching film of Penn State short yardage defense situations with our offensive coordinator Steve Loney.
"Look at this guy right here," he said as he circled the free safety with his laser pointer. "This guy is supposed to cover the tight end if he breaks off into a route. He's not respecting pass at all, he's cheating run all the way."
Sure enough, we watched several short yardage plays where Penn State's free safety collapsed towards the line of scrimmage when he read run.
"We're going to run play action if the right situation comes up and catch this guy. That will be one of our bullets." Coach Loney said.
Arrival in (Un)Happy Valley
Have you ever been to Happy Valley, PA? If you have, you arrived by small plane, car, foot, or horseback. The area does not have an airport that supports large commercial aircraft (or at least it didn't in 1999) so we, like countless teams before us, flew into a larger nearby city and took the bus into Happy Valley. The drive in is actually very pretty and looks like a backdrop taken out of a scene from Middle Earth. Rolling hills covered in trees and green with deep valleys. As we got near the stadium you could see the enormous tailgating scene. Tents, chairs, and fans for what seemed like miles. It was/is something to behold. The stadium itself is just as impressive. With a capacity of well over 90,000 in 1999 (now over 107,000) what sets Beaver Stadium apart in my opinion is the vertical nature of the stands. You truly have a sense that the fans are on top of you, especially in the closed horseshoe end. It's almost as if fans could leap from their upper deck seats and land on the field.
True to Shawn Hoffman's word it wasn't 30 seconds into warm ups before I heard the first lion roar over the PA system. I would hear it at least one hundred more times before the game was over. To this day when I watch a Penn State home game on television I can hear that roar; the same one they've been using since...well...forever.
By game time I was amazed by the fact that every single seat in the stadium was filled. It's hard to describe being down on the field in front of a full stadium like that. You feel like you're in a fishbowl with all of these bodies in chairs pointed towards you. Just before kickoff I remember looking at the very highest, upper corner of the stadium I could find and it was full. I mean literally the last little seat in the highest corner of the highest section in the whole stadium. You can actually feel an energy in the atmosphere during games like that one. I don't mean that in some spooky way, just sort of a collective tension and excitement you can actually sense which comes from having so many people together focusing on the same thing. When you're down on the field you feel like you're in the dead center of all that energy. "It's College Football," I thought.
The First Bullet
Penn State's defense was good, right up there with the best I ever played against. That didn't mean all plays that may have worked vs other defenses no longer worked against the Nittany Lions. What it meant was 8 yard gains against a lesser opponent were 4 yard gains against Penn State. 5 yard gains became 2 yard gains. Your margin for error shrinks and the open gaps and spaces on the field literally shrink too. Penn State was fast and they were strong but their defense was smart too.
How do you move a 340 pound defensive tackle? You don't. What you do is try and fight for position and beat him to spots, cut him off. You don't need to drive your defender five yards off the line of scrimmage, you only need to prevent him from making the tackle. And so it was with Penn State's defensive front. The first 15 minutes of the game was what Mitch Browning, one of our coaches, used to call a fistfight in a phone booth. Both teams pushed, pulled and leaned on each other without much movement.
True to the game plan we played things relatively tight until the beginning of the 2nd quarter when we fired our first bullet. I don't remember the exact play call but I believe it was a bootleg pass with a deep option. Quarterback Billy Cockerham took the snap, rolled out, and threw a deep pass down the far sideline into the endzone. Ron Johnson jumped up among several defenders and caught the ball for a touchdown. A truly great catch! The thing I remember so well about that play was the reaction. As soon as I saw the catch I yelled with excitement along my teammates as we ran down the field. When our yelling died down I was just hit by an indescribable silence. I couldn't believe how quiet the crowd went. It was so still I felt like you could have heard the handful of us on the field cheering if you were standing outside the stadium in the parking lot. Just dead silence.
Game plans and big halftime adjustments are well documented and reported but one of the things hardly ever talked about is all of the little adjustments made by the players during the game. Some of these are a result of instinct, but some are intellectual. Penn State's defense that year was athletic, but also very smart.
About midway through the second quarter I noticed both of their defensive tackles jumping the gaps on our zone running plays, which was making it difficult on us interior lineman. Something was up. At halftime I pulled Ben Hamilton (our center) aside. "They memorized our backside blocking calls," I told him. "Ok, let's change them up," he replied. Their d-tackles might have been smart but we were pretty smart too. So right there in the locker room at halftime we worked out a new system of calls for our inside zone running plays. It worked. Penn State's defensive linemen weren't able to get the jump on any more zone running plays.
I need to take a moment to talk about crowd noise. Of all the places I played Penn State was the loudest, especially in the "closed bowl" end of the stadium. The stadium capacity is huge, the architecture very vertical, and the fans know when to be loud. The sound level of a crowd when we were on the field during one of Penn State's key defensive plays was like nothing I've experienced before or since. At field level of a stadium like the one at Penn State the volume can get so loud that you can't pick out any words, phrases, or distinct sounds above the crowd noise. Essentially you are deaf.
There were a few series which put us in the closed end of the bowl in key situations. This is the best way I can describe the noise level (and I will never forget this)...playing left guard my right ear was no more than 5 or 6 feet from our quarterback Billy Cockerham's facemask when he was under center. During those plays I had to strain as hard as I could to hear his voice above the crowd when he called the cadence. He was shouting as loud as he could but still his voice sounded so quiet compared to the crowd it was like someone whispering from across the room. I remember several times in my stance tilting my head and pointing my ear at Billie in order to concentrate on his voice enough to hear the cadence. I never jumped offside during the game (thankfully) but I haven't forgotten the noise level of that crowd.
The Scouted Safety
Near the end of the 3rd quarter we huddled up for a 3rd and short. Penn State had just scored on their previous possession to go up 17-9 and we needed to do something. Remember the free safety who we saw on film playing run in short yardage? Coach Loney had waited all game long for the right situation and this was it.
Billy Cockerham took the snap, sold a great short yardage run fake and pulled the ball out. The safety, true to the film we had watched, crashed the line of scrimmage to play run. Our tight end Alex Haas blocked for one count and then released and ran right down the middle of the field wide open. Billy hit him with a pass and Alex ran almost the entire length of the field before being caught from behind. Billy would score on an option keep a few plays later to make it 17-15.
Side note: Later that night after we returned to Minneapolis a bunch of us (including Alex) were hanging out together. There was a TV on the background and in those days after a certain time at night ESPN would just run a loop of the day's sports highlights over and over. Our game was a part of the loop and it showed Alex's catch and run. We gave Alex hell for getting caught from behind every time they played the clip. It didn't matter what we were doing or who was talking, when we saw the highlight come on we would pretend we were watching it for the first time and someone would say, "Hey, Alex caught it and he's going to score!" Then when he got caught from behind we would all collectively roar and say things like, "How did you get caught?!?!?" Good memories.
With 11:30 left in the game we once again found ourselves in need of a big play. Penn State had scored on the previous drive to go up 20-15 and their defense was as tough to run against in the 4th quarter as they were in the 1st. We had been calling a lot of bootleg passes to try and counter our run game and Penn State had been calling a decent amount of blitzes to enable their linebackers to make plays. Our coaches had watched closely on previous bootlegs to confirm Penn State was leaving a backside linebacker to cover Thomas Hamner man to man after the fake handoff. All of this provided an opportunity to run a play called Waggle Wheel.
Billy took the snap and faked a left outside zone running play to Thomas. Billy then rolled to his right but instead breaking contain and giving himself run/pass options as he normally would, he set up just inside the right tackle (a pass setup that is called a waggle). After the fake hand off Thomas ran flat down the line of scrimmage at half speed until he was outside all the other pass routes. Then he turned up field and ran vertical at full speed in a wheel route. The goal is to lull the outside linebacker to sleep throughout the game with bootleg after bootleg so he wasn't ready for the wheel route and also to force him to cover a quicker, faster running back on a vertical route. The route worked perfectly and Thomas got behind the linebacker with no safety over the top. Billy threw a beautiful pass that hit Thomas in stride for a 49 yard touchdown and we went up 21-20.
Side-note: We would use the waggle wheel play about five more times throughout the rest of the season and I think all but one ended up being big plays for us, with 3 or 4 being touchdowns. Frankly I was always surprised defenses did not scout that play better but I suppose timing was the key.
The Final Drive
The catch by Arland Bruce (which I'll talk more about in a second) and the last field goal will always be remembered, but in my opinion the first play of our last drive might have been the most important. We took over for our final possession trailing 23-21 and our offense huddled on the sideline to get ready to start the drive. We used to start every drive after a timeout or change of possession by huddling on the sidelines so that the defense did not have a chance to match up personnel. One of the offensive coaches, not the quarterback, would actually call the first play. He would call the play on the sidelines and the we could come out having forcing the defense to match up with whatever they personnel they had for the first play.
On what was to be the game-winning drive we knew we had to score but we didn't panic because we had a long way to go. As the offensive coordinator started to call the first play we all leaned in to listen close. When the offensive coach was literally half way through calling the first play Coach Mason jumped into the huddle and blurted out, "Run Hail Mary!" The coach calling the play looked at him in disbelief, "Huh?" he asked. "Run Hail Mary right now!" Mason repeated. He had a wild look in his eye. "On this first play, run Hail Mary!"
The coach calling the play, looking somewhat stunned, called Hail Mary for our first play. For those who never got a chance to play football in the backyard growing up, Hail Mary is a play where you line up 4 or 5 wide receivers to one side and they all run straight down field in go routes. The quarterback throws up a bomb hoping one of the wide receivers comes down with the ball. That was exactly what happened on our first play of the drive. We must have caught Penn State's defensive backs off guard because I remember what our wide receivers had to say about that play on the plane ride back from Penn State.
"They just kept running!" Luke Leverson said to the others, referring to the Penn State defensive backs. True to his word, if you watch the game film you'll see the ball was actually somewhat under thrown and one of our wide receivers, Ron Johnson, reacted and came back to the ball. The Penn St defenders didn't want to let any receivers behind them so they kept running downfield! Ron caught the ball for a huge gain and I don't think Penn State knew what hit them. Without that first big play of the drive I'm certain we would never have won the game.
I have almost no recollection of one of the most crucial plays of the game (Arland Bruce's big catch) but I have seen it enough times since to help fill in any gaps. The drive that started with a Hail Mary had finally stalled. Unlike earlier in the game, we did not have a perfect play waiting to be called or any Penn State tendencies left to exploit. So we took our last gasp of air and called another deep pass play.
Billy took the snap, dropped back, waited as long as he could for receivers to get downfield, and threw a deep pass down the left side of the field. Penn State was ready and had several defenders deep. A couple of players jumped for the pass as it came down and the ball was batted backwards. Ron Johnson was one of the players who jumped to catch the ball and later recalled that after the ball was batted away he thought the game was over. However, Arland Bruce was trailing the pass and saw it get deflected. He dove forward for the ball as it was falling to the ground and caught it!
I think for a split second both teams were caught off guard. Nobody, not even Arland, expected the play to turn out that way. Ron said he knew something had happened when the crowd didn't cheer and instead went silent. Since I didn't get a clear view of the catch I didn't know at the time exactly what had happened but when I saw the reaction of the players on our our sideline I knew we caught it. They were going berserk!
After the catch by Arland Bruce we immediately called a time out. We knew right away we were going to try a field goal as time expired. As we stood huddled on the sideline I mentally went through my role on the field goal team, making sure I prepared myself. As I was deep in thought I felt someone grab my arm and squeeze it. I swung my head to the side to see my teammate and great friend Akeem Akinwale. "What?" I thought to myself, though I didn't say anything. He looked me straight in the eyes but he didn't say a word. Not one. He didn't need to say anything, because his message was received. The coach made the call on the sidelines and we trotted out to position.
Did I think we were going to make the kick? At the time I didn't think about it at all actually. I was comfortable with the distance but honestly I was just focused on getting my block. Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington recalled in a 2009 interview about the game, "I just remember I didn't care, we were going to block it, you know? Nobody ever does hard counts on field goals." I think the last thing I remember thinking before the snap was, "don't overextend yourself in case they pull you forward."
One technique field goal block teams employ is having the defensive line pull one of the blockers forward in order to open up on a hole for someone behind him to run or dive through to try and block the kick. I got down in my stance with 340 lb Jimmy Kennedy lined up over me and waited for the snap. When the snap came I stepped right, braced myself and absorbed Jimmy's impact as best I could. That was followed by a second impact as Arrington and Brown dove over the top. "I missed the ball by like an inch," said Arrington, "It was pretty close, man. It was pretty close. It wasn't meant to be."
Earlier in the week during practice when Nystrom when kicked over the step ladder I can remember Coach Mason yelling at him, "Keep your head down!" as he completed each kick. The reason for this is that many times when kickers pull their head up before their leg has swung all the way through they will pull the kick off center. When you watch a replay of the game winning kick, watch Nystrom keep his head down all the way through the kick until he's completed his motion.
Nystrom kicked the ball and I looked to see the trajectory and angle. It was dead center. I don't remember it at the time but when I saw the film later I noticed I didn't even wait for the ball to hit the net on the other side of the uprights before I started to celebrate. I jumped up, threw my fist into the air and started yelling and running around with the rest of my teammates.
I simply can't put into words how we felt immediately after that kick went through. Ecstasy might be the closest way to describe it but even that doesn't capture the moment. I remember running to the far sideline in front of the tiny section of Minnesota fans who were at the very top corner of one section, looking up at them, pumping my fist and yelling. They were jumping up and down trying to be as loud as they could be.
The Locker Room
The few minutes that followed the kick and the celebration on the field were a blur and I have very little memory of those moments. What I do remember is gathering in the locker room after everything had temporarily settled down. Coach Mason walked to the middle of the circle of players and coaches and addressed the team. His voice was so hoarse you could hardly hear him and he fought back emotion as he said, "This win is not just a result of the effort you gave today. It's a result of all the effort and hard work you've put in over the past three years."
I remember looking around the room at this moment and caught a glimpse of Chris Hartman, our strength and conditioning coach, who had tears running down his face. I couldn't believe it. Coach Hartman was as tough a coach as I'd been around but I totally understood his emotions. He had been a part of a lot of tough years, A LOT of tough years. Many of those coaches had. I learned that day the emotion (anger, happiness, sadness) you see from coaches and players in any sport comes from the hours/days/weeks/months/years of emotional investment. It's easy to flip on the TV, watch a game for a couple of hours and wonder when it's over, "Can you believe those guys are getting THAT excited over a single game?" But it's never about just that one game.
In the Penn St locker room LaVar Arrington recalled, "My father was the only one that could get me out of [the locker room]," Arrington said. "I sat there so long, there was barely anyone outside by the time I got my equipment off and got my stuff together and then came out." Back in our locker room Coach Mason closed his post game talk with us by saying, "This win today was important not only because you beat a great, great team under tough circumstances...it's important because we took this program from a loser to a winner." It was our sixth win of the year.
After we showered and dressed we left the locker room and headed for the bus. We players were totally surprised to open the locker room door and be greeted by a bunch of Minnesota fans standing there with programs and pens in their hands, hoping for autographs. This might have been a regular occurrence with other college football teams but it was new to us (I guess nobody really expected us to win the game)! I can still remember one guy with his young son (maybe 7 or 8 years old) totally decked out in Gopher gear. He had the biggest smile on his face, literally grinning ear to ear. There were not all that many Minnesota fans in attendance at the game so I sometimes think about that guy and his son and wonder if they remember those moments like I do?
Looking back it's hard to say if the game had any lasting impact on either program beyond the season itself. Was it a "program changing" game? Perhaps in the near term. I do know it's had a lasting effect, at least emotionally, for those involved. LaVar Arrington reflected, "I've lived with that every day," he said. "That pushed me in my life. I strive not to lose ever, just based off of moments like that. I've never gotten over that loss."
For Gophers players, we never won a national championship or went to the Rose Bowl but I'm proud of what we accomplished and I'm proud of that win over Penn State. Most of all, I love that Minnesota fans love that game. I love knowing that many Gophers fans who suffered through a lot of tough years with our players and coaches got to experience a win like that.
After all, isn't that why we all love college football?