Big Ten: Billy Cockerham
I say the house of pain is in effect
You know the house of pain is in effect y'all
And anyone that steps up is gettin' wrecked
And, with those poetic lines from Everlast, we enter the Big Ten's House of Pain. All week at ESPN.com, we're exploring the most-painful losses in a team's history. What constitutes pain? First, the game has to be significant. A rough loss in a going-nowhere year doesn't sting as much as one that prevented a team from reaching its ultimate goals.
Painful losses often happen against rivals. Painful losses often have especially painful endings. Painful losses often take place at the worst possible times. Although blowout defeats certainly can qualify as painful, losses that culminate with crunch-time turnovers, field goal makes or misses or generally bizarre plays usually stick out more.
The most important criteria: painful losses linger for you, the fans.
Trust me, this wasn't easy, and I know many of you will disagree with the choices. But I only got to pick one game for each Big Ten team. A special thanks to the Big Ten sports information staffs for helping me with the project.
Here goes ...
Date: Nov. 3, 1990
Site: Memorial Stadium (Champaign, Ill.)
Final score: Iowa 54, Illinois 28
After winning a Citrus Bowl championship the previous January, Illinois entered the 1990 season with raised expectations. The Illini lost the opener but won their next six, rising to No. 5 in the national rankings. They had big dreams, but rival Iowa changed everything by crushing them in front of their own fans at Memorial Stadium. John Mackovic's team had no answer for Iowa's Nick Bell, who rushed for 168 yards. After allowing one touchdown in its opponents' previous 49 possessions, Illinois watched Iowa reach the end zone on its first five drives. Illinois' 2000 loss to Michigan deserves honorable mention.
Date: Nov. 7, 1988
Site: Memorial Stadium (Champaign, Ill.)
Final score: Illinois 21, Indiana 20
Indiana went to Champaign ranked No. 20 nationally and boasting a 4-1 mark in Big Ten play after a win against Iowa. The Hoosiers seemingly had the game in hand, up 20-9 with less than four minutes remaining. But Illinois quarterback Jeff George, an Indianapolis native who attended Indiana's archrival Purdue before transferring, led the comeback and fired a touchdown pass with 21 seconds left. Illinois' drive came after Indiana quarterback Dave Schnell fumbled on a bootleg. The loss took Indiana out of the race for the Big Ten championship. Indiana's most painful moment came against Anthony Carter and Michigan in 1979.
Date: Jan. 1, 1986
Site: Rose Bowl (Pasadena, Calif.)
Final Score: UCLA 45, Iowa 28
Iowa felt the pain both for what happened during the game and what happened soon afterward. Maxwell Award winner Chuck Long led the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes into Pasadena, but he was sacked four times by the Bruins. Tailback Ronnie Harmon had a miserable day, fumbling four times after doing so just once all season and dropping a wide-open touchdown pass. Some believed Harmon threw the game. An Iowa win could have led to a national championship after No. 1 Penn State and No. 2 Miami both lost in their bowl games.
Date: Nov. 24, 1973
Opponent: Ohio State
Site: Michigan Stadium (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Final score: Ohio State 10, Michigan 10
Michigan has had its share of painful losses -- Appalachian State, Ohio State in 2006, Colorado in 1994 -- but this tie with the hated Buckeyes really stung the Maize and Blue. The game featured its share of pain, as Michigan rallied from a 10-0 deficit to tie things up, but missed two field goals in the closing moments. The controversy really started afterward, as Big Ten athletic directors voted that Ohio State should play in the Rose Bowl ahead of Michigan. The Big Ten's no-repeat rule had been scrapped just two years earlier. Michigan coach Bo Schembechler called the decision "an embarrassment to the Big Ten Conference" and stewed about it until his death in 2006.
Date: Jan. 1, 1966
Site: Rose Bowl (Pasadena, Calif.)
Final score: UCLA 14, Michigan State 12
The Spartans came to Pasadena undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. UCLA jumped ahead as the Spartans coughed up the ball four times in the first half. Still, Michigan State had a chance and outgained UCLA 314-212 in the game. The Spartans rallied and scored with less than a minute left, setting up a potential tying two-point conversion attempt. But fullback Bob Apisa was stopped short of the goal line by UCLA's Bob Stiles, who knocked himself out making the tackle. Alabama was awarded the AP national title. Michigan State's 2006 loss to Notre Dame and 1966 tie against the Irish deserve honorable mention.
Date: Oct. 10, 2003
Site: Metrodome (Minneapolis)
Final score: Michigan 38, Minnesota 35
Minnesota was 6-0 and entered the Little Brown Jug rivalry ranked No. 17 nationally. Led by tailbacks Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney, Minnesota led 28-7 after three quarters and 35-21 with 11:11 left. But Michigan couldn't be stopped in the fourth quarter and scored 31 points in the final 15 minutes, capped by Garrett Rivas' field goal with 47 seconds left. Minnesota rushed for 424 yards but still felt short. The Gophers arguably have never been the same. No Big Ten team has more painful losses than Minny.
Date: Nov. 11, 2000
Site: Kinnick Stadium
Final score: Iowa 27, Northwestern 17
Northwestern has seen huge leads evaporate (Michigan State in 2006), suffered shocking early losses (Miami University in 1995) and come very close to ending its bowl drought the past two seasons. But Rose Bowl opportunities don't come around too often for the Wildcats, and they squandered one by falling to Iowa. A week after an unforgettable win against Michigan and ranked No. 12 nationally, Northwestern was totally outplayed by a Hawkeyes team that went 3-9. On a day when Purdue opened a path to Pasadena with a loss to Michigan State, the Wildcats stumbled on the doorstep.
Date: Nov. 22, 1969
Site: Michigan Stadium (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Final score: Michigan 24, Ohio State 12
The Buckeyes brought one of their greatest teams ever to "that state up North" to face a Michigan team regaining respectability under first-year coach Bo Schembechler. Although Michigan played at home and carried a four-game win streak into The Game, Ohio State was a 17-point favorite. The Buckeyes scored a quick touchdown but never really recovered, as a Michigan team inspired by Schembechler and a 50-14 loss the year before shut down Rex Kern and Co. Ohio State committed seven turnovers and suffered one of the biggest upsets in college football history. It also spawned the Ten-Year War between Schembechler and Woody Hayes. Ohio State's 1998 loss to Michigan State merits honorable mention.
Date: Nov. 6, 1999
Site: Beaver Stadium (State College, Pa.)
Final score: Minnesota 24, Penn State 23
Undefeated Penn State looked every bit like a national championship team, rising to No. 2 in the polls behind freakish defenders like LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown. The Nittany Lions held a two-point advantage when Joe Paterno decided to punt rather than attempt a long field goal try in the closing minutes, trusting his dominant defense. Minnesota began the game's decisive drive with a Hail Mary pass from Billy Cockerham to Ron Johnson. Moments later, the Gophers converted a fourth-and-16 to set up the game-winning field goal by freshman kicker Dan Nystrom. Penn State lost its final two regular-season games. The Lions' 1979 Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama and their 2005 loss to Michigan gain honorable mention.
Date: Oct. 16, 2004
Site: Ross-Ade Stadium (West Lafayette, Ind.)
Final score: Wisconsin 20, Purdue 17
Purdue's program hasn't been the same since The Fumble. The Boilers came in 5-0 and ranked fifth nationally, while quarterback Kyle Orton had established himself as the Heisman Trophy front-runner. Purdue led 17-7 with eight minutes left and had a three-point advantage and the ball with 2:49 remaining. On third-and-3, Orton scrambled and made a lunge for the first down, only to have the ball knocked loose. Wisconsin's Scott Starks scooped it up and raced 40 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 2:36 left. Purdue lost its next three games and backslid to the Sun Bowl, where it fell to Arizona State.
Date: Oct. 23, 1993
Site: Metrodome (Minneapolis)
Final score: Minnesota 28, Wisconsin 21
Wisconsin might have celebrated a national championship had it found a way to beat the rival Golden Gophers. The Badgers were 6-0 heading to the Metrodome but fell behind 21-0 to a Minnesota team that went 4-7 that fall. Wisconsin closed to within 21-14 and reached the Minnesota 8-yard line before Brent Moss was stuffed on fourth-and-1. The Badgers went on to share a Big Ten championship and reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1963, but they were so close to winning it all. Honorable mentions include 1999 against Cincinnati, 1998 against Michigan and 2005 against Iowa in Barry Alvarez's final game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Good responses so far on recent traumatic losses for Big Ten teams, so kudos to you guys. It's not a big surprise, since often these kinds of losses stick with fans more than the coaches or players. A couple of users brought up the Appalachian State-Michigan game, but while that was one of the biggest upsets in college football history, it doesn't really qualify as a traumatic loss. Michigan still went on to a New Year's Day bowl game and won it, so there wasn't a prolonged and total letdown. The real traumatic losses ruin a season, or keep a program down for multiple seasons.
Let's take a look:
Bryce from Arlington, Texas, writes: I was at the 1999 PSU vs Minn game. Watching that kick split the uprights as time expired was the most memorable moment for me inside Beaver Stadium. After crushing Arizona in the opener that season, the LaVar Leap, all 100,000+ were already smelling Roses and thinking National Champs. Then the Minn Hail Mary 4th down conversion, followed by the game winning kick. The only thing more impressive than 100,000 fans on their feet screaming, is 100,000 in dead silence. The students didn't know what to to. We just sat there. Everyone was crying. Seriously, EVERYONE was choked up. It was so deathly silent, you could hear the Minn players celebrating on the 50 yard line. That game set up 2 more losses and eventually was the precursor to those terrible seasons in the early 2000s. That kick eventually led to the Joe Must Go chants in the following years. And those early 2000 seasons may be in the back of (Graham) Spanier's mind as these contract talks seem to be going south. In all the PSU games I've experienced, that moment of humility is far more memorable than any of the triumphs.
Greg from Boston writes: I was at the PSU-MINN game and was in the stands for 20 minutes after in disbelief (along with a few thousand students, some of which had bus tickets to N.O. already). The pass of which you speak actually, if memory serves me, went through Derek Fox's hands into the receiver's. Also, on the FG attempt it looked like Lavar (Arrington) was going to block it as he got elevated but went through his outreached hands. Sometimes, at night, I still scream "knock it down" in my sleep...
Adam Rittenberg: Bryce and Greg, thanks for sharing those memories. Great stuff. I went back and checked, and according to the New York Times game recap, Cockerham's fourth-down pass deflected off Ron Johnson and Derek Fox. It was still a mind-boggling completion, and a crushing loss for Penn State. Arrington was a freak, and it would have been fitting if he had blocked the game-winning attempt.
Alex from Peoria, Ill., writes: Being an Illinois fan, it's hard to forget two different games that really hurt the orange and blue in recent years, at least in my eyes. In 2000, Illinois came in ranked 17 (in the USA Today poll) and Michigan was number ten coming into Memorial Stadium. The Illini had stunned the maize and blue the year before in the big house and Michigan was looking for revenge. The Illini were leading pretty covincingly in the fourth quarter, and then the refs came along. The stripes called two fumbles on Illinois that were seen with replay to both be wrong along with calling Anthony Thomas down when he had in fact fumbled. The Illini went on to lose the game. Later, in the week after the game, the conference admitted their mistake with the officiating and Illinois was allowed to keep their ranking but it was too late compared to what Illinois could have done without this stinging loss. The other one that sticks out in my mind is when OSU traveled to Memorial Stadium in 2002 during their undefeated national title season. Illinois clawed back to force overtime on the last play of the game with a last-second field goal. OSU scored in overtime to go up seven, and then the Illini scored on a Walter Young touchdown, or did they? The ref called Young out of bounds on the play and the Buckeyes won, but once again, as the replay showed, a Big Ten official blew a call late in the game. So Illinois may have not won this game eventually in OT, but who can say they wouldn't have had a chance if it went into a second overtime. Can you see any bitterness resonating for me as I call up these events? I believe it was hangover games like these that stung enough not only in Champaign but also in the Big Ten offices in Park Ridge to be the first major college conference to use replay.
Adam Rittenberg: Alex, excellent stuff here. I forgot about the game in 2000. After starting 3-0, Illinois dropped six of its final eight games to miss a bowl and end the momentum it generated from the previous season, when it reached the MicronPC.com Bowl (remember that one?). The Illini turned it around the next season and won the league, so the trauma was limited to 2000. As for the 2002 game, the Illini were 4-6 coming in, hardly a juggernaut. But they had won three of their previous four games, including a road win against Wisconsin that I covered. Illinois bounced back after the Ohio State game to beat Northwestern, but the next four seasons brought only eight wins. Ouch.
Ross from Iowa City writes: Iowa's 2006 loss to Indiana. They rebounded from the disappointing prime-time loss to Ohio State by blasting Purdue the next week, then came to Bloomington and jumped out to a 14-0 lead before eventually choking it off and losing. They lost their next eight B10 games in a row (over the 2006 and 2007 seasons) and the program has basically been in a funk the entire time. As a proud fan and alum, I certainly hope things turn around this year.
Adam Rittenberg: Ross, thanks for bringing up the Indiana game, though I know it's painful for you. Iowa was still 5-1 after the Purdue win and ranked No. 15 going to Bloomington. The Hawkeyes were up 21-7 before Indiana rallied behind freshman quarterback Kellen Lewis. As much as this game began a downward spiral for Iowa, it served as a springboard for Indiana, which posted its biggest upset since 1987, when it knocked off No. 9 Ohio State.
Daniel from Minneapolis writes: October 10, 2003, was a heartbreaker for me like none other. #20 Minnesota entered the game hoping to end a 14-game losing streak against Michigan, stretch its record to 7-0, and put itself in the Big Ten title race. Entering the 4th quarter, the Gophers led 28-7, only to see Michigan outscore them 31-7 in the 4th quarter. Instead of potentially heading for a January bowl game, Minnesota ended up 10-3, making yet another appearance in the Sun Bowl.
Adam Rittenberg: Daniel, another good choice. I actually remember watching this game at a bar in Mount Pleasant, Mich., the night before covering the Northern Illinois-Central Michigan game. The place was pretty electric as Michigan rallied back, but I kept thinking, 'Not again.' The Gophers still reached a bowl game, so the game didn't completely doom them, but with a chance to migrate from mediocrity, they caved. The next year, Minnesota went to Ann Arbor at 5-0 and ranked No. 13, lost 27-24 and dropped five of its final six regular-season games.
Eric from Evanston writes: i think you overlooked one, if not the most traumatic losses in big 10 history. granted, bowl implications weren't really on the line, but the michigan state comeback at ryan field in 2006 is easily the most depressing NU loss i have ever had to bear. and i've seen a lot of NU losses.
Adam Rittenberg: Eric, a terrible loss, yes, but Northwestern wasn't really going anywhere in 2006, so the hangover effect was tough to gauge. As complete a collapse that was
, it did give NU some confidence on offense behind quarterback C.J. Bacher, who made his first career start after learning he got the nod the day before the game. Bacher had aced a written test to beat out Andrew Brewer.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
I was checking out the recent mailbags from SI.com's Stewart Mandel and saw several items about traumatic losses -- the type of games that seem to linger not just for a day or a month, but potentially years.
The discussion started when a fan brought up Purdue's loss to Wisconsin in 2004. To recap: Purdue entered the game 5-0 and ranked fifth in the country, had the Heisman frontrunner in quarterback Kyle Orton and held a 17-7 lead with eight minutes left on its home field. Wisconsin scored to get within three points, and then Badgers cornerback Scott Starks returned an Orton fumble for the game-winning touchdown. Purdue wound up losing four straight games. The Boilers went 5-6 the following year and haven't gotten back to such a national pedestal since. Unfortunately for Purdue fans, the Wisconsin game qualifies as a perfect example of a traumatic loss, one with a damaging hangover effect.
Here's a look at some other traumatic losses involving Big Ten teams in recent years. You can let me know some of the ones I missed.
Michigan State at Michigan, 2005 -- The Spartans might need their own list of traumatic losses, but this one stands out. Michigan State entered the game 4-0, ranked No. 11 and surging behind an offense averaging 49 points a game. Michigan came in at 2-2 but knocked off its in-state rival, 34-31, in overtime on a Garrett Rivas field goal. Things only got worse for Sparty the next week in Columbus, as coach John L. Smith went nuts on ABC after his team had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown with no time remaining in the first half. Michigan State dropped six of its final seven games and went 4-8 the next fall before Smith was fired.
Minnesota at Penn State, 1999 -- Nittany Lions fans, avert your eyes. Penn State was 9-0, ranked No. 2 nationally and had its sights on the national title. Minnesota came in at 5-3, with all of its losses coming by five points or fewer. Trailing by two in the closing minutes, Minnesota faced fourth-and-16. Quarterback Billy Cockerham's pass deflected off Ron Johnson's hands into those of Arland Bruce for a first down. The incredible conversion set up Dan Nystrom's 32-yard game-winning field goal, and the Gophers prevailed, 24-23. Penn State lost three of its final four games that season, and then went 10-13 during the next two seasons. The Lions had just one winning campaign between 2000-2004.
Northwestern at Iowa, 2000 -- Northwestern came in ranked No. 12 and still had a shot at reaching its second Rose Bowl in six seasons. But Iowa, which finished 3-9 that season, stacked the box with eight or nine defenders and shut down the Wildcats' dynamic offense in a 27-17 win. Northwestern, which averaged 38.6 points that year, put up just three in the first half. The loss cost NU the Rose Bowl and provided a blueprint for teams to defend the no-huddle spread. Though Rashidi Wheeler's death the following August undoubtedly impacted the 2001 season, Northwestern went 8-18 after the Iowa loss before stabilizing in 2003.
Illinois vs. LSU, 2001 -- It's a bit unfair to include a bowl since it's the final game of a season, but the 2002 Sugar Bowl marked the last relevant game Illinois would play in some time. The surprising Big Ten champions came in ranked No. 7 but got steamrolled by Rohan Davey (444 pass yards, 3 TDs, 4 rush TDs) and LSU, losing 47-34. Things then turned ugly for Illinois, which never built off its title and went 13-45 from 2002-2006.