Sunday, October 24, 2021

Spartans close disappointing season with loss to Penn State

Team suffers worst defeat since 1947

November 25, 2002
Sophomore quarterback Damon Dowdell puts on his helmet on the bench during the final moments of Saturday's game at Beaver Stadium in Happy Valley. The Spartans lost 61-7 to —

State College, Pa. - The season is finally over for the Spartans, and thanks to Penn State's 61-7 beating in Happy Valley, it's the worst season for MSU since 1991.

The Spartans (4-8 overall, 2-5 Big Ten) also lost eight games that year, but MSU was never embarrassed in 1991 the way it was Saturday night.

The 54-point margin of defeat is the worst for any Spartan team since a 55-0 loss to Michigan in 1947, and the 61 points is the most allowed since a 63-0 loss to U-M in 1922. Saturday's performance also marked just the ninth time in 106 seasons of MSU football that the Spartans have yielded 55 points or more.

"The game was very disappointing. We wanted to go out on a better note and we felt we could stick with them," senior wide receiver BJ Lovett said. "We just came out and everything seemed like it collapsed."

But MSU actually got a lucky break to start things off. The Nittany Lions (9-3, 5-3) drove the ball 67 yards on seven plays to open the game. But Penn State failed to convert a 19-yard field goal attempt after the snap sailed high.

On the Spartans first offensive play, freshman tailback David Richard ran for 22 yards. But just when it seemed like MSU was in control, junior wide receiver Charles Rogers fumbled an attempted reverse on the following play.

After the turnover, it took Penn State just three plays and 27 yards to go up 7-0. MSU punted on its next possession, and the Nittany Lions marched 75 yards on nine plays to take a 14-0 lead.

Then two big plays from Penn State wide receiver Bryant Johnson - an 81-yard punt return and a 41-yard reception - put the Spartans down 28-0.

Senior strong safety Thomas Wright said the quick start by the Nittany Lions reminded him of MSU's 2000 trip to Happy Valley. Penn State took a 28-0 lead that year as well, and cruised to a 42-23 win.

"After that I just kept on fighting," Wright said. "But I didn't even look at the scoreboard any more."

Not watching the scoreboard might have helped ease the pain, but it didn't stop the Nittany Lions from posting 20 more points before halftime.

As for the Spartans, sophomore kicker Dave Rayner missed a 39-yard field goal on MSU's only other scoring opportunity of the first half.

"We weren't able to change the momentum of the game," said Morris Watts, MSU's interim head coach. "If we just made the two field goals maybe that slows down the process a little bit.

"But we never slowed down the process in the first half and the momentum just kept building on their side."

Helping to create the frenzied atmosphere was Penn State tailback Larry Johnson. The 6-foot-2, 222-pounder became the first back in Big Ten history and the ninth in NCAA history to rush for 2,000-plus yards in a single season.

Johnson achieved the feat with 279 rushing yards and four touchdowns on just 19 carries. He didn't play in the second half.

Johnson reached the milestone on the last score of the first half, a 38-yard touchdown run. Not only did Beaver Stadium light up with flashbulbs, but several Spartans also praised the senior for his accomplishment.

"He is one of the best backs I've seen in a while," Watts said. "He had a lot to due with busting this thing wide-open for sure."

After the game was over, it was obvious the Spartans were emotionally hurt. Many talked of the disappointment surrounding this season from start to finish.

In the preseason, MSU was picked to finish third in the Big Ten. With eight home games, some even considered the Spartans a dark horse national championship contender.

"The locker room right now is just real quiet," sophomore defensive tackle Brandon McKinney said. "We've been through a real tough time. Guys are just ready to get this over with."

Watts said there's a sense of relief that this season is over. But he said he still can't explain what went wrong.

"It's like, pinch me," he said. "It's like it's a dream and it really didn't happen.

"I hope they've learned from it so that they give themselves a chance to not go through this same thing again next year."

Eric McKinney can be reached at mckinn54@msu.edu.

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