With the heavy snow last week before Penn State’s home game, a lot of people were thinking back to other Penn State snow games. For Penn State fans of a certain age, “The Snow Bowl” means one game only: Penn State vs. Michigan on Nov. 18, 1995 .
That game became the stuff of legend because of the snowfall and the dramatic fake field-goal ending. And as with all epic tales there are good back stories that set the course of the eventual outcome.
The scene was set a few days before the game when a big snowstorm dumped 18 inches of heavy snow on Penn State’s campus. But Athletic Director Tim Curley had swung the athletic department into action before the first flake hit the ground.
They stockpiled an arsenal of snow shovels from just about every hardware store, Walmart, K-Mart and any other mart where you could find one. The tarp was deployed over the grass at Beaver Stadium.
Michigan graciously offered to host the game should Penn State not be able to get the stadium ready.
“Sure they would,” Joe Paterno laughed in our coaches’ meeting.
He knew Penn State had a plan. The Office of Physical Plant would coordinate with the stadium crew to move thousands of tons of snow. In the days before social media, they also issued a call to arms to the local community.
Kids, students and local residents answered the call. When you showed up, they handed you a shovel and paid you $5 an hour (the minimum wage was $4.25). It wasn’t exactly a “volunteer army” but it felt like it.
The lights were on in Beaver Stadium and the work went on 24 hours a day. They had to clear the field, the seats and the parking lots for the fans. It was a massive undertaking.
Every night on my way home I stopped in to see the progress. On Thursday night after I’d gotten home from practice, dinner and film review I picked up the phone and called my childhood friend Mark Kavanaugh.
“Mark,” I said, “let’s go shovel. You’ll always be a part of this win if you do.”
So he met me at the stadium with my wife and my Beagle puppy. That dog ran all over and even “helped” by “melting” some of the snow.
Also in the trunk was a case of beer for the grounds crew. They were pleasantly surprised when we asked them to take a quick break and handed them the contents of my trunk.
“I figured you guys could use some.”
They didn’t argue.
And speaking of beer, the shovel crew that night included fraternity pledge classes sent to earn weekend beer money. And on Friday, inmates from Rockview state prison were on the job.
At Friday’s team meeting, Joe Paterno reminded his team that the dramatic setting would be a game they would remember forever.
“When you were a kid, you lived to play in the snow. Just make sure those memories are great ones.”
Before pre-game warm-ups they removed the tarp and the green grass was beautiful, standing in stark contrast to the sea of white all around us. The seats were cleared, mostly by packing the snow under the steel bleachers. That meant the fans would be sitting on ice-cold steel; 80,000 showed up loud and proud.
Among that crowd were a few notable recruits on visits, including Courtney Brown, Mac Morrison and Mike Cerimele. Evidently the cold didn’t bother them because they all became Nittany Lions.
As for the game…
It was a constant barrage of snowballs flying. Battles raged in the student section. Snowballs landed on the field and we were penalized. Even Joe Paterno came under snowball fire running down to yell at the students. (He didn’t even flinch.)
Michigan entered the game with one of the top run defenses in the nation. But Penn State’s senior tailback Stephen Pitts had patiently waited for his time to shine. On a frozen field, he blazed to 164 yards on 17 carries.
With Penn State leading 20-17 and 4:08 to go in the game, Pitts took a pitch left and cut back right for a 58 yard gain that set Penn State up first and goal at the Michigan 8. After an incomplete pass left Penn State with a fourth and goal from the three, Penn State sent out the field goal team.
Here our story shifts back to Nov. 12, 1994. That year I was coaching at James Madison University and we were hosting UConn. All week we worked on the “Holder Off Tackle” fake field goal. The holder would take the snap and set the ball down for a moment before running behind a power blocking scheme.
There was vigorous debate about whether the holder placing the ball on the ground with his knee down would render him down and unable to pick up the ball and run. The rule book was consulted, the debate lasted a day or two before it was settled. The fake was legal.
Late in that game we faced a fourth down around the 30-yard line. Backup quarterback/holder Gary Lyons took the snap, set the ball down and then ran untouched for 30 yards into the end zone.
A year later as a PSU coach, Coach Bill Kenney and I looked at the Michigan field goal rush. It was the same that UConn had run the year before. We discussed the holder off-tackle. Bill looked at every single field goal and extra point rush Michigan had that season. We double- and triple-checked it with coaches Dick Anderson and Fran Ganter. Only once did Michigan vary out of dozens and dozens of plays.
To prove that it worked we even had the game video sent overnight to us from former James Madison head Coach Rip Scherer, who was now the head coach at Memphis.
So on game day, every time we lined up for an extra point or field goal Joe asked if Michigan was staying true to form. They were. Now facing fourth and 3 with a three-point lead, Joe gave us the green light.
In today’s analytics world, teams deciding to go for it on fourth down would keep the offense out there to run a play. Analytics are not as fun as sleight of hand.
So as the field goal team trotted onto the field, those Penn State fans wanting us to go for it were grumbling. They settled in for the predictable. What happened next was anything but.
Wide receiver Joe Nastasi set up as the holder for the kick. The ball was snapped perfectly, Joe set it down, kicker Brett Conway approached as Nastasi took off and Conway cut off the backside edge rusher. On the frontside, tight end Keith Olsommer and tackle Keith Conlin washed down the edge as fullback Jon Witman and guard Jeff Hartings kicked out a gaping hole.
A stunned home crowd erupted as Nastasi dashed into the end zone.
Even ABC analyst Dick Vermeil stated it best, yelling, “Was that a shock?”
And as we got ready for the extra point I jokingly asked, “Should we call the fake again?”
Sure enough, Michigan was in the same rush.
But once was enough for a long week of hard work by the community, Penn State employees and even some forced labor by inmates and fraternity pledges. It all paid off in that one glorious moment.
At fans’ post-game tailgates and as my father and I walked home after the game, no cold gray day ever felt better. That day’s avalanche of emotion became great memories forever frozen in our minds.