Penn State Football: 1999, 2004 Homecomings Marked the Era of PSU's Ways
This whole freakish roller coaster thing may have started on Homecoming Day, Nov. 6, 1999, in Beaver Stadium. (Or, more than a year earlier, if the Freeh Report is correct.)
It’s been a doozy of a dipsy doodle that is unrivaled in the history of all of American sport, a never-ending journey a decade-and-a-half in the making -- and counting.
That journey crossed paths again in Bloomington, Ind., the site where Penn State rose from the dead in 2004 and where calls of sanction dread reared their ugly heads on Saturday.
Homecoming returns to Nittany Valley on Saturday, against 5-0 Michigan, with a defense, by the way, that ranks No. 9 in the country against the run. (Yikes.) So it is difficult not to think about where the Homecoming losses of 1999 and 2004 -- as well as the 44-24 loss at Indiana -- now fit in all of this.
When it comes to the Penn State football program since the late '90s, “Days of Our Lives” may be on the air longer – since 1965 – but it’s had a lot less drama. In the field and behind-the-scenes. Even Penn State’s wins have turned to losses. Joe Paterno was asked to retire by his bosses, and he didn’t. Then he was “retired” by his bosses’ bosses. Like sands through the hourglass…
On the field, there have been peaks, for sure. And valleys? Oy! Have there been valleys.
The first valley was a steep one. It came on Homecoming 1999, beginning as a pluperfect Happy Valley Saturday, with temperatures in the low 60s. Ranked No. 2 at the time and facing the ever-growing possibility of playing for the national championship, Penn State lost 24-23 to Minnesota on a last-second field goal. The next week they fell to sixth in the rankings and by 31-27 to Michigan. The following week, now at No. 13, they lost 35-28 at Michigan State.
The ’99 defense, despite All-American linebackers LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short and defensive end Courtney Brown, who was the overall No. 1 pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, collapsed. It went from surrendering 18 points per game to 30.
The architect of that defense was Jerry Sandusky, in the final games of his 32 years as a Penn State assistant coach. He went into retirement after Penn State shut out Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl, to halt the 1999 season-ending skid. Sandusky was carried off the field. What a bookend to the Shakespearean saga that has become Penn State football.
Homecoming: 6-4 in 2004
From that Homecoming loss in 1999 to its defeat for the first time at the hands of Indiana on Saturday, Penn State has gone 106-65. Not bad, at a winning percentage of .619. But hardly great. Since 1999, Homecoming games have not been kind to Penn State. The poster boy was the 6-4 loss to Iowa on Homecoming Day, Oct. 23, 2004 – when Kirk Ferentz had Iowa take a deliberate safety, betting (correctly) that Penn State’s offense couldn’t score. That was the nadir.
It’s unlikely that you’ll see only four points against Michigan on Saturday. And given the 78 points the Penn State defense has porously and poorly yielded to UCF and Indiana, the Wolverines are as likely to score 36 – they average 38.8 -- as they are the 6 delivered by Iowa nine years ago.
The 2004 Iowa game was in the midst of a six-game free-fall where the Penn State scoring machine generated 3, 7, 13, 4, 10 and 7 points. Even Tom Bradley, a defensive mastermind totally running his own shop by then, couldn’t save Penn State. He tried. Over that six-game stretch, Penn State lost by the average score of 14.1 to 7.3.
Three weeks after the Iowa debacle, on Nov. 13, 2004, Penn State was in Bloomington, riding a six-game losing streak and having won just five of its last 22 games. A loss most likely would have sent Paterno into a forced retirement at season’s end (with Bradley most assuredly his successor). But the Nittany Lion defense forged a goal line stand to save the 22-18 victory. “That goal line stand turned the whole thing around,” Bradley said later.
It’s unlikely the latest trip to Bloomington will have the same effect and propel the Nittany Lions to victories in 13 of their next 14 games. The two games, the two circumstances, the two eras are incomparable. Too different. Still, on Saturday Penn State looked bad – no matter what the era. The run game was poor, the veteran offensive line was ineffective, the team was flat, the defense was soft, the special teams were error-prone and leadership all around was missing. Still, somehow they trailed only 21-17 after three quarters.
ALL BLOGGED DOWN
And for that, a blogger from Black Shoe Diaries has sworn off Penn State football, as he wrote this weekend:
“But, as this loss and the UCF loss have proved, and as generally uninspiring performances even in the wins over some overmatched cupcakes evinced, this team is failing to learn from its mistakes, failing to take advantage of its opportunities, failing to seize the moment and the momentum and do any of those things that a successful team does. … Until this team proves it(’)s worth it, there’s no reason to invest much energy in anything beyond Christian Hackenberg’s development.”
Guess he missed the years 2000-2004. Or the 7-6 in 2010. Or the brutal end to the 2011 season.
Yep, among the 1,247 games in the 127-year history of Penn State football, the Oct. 5, 2013 Indiana game is the one that put Mr. BSD Blogger over the edge.
Sure, it may get worse before it gets better. As Bill O’Brien himself said after his team lost 44-24 to Indiana on Saturday, while pointing out (twice!) he has just 61 scholarship players on his roster, “It is what it is.”
THE 'IT' FACTOR
For decades, it was good. In fact, it was great. From the start of Paterno’s 33-game unbeaten streak in 1967 to the week before Homecoming in 1999, it was 310-73-3 great. That’s a helluva of an it. Now, who knows what it brings. It has been a year and two days since Matt McGloin’s Miracle against Northwestern on Homecoming Day. That’s when it turned into the Bill O’Brien Bandwagon. But the fun house mirror is changing it. Again.
Shed no tears for O’Brien. He has a job he mostly loves and is paid beyond handsomely to do. The players get to play the game they love, and are rewarded with a free education and/or the experience of a lifetime. And more playing time.
But what of the Penn State fans, the ones who’ve followed the Nittany Lions on a 15-year ride unlike what fans of any other team have ever experienced?
They’ve been through hell and back – especially the students, plus those older fans Stepped right out of their seats.
On Saturday, they’ll celebrate with a big party of 106,000 people inside Beaver Stadium, WhitingOut chunks of the recent mess from their memory, many with the aid of self-medication. And yes, there’s a pretty decent chance Penn State could lose to Michigan.
It could be worse. 6-4 worse. November 2011 worse.