His eyes still puffy from the tears that had been flowing moments earlier, LaVar Arrington shook his head as he painfully rehashed the miraculous play that broke so many hearts today in Happy Valley, the play that may forever be remembered as the one that cost Penn State a crack at a national championship.
"I got so close, so close," the Nittany Lions' brilliant linebacker said, talking barely above a whisper. "I almost had him. But I let myself get cut. What can you do?"
Like so many of his teammates, Arrington was torturing himself. He was lamenting how close he had come to getting a piece of Minnesota quarterback Billy Cockerham on a blitz before Cockerham heaved an ugly desperation pass into the wind on fourth and 16 from the Penn State 40-yard line with little more than a minute remaining.
To the shock of the Nittany Lions, the throw caromed off the outstretched hands of the Golden Gophers' Ron Johnson, ricocheted behind him, and, just as it was about to fall to the Beaver Stadium turf, landed in Arland Bruce's arms for a 27-yard completion.
The stunning development set up Dan Nystrom's 32-yard field goal on the final play of a tense Big Ten Conference game, a field goal that gave Minnesota a 24-23 upset of second-ranked Penn State, ending the Nittany Lions' 11-game winning streak and, most likely, their dreams of playing in the Sugar Bowl for the national title.
After the kick, the 96,753 spectators remained in their seats for several minutes. Several Nittany Lions lay strewn on the field, face down and crying.
"I had gotten to the point where I felt we'd win every close game," said Arrington, whose career-high 15 tackles, including a sack, meant nothing to him. "But when I turned and saw the field goal, I just started crying."
Describing the mood in the Penn State locker room, Arrington added: "You can hear your heart beat in there. It's not the best atmosphere, no doubt."
Perhaps no other Penn State player was as depressed as safety Derek Fox, who said he had batted down Minnesota's crucial pass as he and Johnson vied for it. He was so certain the pass had hit the ground that he had run off the field joyously, gesturing that it was incomplete.
"I feel like I've let a lot of people down," he said. "It's a shame we're not going to have a shot at the national championship now."
For one of the few times in his 34-year career as Penn State coach, Joe Paterno appeared genuinely crushed by a defeat. "I thought we batted it down and the game was over," said Paterno, 72, who may have seen his last best shot at a national title disappear. "I just feel sorry for these kids, for the seniors who don't have a chance to do what they wanted to do. But we can still have a great season."
Leading 23-21, Penn State (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) appeared ready to tuck away a victory after moving to a first down at the Minnesota 33. But on third and 10, quarterback Kevin Thompson overthrew Eddie Drummond, who had beaten cornerback Jimmy Wyrick.
On fourth down, with just under two minutes left, Paterno decided to punt rather than allow Travis Forney to attempt a 50-yard field goal with a wind gusting to 20 mph at his back.
"I never thought twice about it," Paterno said of his decision to punt. "I just figured they were not going to be able to go the distance on us. . . . That's a mistake I made."
Minnesota Coach Glen Mason, whose hard-luck team had lost to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue by a combined 11 points, was thrilled by the decision. "I was happy, because Forney is that good of a kicker, and I knew he could hit one from 50 yards out," Mason said. "But I agreed with their decision to try to pin us deep."
But Pat Pidgeon's punt didn't pin the Golden Gophers deep. Instead, it went into the end zone, giving them the ball on their 20.
On first down, Cockerham completed a 46-yard pass to Johnson as Fox spun around, looking for the ball. Arrington sacked Cockerham for a six-yard loss to push Minnesota (6-3, 3-3) back to the 40. After an incomplete pass on third down, Bruce made his remarkable catch as the ball came within six inches of falling incomplete.