With one miracle play, Minnesota tipped over No. 2 Penn State's national championship hopes.
The Gophers completed a tipped pass on fourth-and-16 with 1:22 left, setting up Dan Nystrom's 32-yard field goal as time ran out to beat the Nittany Lions 24-23 Saturday.
Billy Cockerham's pass bounced off receiver Ron Johnson's hands and Arland Bruce dived to scoop it up at the 13-yard line. Three plays later, Nystrom split the uprights to spoil Joe Paterno's bid for a third national title.
Considering Penn State's close calls all season and the upset-happy Big Ten, he might have seen it coming.
But not on a wacky play like this.
"I seen it hanging in the air, like, `Come get me! Come get me!"' Bruce said. "I just grabbed it.
Watching from across the field, Paterno thought the pass was incomplete.
"I though we batted it down," Paterno said after his 400th game as head coach. "Then all of a sudden, on the sideline, they were yelling, `He caught it! He caught it!"'
Nystrom, a freshman who earlier missed an extra point, said he was confident as he prepared for his game-winning field goal. That's because he had been practicing with a ladder six yards away to stand in for Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, who had blocked two kicks this season.
"I felt like I was prepared for that in practice," Nystrom said.
After Nystrom's kick, the Gophers (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) jumped for joy as as the stunned players from Penn State (9-1, 5-1) walked off the field.
The Gophers' sixth win clinched their first winning season since 1990 and made them eligible for a bowl for the first time since 1986. It was Minnesota's first win over Penn State in five tries, and the Gophers' first victory over a Top 5 team since beting No. 2 Michigan 20-17 in 1986.
They beat a Top 25 team for the first time since upsetting No. 23 Syracuse 35-33 in 1996. They had been close all season, losing to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue by a combined 11 points.
"The best team wins, and you only have to be the best team for three hours, or in this case, three seconds," said Minnesota coach Glen Mason.
The Gophers had scared an unbeaten Penn State team the last time they visited Beaver Stadium, losing 16-15 after blowing a 12-point lead. Penn State's game-winning score came after Thomas Hamner's fumble with three minutes left.
"I felt like I lost the game in '97, so this win means a whole lot to me," said Hamner, who gained 96 yards on 38 carries and 58 more on three catches. "We went from a losing program to a winning program today."
Cockerham was 14-of-24 for 277 yards and two TDs, and ran for 44 yards and a score.
Minnesota's game-winning drive started at the 20 with 1:50 left. First, Cockerham connected with Johnson on a 46-yarder to Penn State's 34-yard line. After Arrington's sack and two incomplete passes made it fourth-and-16, the Gophers' miracle pass kept the drive alive.
"They were reeling," Arrington said. "We had 'em right where we wanted 'em. Apparently, they had us where they wanted us. They pulled it off."
Minnesota had already made plenty of big plays to stay close.
With his team trailing 17-9 in the third quarter, Cockerham hit Alex Hass for a 49-yard gain to set up his 3-yard touchdown run. Then he threw a 49-yard touchdown to Hamner, who was wide open after slipped behind the defense.
That put the Gophers ahead 21-20 even though they had missed two 2-point conversions.
Minnesota's defensive front, best in the Big Ten in pass defense, harassed Penn State quarterbacks Kevin Thompson and Rashard Casey. The Lions offense stalled three times in the second half and had to settle for field goals.
The Lions drove to the Minnesota 4 once and to the 27 twice, getting field goals of 20, 44 and 44 from Forney. The last one put Penn State ahead 23-21 with 9:04 left.
But Paterno said he wasn't too unhappy with his team's play.
"They made one play," he said. "We had them fourth-and-16 and then they make a miracle play. If that doesn't happen, we win."
Penn State's Eric McCoo rushed for 108 yards on 16 carries. Thompson was 12-of-27 for 158 yards and a touchdown.
The Lions scored first on Mike Cerimele's 5-yard run. But Forney's 50-yard attempt clanked off the left upright on the next series, and Minnesota rallied. Nystrom kicked a 27-yard field goal, and Cockerham threw a 25-yard TD to Johnson, putting Minnesota up 9-7 in the second quarter.
The Lions took bac the lead, 14-9, on Thompson's 17-yard TD to Bryant Johnson.
Minnesota's Tyrone Carter had five tackles to raise his career total to 480, one short of the Division I record for defensive backs.
Arrington, who had a career-high 15 tackles, said he is still holding out hope for a trip to the national title game.
"Call me selfish," he said, "but I only want to play in the Sugar Bowl. I hope we can still find a way to get there."
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