Sparty Like it’s 1999: MSU’s Special 10-2 Team Celebrates Twenty Years Part IV
Sparty Like it’s 1999: MSU’s Special 10-2 Team Celebrates Twenty Years Part IV
The Proper Time for Road Rage
The Spartans came off their dominant victory over Ohio St. with a newfound purpose, to carry their momentum forward to avoid a looming trap game. It was time for Spartan Football to prove that it had grown up some, and would not again suffer a letdown against a lesser opponent. One of the biggest things that kept Spartan Football in mediocrity through the earlier 1990s was a tendency to follow up a great team performance with a subpar effort. There’s no need to reset the numerous examples of this phenomenon, now two decades later, as you no doubt still have a handful of old examples swirling through your head. Don’t worry, it’s far from just a Spartan Football thing. Just ask the folks at Clemson about their checkered past. They get a kick out of it now as they sit atop the world of College Football, still remembering how things used to be before they became the Clemson of present day. The 1999 MSU team needed to prove after Ohio St. that they had learned their lesson, and that they could go on the road and win a game they should win.
Led by Wildcat legend Darnell Autry and future College Hall of Famer Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern rose to the top of the Big Ten in the mid 90s. But by 1999, the Wildcat football program was somewhat hung over from their surprising run of success. Then NU Head Coach Gary Barnett had left after the ’98 season, taking his gimmicky offense to Boulder to ride with the Colorado Buffaloes. Northwestern took a big step back, and struggled to stay consistently competitive in the Big Ten for more than a decade before Fitzgerald got his program on solid footing.
NU came into the ’99 contest at 3-6, struggling with talent deficiencies, depth issues, and also injuries. Worse, NU was set to face an inspired Spartan squad with a good bit to prove. The Spartans were greeted in Evanston on that warm November day to about half the crowd decked out in Green and White. Spartan Football was also well aware of what the faithful were looking for from them. “Coach Saban emphasized what we had at stake,” Senior leader Amp Campbell said after blanking the Wildcats 34-0. “Everyone talks about how inconsistent we are after a big game. We did not want to play a mediocre game. We wanted to come out and get a big win.”
Offensively, this one broke open when the Spartans scored 10 points in a 1:36 span in the second quarter, and never looked back. It was another big day for Plaxico Burress, who a caught 35-yard touchdown pass from Senior Quarterback Bill Burke, as well as 35 and 84-yarders from Sophomore Quarterback Ryan Van Dyke. Burress’ three touchdown grabs gave that day gave him nine for the year.
Much of the credit for Burress’ success at MSU should go to Nick Saban and his staff. Saban knew from the beginning of his recruitment that Plaxico could be the best Wide Receiver prospect in the nation. But he also knew Plaxico would be a handful. After leaving Saban’s reign, Burress struggled at times to fulfill his full football potential. He famously called his shot that the NY Giants would upset the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl 2008, and backed it up by catching the game winning Touchdown pass. He also unfortunately shot himself in the leg later in 2008, spent more than a year and a half behind bars, and never was able to regain his form as a Wide Received before one final injury ended his playing career in 2013. He remains one of the intriguing members of the special 1999 team that was positioning itself for a big final push.
Before Northwestern, tt had been twelve years since an MSU defense hung a road shut on a Big Ten opponent. Saban and his Defensive staff had pointed towards a shutout all year, coming within 3 points during the Homecoming rout of Iowa. Coming off the domination of Ohio St., the Spartan defense was thriving behind Senior leadership from players like Linbacker T.J. Turner. Turner had a career day in Evanston, returning a fumble for a touchdown, then later an interception for a six more. Stopping Northwestern cold at 34-0 might have been MSU’s best defensive effort of the year. That’s a debate to have this fall as they look back at 1999, twenty years later.
Carrying Away the Nittany Lions, and the Land Grant Trophy
With Northwestern out of the way, the last game of the ’99 regular season was a big one as Penn St. made their way to East Lansing. The Nittany Lions were loaded with NFL talent, but wounded from recent struggles. Penn St. had dropped two straight, and had fallen from 2nd ranked in the nation all the way down to 13th. The Lions hadn’t lost their last three games to finish off a regular season since 1914. There was a sense of underachievement in Happy Valley at that point, but also an opportunity to bounce back as the Land Grant game was for second place in the Big Ten, and at least a New Year’s Day bowl bid. There had been a significant adjustment to the BCS formula in ’99, so no one was quite sure how the BCS selections would end up going into the season’s last game. Twenty years later the sport is left with a College Football Playoff that has lost a lot of credibility in a short few years, and ironically, no one seems quite sure how the CFP selections work anymore.
The ’99 Lions featured three All-American and future 1st Round NFL draft picks in Linebacker LaVar Arrington, Defensive End Courtney Brown, and Linebacker Brandon Short. The trio presented the Spartans with as tough a blocking task as they’d faced all year. There was no question that Arrington was the difference maker of the bunch. Arrington dominated college football games in ’98 and ’99. His presence on the field changed play calling, game plans, and most importantly changed outcomes. At that time, he was about as the closest anyone had seen to a clone of NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor. But Arrington came into Spartan Stadium dinged up, and barely played in the legendary Land Grant game of 1999. When he did get in, however, his presence was instantly felt.
There was a memorable atmosphere around campus that late November afternoon. There’s simply nothing like college football Saturdays in the fall, and Penn State in ’99 was an all time Spartan Stadium classic. Though not frigidly cold, it was a 3:30 kick off in late fall, so the lights were again in place above Spartan Stadium. The energy built up around the stadium all day as Spartan fans, and plenty of Penn State travelers, poured in looking for a satisfying end to the exciting ’99 season.
They say that part of the charm of living in Michigan is the weather. The Penn St. game is memorable to many for the mist that fell during the evening. What started as an odd sprinkling, foggy mist, began to accumulate and intensify during the game. 75,000 plus sat through it all game, squinting at times to see different corners of the field, and eventually getting a little wet. It wasn’t enough to get anyone soaked, but enough to add a unique atmosphere to the already season ender.
This one started off with a bang thanks to a quick 51-yard kickoff return by MSU Sophomore Herb Haygood, to open the game. After two pass completions, T.J. Duckett got his career changing day going by charging through the middle on the Lions’ defense for a 20 yard Touchdown. After just the start the Spartans needed and the Lions feared, MSU fired off another special teams bullet as Gari Scot caught a PSU punt and sprinted up the middle for a 64-yard Touchdown near the end of the 1st Quarter. Scott picked an amazing time to collect the first punt return Touchdown of his fine Spartans career.
MSU continued to roll through the 2nd Quarter, opening up an impressive 28-7 lead. Duckett continued to pound out yards, and the MSU Defense slowed the Nittany Lions Offense to the point of frustration. The game was going so badly for Penn St. that some of their faithful, who had travelled as many as twelve hours to Spartan Stadium, actually left for home at the Half. Many decided that Penn St. was too far back to get back into it, and that they did not want to see a record breaking loss in person. Those that stayed for the 2nd Half wouldn’t be disappointed, as Penn St. rallied to make it an all-time classic Land Grant battle.
Penn St. came out in the 2nd Half and made a valiant effort to get back into it. The Lions made adjustments that worked, as PSU ripped off 20 straight points to eventually bring the game to even. PSU had dominated the 3rd Quarter to cut the Spartan lead to 28-17 Spartans. A suddenly tight Spartan Offense couldn’t do much to move the ball on the revived and inspired Penn St. Defense. After two Eddie Drummond touchdown passes from PSU backup Quarterback Kevin Thompson, PSU Place Kicker Travis Forney eased a 21-yard field goal through the uprights to tie the game midway through the 4th Quarter. Not only was the MSU blow-out out the window, the Spartans were now in a dog fight just to survive. As well as the 1st Half had gone, the 2nd Half was growing into a disaster. The Spartans had lost a three touchdown lead, and had no momentum to speak of.
After the tie, MSU still couldn’t move the ball well enough to keep possession. The Lions then started the series that would determine the outcome of the game. By moving the ball efficiently past Spartan defenders all 2nd Half, Penn St. unquestionably was in position to take the game over for good. But the momentum completely swung back Michigan State’s way for good after Spartan Defensive Back Richard Newsome recovered a PSU fumble on the Penn St. 39-yard line, setting the stage for the famous T.J. Duckett run, eight plays later.
Having already plowed the stellar PSU defense for more than 100 yards and three touchdowns, Duckett still had every reason to be confident he could over power the Lions in crunch time. The Penn State defenders had long grown tired of trying to pull the big guy down. To them, he seemed to get bigger and stronger as the game went on. For Duckett, his closing runs against Penn State remain among his biggest highlights in a terrific three-year career at MSU. Plus, they’re a very nice compliment to “the catch” to beat Michigan from 2001.
As the Spartans’ final drive took shape there was little doubt where the ball was going. With the help of an excellent offensive line, Penn State had worn down from tackling Duckett as he neared approached his 20th carry of the day. Plus, they were missing the force of nature that was LaVar Arrington. Standing on the PSU 11 with less than 3:00 on the clock, the Spartans again had regained the edge, but needed to put the ball into the End Zone to end all hopes of an unthinkable Penn State comeback.
As Duckett took the handoff on the now famous run, Penn St. defenders seemed to swarm him from everywhere. The Diesel nearly ran through all eleven Nittany Lions on that run, breaking about six tackles and carrying one last PSU Defensive Back from the 5 yard line into the End Zone. As he hit the 5-yard line, Duckett turned towards the goal and ended up with his back facing the Goal Line. He had to give it a final backwards leap to get over the line, and in Spartan Football lure for history. That final leap was a great metaphor for the ’99 season, as it was so much about finally getting over the humps to success that had stopped Spartan Football earlier in the Nick Saban era.
One of the areas that Penn State star LaVar Arrington dominated at the college level was special teams. Arrington was lightning quick off the snap, and a threat to block just about every kick that was attempted against his Penn State teams. Late in the MSU game, having sat out nearly the whole contest, #56 in Blue and White trotted onto the field to help defend a Paul Edinger Field Goal attempt with less than a minute to go that would’ve put the Spartans up 10. No one in the stadium missed Arrington’s entrance, but MSU still couldn’t really contain him.
Arrington used his force to push off a blocker and elevate for a block. His presence seemed to influence Sr. PK Paul Edinger’s effort, as he missed the kick wide. While the Edinger miss didn’t end up having a impact on the final outcome, twenty years later it is still worth resetting just to illustrate the impact and dominance of LaVar Arrington at that time. Had he been able to play the entire game that day, there’s no telling how the score would’ve differed or if Penn State would have had enough to stop Duckett on the ground, but you can safely bet Arrington would’ve had a major impact on each down.
For the game, Duckett carried the rock 22 times for 159 well earned yards, and 4 Touchdowns. His final run would be the Touchdown the Penn St. Defense would give up that year, as they went onto blank Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl. What a satisfying way to cap off the regular season for Spartan Football. For Duckett, it was an exclamation point on a life changing year. When it mattered most, Duckett had made his impact on Spartan football as a Running Back, and he made it before completing his Freshman year.
For Spartan Football the win over Penn St. meant a New Year’s Day bowl was assured. MSU had its first nine-win regular season since the National Champion 1966 team. It was the first time since 1965 that Michigan State has defeated Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State in the same season. MSU finished its home season at 6-0, going undefeated in East Lansing for the first time since 1966. For Nick Saban, he had finally brought MSU Football to the level he knew he could achieve when he took the job in 1995. The future looked so bright in green and white, with Big Ten Championships to chase down in the immediate future, big time national-level recruits coming to join Spartan Football, and all signs pointing to big things for MSU at the dawn of the new millennium. In just a few weeks, however, how quickly everything could change.
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