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Lone Nittany Lion Repeat Visitor: Matt Limegrover's First Trip to the Rose Bowl

by on December 30, 2016 4:00 PM

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Two decades have passed since Matt Limegrover was last here, taking part in the Rose Bowl.

At the time, he never thought he’d be back.

In 1995, Limegrover was a twentysomething grad assistant working with the offensive live at Northwestern.

It was the year that head coach Gary Barnett and the Wildcats caught lightning in a bottle. After winning just 31 games in the previous 15 seasons – combined – Northwestern went 8-0 in the Big Ten and 10-1 in the regular season, to earn a berth in the 1996 Rose Bowl.

Prior to that season, the last time Northwestern had even been in a bowl was in 1948, which was also their only bowl appearance – ever. Until that 1995 season.

Limegrover, the Pennsylvania native and assistant coach who rebuilt Penn State’s offensive line in his very first season in 2016, remembers it well. He thought that trip to Pasadena, to play USC, would be his first and last.

“It’s really wild to be back. I never thought I’d come back,” he said Friday morning at the team’s Rose Bowl media day at The LA Hotel Downtown. “I really tried to enjoy that experience, because you never know where the road is going to take you. So here I am – I’m back again.”

As it is, Limegrover is the only Penn State player or coach to previously take part in the Rose Bowl, Penn State having last been here for the 2009 game, also against USC (a 38-24 loss). USC hasn’t been back since then, either. And only one Trojan coach or player has been part of a previous Rose Bowl -- the Trojans’ strength and conditioning coach, Ivan Lewis, who was a grad assistant in 2006-08. (Under Pete Carroll, USC went to six consecutive Rose Bowls, from 2004-09, winning five of them.)

Limegrover likens the surprise path that Penn State took to the Rose Bowl in 2016, a 2-2 start coming off a previous season that was less-than-stellar, to the route that the Wildcats took as well.

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“In some respects, looking back at the season we had at Northwestern was similar to what we’ve had at Penn State,” he said. “People weren’t sure what to think about the team. The previous season at Northwestern wasn’t even as good as Penn State had last year (7-6). No one expected us to win the Big Ten at Northwestern. It was their first bowl game in decades.”

A WILD(CAT) RIDE

In 1995, head coach Gary Barnett was entering his fourth season at Northwestern, having endured seasons of 3-8, 2-9 and 3-7-1, with only five conference wins to show for it. But Northwestern had shown steady improvement, although not all of it immediately evident. Ron Vanderlinden, a name familiar to Penn State fans, was the team’s defensive coordinator. Linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, an All-American and a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (and now the Northwestern head coach), anchored the defense and running back Darnell Autrey, who finished fourth in the 1995 Heisman voting, was the focal point of the offense. Autrey was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated after Northwestern defeated No. 6 Penn State, 21-10, late in that 1995 season.

As a GA at Northwestern, Limegrover worked under Tom Bratton, a veteran O-line coach who coached with Penn State head coach James Franklin and strength coach Dwight Galt at Maryland. Nittany Lion safeties coach Tim Banks coached with Bratton at Illinois, while PSU running backs coach Charles Huff -- like Limegrover -- served as an offensive line assistant to Bratton, also at Maryland.

“To come back, and go to the Rose Bowl for a special dinner last night and also go the Lawry’s Beef Bowl has been great – it’s almost exactly the same,” Limegrover said. “It’s been a ton of great memories. I’ve been getting a lot of messages from the guys on the 1995 Northwestern team that played in the 1996 Rose Bowl. They’ve been reaching out to me and saying how excited they are for me.”

Northwestern entered the 1996 Rose Bowl ranked No. 3, but fell to a USC squad that was 8-2-1 entering the game. USC’s Brad Otton threw for 391 yards, completing 12 of his passes for 216 yards and a TD to Keyshawn Johnson. Northwestern was minus Fitzgerald, out with a broken leg.

The loss still stings a bit, which was part of the message Limegrover received from his former players and colleagues.

“A high number of the guys who reached out from the ’96 Rose Bowl team remember it as such a special year,” he said. “But the one regret they had was not being able to win the Rose Bowl and put a cap on it. We came out of nowhere and won the Big Ten, with the coach of the year in Gary and the player of the year in Pat and with Darnell Autrey, the running back, who were fantastic.

“The guys who reached out kept on saying, ‘Make sure your guys understand it’s a really good story getting there, but it’s the perfect story only if you win.’ We have rings from that season and they say, ‘Rose Bowl’ – not Rose Bowl champion.”

IT'S STILL ABOUT THE W

Limegrover has delivered that message to his own players.

“That’s the one thing I’ve impressed upon the O-line,” he said. “I told them how guys from the past have reached out to me and what they said, that ‘Make sure your guys understand that it’s a great experience and it’s neat that they got there, but make sure they know why they’re there and how much special it is if they can out a ‘W’ next to their names. And Coach Franklin has addressed it in his own way, that there’s something extra-special to put on a piece of paper, put on a T-shirt, put on a Rose Bowl ring that says ‘Rose Bowl Champions.’”

For Limegrover, it’s been quite the journey. After Northwestern, he had coaching stops at Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Before coming to Penn State in January, Limegrover coached for five seasons at Minnesota, but he didn’t come close to making it to Pasadena via the Twin Cities. And even though he’s here – again – it’s still not all wine and roses.

After the Penn State coaches and brass went to a dinner at the Rose Bowl stadium Thursday night, they returned to the team hotel and worked until 11:45 p.m. They then rose early and had a Franklin-led staff meeting at 6:30 a.m., in advance of the Penn State’s media day, which began at 8 a.m.

“The first time here taught me to enjoy every minute, the ups and downs,” Limegrover said, “how hectic it is, trying to get things done. We’re out of our comfort zone, we’re not in our own office, we’re not in our own complex. But things have to get done in order for us to have success in the game.

“Enjoy all that, because I think the percentages say you’re not coming back. It’s pretty amazing now, to say, ‘Hey, I was wrong. I’m back’ -- even though I never thought it would happen.”



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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