Much has been made of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. An eerily high amount of misfortune has come to spotlighted athletes and teams in the iconic magazine, so when Penn State found themselves showcased as the No. 1 team on the college football preview cover (through superstar linebacker Lavar Arrington’s ferocious scowl), fans didn’t know whether to be excited or afraid.
Miami was no stranger to high pre-season rankings through the eighties and early-nineties, but following severe sanctions in 1995, Miami had been absent from the top ten prior to their No. 7 ranking in early 1999. The Hurricanes, anxious to return again to dominance, hoped the jinx would be in full effect on their behalf when Penn State traveled to the Orange Bowl in week four.
The bad boys of the eighties finally ran afoul of the NCAA after the 1995 season, Butch Davis’s first at Miami. Championship coach Dennis Erickson bolted before the wheels completely fell off the Miami dynasty, escaping to the Seattle Seahawks. Davis, however, weathered the massive scholarship reduction and seemed to have navigated the Hurricanes through the storm. Miami was back in the top 25 each year, which is exemplary for most programs, but not for the U.
The 1999 season was to be the return to glory. A top-ten pre-season ranking and a roster chock-full of top recruits, the Hurricanes went to Columbus, Ohio, and shut down the Buckeyes in their season opener. A win over Penn State in week three would set up a national championship run for Davis’s talented team.
An astronomical number of first-round picks prowled the Orange Bowl sideline in 1999—fourteen! Some of those were underclassmen and didn’t play in the September 18th game, but most of them were giving the No. 2 team in the country a run for their money. “NFL U,” as some had begun calling Miami, was in full effect.
Penn State may have been overmatched man for man, but they had senior leadership and significant experience for their first road game of 1999.
Penn State uber-defenders Courtney Brown and Lavar Arrington came up with games first two tackles and set the tone. Star CB David Macklin’s perfect coverage on 3rd down forced Miami into a three-and-out. Following Arrington’s controversial double-personal fouls for roughing up the tiny Pittsburgh punter the week before, Miami’s punter didn’t appreciate Arrington trying to block his first kick. A fight nearly broke out, and the referees issued negating personal fouls. Penn State drove deep into Miami territory on its first possession but lost some yardage on its final set of downs and had to punt.
On Miami’s next series, Arrington blanketed All-American TE Bubba Frank , forcing Miami QB Kenny Kelly to overthrow into S Derek Fox’s hands. The offense got a first down in the slop and the rain but settled for a field goal. Miami’s defense redeemed their offense’s poor start, holding PSU to just three points when fourteen were very possible midway through the 1st quarter.
QB Rashard Casey redeemed himself for an earlier fumble on the next series with some calculated runs and a beautiful bomb behind the secondary to a wide-open Chafie Fields. The 50-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the first quarter put PSU on top emphatically, 10-0.
Midway through the second quarter, the Miami offense seemed to be revving up. The athletic Kelly made some big throws and an even bigger run. Unfortunately for Kelly, he fumbled at the end of it. On 4th-and-6, Kelly magically eluded defender for an 18-yard gain, only to be leveled by Derek Fox at the PSU 13. Kelly coughed up the ball, and the Lions recovered on 8 with 2:50 left in the half.
Miami got he ball back later, and Kelly hit James Jackson on a 21-yard screen pass. Once inside the red zone, they couldn’t advance the ball but removed the goose egg from the scoreboard with an Andy Crosland 29-yard field goal. The Hurricanes happily headed into halftime down just 10-3.
Penn State didn’t leave momentum in Miami’s hands too long. The opening second-half kickoff was returned 51 yards by Kenny Watson. QB Kevin Thompson converted a key red zone pass to give PSU 1st and goal from the 6. Eric McCoo needed two carries to score, putting Penn State up comfortably 17-3 to the disgust of former Penn State assistant, current Miami defensive coordinator, and future Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano.
Late in the third quarter, Miami had their longest drive of the day, mixing short passes with strong running by RB James Jackson. Jackson’s 18-yard touchdown burst drew the ‘Canes back within 7. The Hurricane defense was energized, but Rashard Casey escaped a third-down blitz to scamper 72 yards, but a Tony Stewart clipping penalty brought it all the way back, forcing PSU to punt.
On the first possession of the fourth quarter, Miami’s Kelly barely avoided the pass rush to heave a wobbly duck skyward into the hands of WR Santana Moss. PSU safety Fox lost sight of the ball, allowing Moss to grab the ball, jog into the end zone, and tie the game. Squandering a 14-point lead on the road was no way to chase a national title for Penn State.
Penn State’s offense rose to the challenge and powered down to the red zone in less than a minute. There they stalled. Travis Forney broke the tie with a 26-yard kick, and the vaunted Penn State defense stepped up to the plate. The D slowed Miami up momentarily but then saw the secondary make a huge mistake on 1st and 10 from the PSU 39. James Jackson sprinted around the end and DBs James Boyd and Anthony King missed tackles on the edge, surrendering a long TD run. The extra point failed, but Miami led 23-20 with 7:42 to go.
Rashard Casey ran for a big first down on PSU’s next possession but then lobbed an interception into DB Ed Reed’s hands, giving Miami possession deep in PSU territory with 4:28 to play. The ‘Canes ate up the clock, pushing to the PSU 23 on 4th down with 1:59 left. Rather than kick a long field goal, Davis elected to go for it. The rush was a half-yard shy; PSU took over on downs at their own 21.
Paterno chose the strong-armed Thompson over Casey on Penn State’s final drive, and the first play from scrimmage validated the choice. With man-to-man coverage by Miami’s CB Mike Rumph, WR Chafie Fields ran a fly pattern down the left side of the field. Thompson looked right and then dropped a twenty-yard arc perfectly into Fields’ hands. From there, Fields avoided the shoestring tackle by Rumph and outran Ed Reed for a 79-yard go-ahead touchdown with 1:41 left on the clock. Penn State shocked the Orange Bowl crowd with a 27-23 lead.
Miami had enough time to mount another drive, but Sandusky called an all-out blitz from his NFL-caliber defensive front seven and forced a Kenny Kelly mistake. Askari Adams ran in front of Kelly’s pass at midfield and gave the PSU offense a chance to run out the clock. They sapped a minute off, but it wasn’t until Bhawoh Jue intercepted Kelly’s Hail Mary that Penn State was able to earn their first road win against a top 10 team since beating Michigan in 1994.
The Rest of the Story
After the Miami win, Penn State opened up Big Ten play with five straight wins (two of which were over top-20 foes Ohio State and Purdue) before hosting 5-3 Minnesota for homecoming. Penn State’s offense never put the Gophers away, and Coach Glen Mason’s team found enough cracks on its final drive, down 23-21 with 1:50 remaining. A first-down Hail Mary from its own 20 got Minnesota 46 yards, and then on fourth down, a tipped ball found its way to a Minnesota receiver’s hands for 27 more. Penn State’s title dreams would come down to the leg of a freshman kicker—Dan Nystrom. On the game’s last play, special teams terror Arrington just missed blocking the kick that split the uprights and Nittany Lions fans’ hearts in two.
Penn State went into a downward spiral after the loss. No. 16 Michigan came to town the next week, but a 27-17 late lead wouldn’t stand; the Wolverines stunned the shell-shocked Nittany Nation again, 31-27. The team started slow in East Lansing the next week against Nick Saban’s final Spartan team; they fought back from the 21-point deficit but still lost 35-28 to the nation’s No. 15 team. Rock bottom was hit—from 9-0 to 9-3.
The Lions rallied to win their bowl game against Texas A&M 24-0 (in long-time defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s last game before retirement) and finish out the season No. 11 in the country. But the Minnesota game was considered the start of the dark years for Penn State football.
The ’99 team had more talent than Penn State would have in a long, long time. Courtney Brown and Lavar Arrington could challenge any other duo in Penn State history as most talented; no others had ever gone 1-2 in the NFL draft from PSU (only Irving Fryar and Dean Steinkuhler of Nebraska in 1984 accomplished the same feat in football history).
Coach Butch Davis oddly left Miami for the Cleveland Browns after the 2000 season. The departure was odd because he had the talent to win a few championships in a row in Coral Gables, Florida. His offensive coordinator, Larry Coker, took over and stormed through their 2001 schedule (including a 33-7 trouncing of PSU in Happy Valley), challenged only on the last game of the season in Blacksburg, Virginia. The win over Virginia Tech (26-24) catapulted them to the BCS title game (the Rose Bowl) where they throttled Big 12 championship game loser Nebraska 37-14.
More of the same came in 2002 as Coker led the ‘Canes to an undefeated regular season. However, in a tight national championship game (the Fiesta Bowl versus Ohio State), Miami was called for pass interference on fourth down during the first overtime. With first and goal from the 2, Ohio State scored easily and sent the game to double overtime where the Buckeyes scored and then preserved their 31-24 lead by forcing a turnover on downs.
Coker wouldn’t get another shot at a title. His 2003 team lost two games mid-season, and then the Hurricanes finished both 2004 and 2005 at 9-3. Finally, in 2006, Coker’s leash ran out when he went 7-6 and ran the Miami empire into the turf.
Disciplinarian and lifetime “Miami man” Randy Shannon’s four years at Miami did little to restore the dynasty. He may have been doing things the right way, but a 28-22 record wasn’t enough for the Hurricane legacy. His replacement, former Penn State tight end and Temple head coach Al Golden, walked into another Miami-style nightmare. In August 2011, Nevin Shapiro—an incarcerated former Miami booster—spilled decades of dirt on dozens of Miami players and administrators to Yahoo! Sports. Miami’s football tradition—once beleaguered in 1995 and then revived—will need another miraculous resurrection to emerge from this second barrage of scandal.
"The Games of Our Lives" series is featured every week on the Nittany Lions Den. The stories are excerpted from a soon-to-be-released book called Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives by Ryan J. Murphy (Father's Press, summer 2012).