Twenty years after one of the craziest days in Beaver Stadium history, we catch up with the unlikely hero of the “Snow Bowl.”
* * *
The snow was the story. A mid-November nor’easter brought nearly a foot and a half of snow to central Pennsylvania just days before Penn State’s 1995 game against Michigan. If you were there, you’ll never forget it: So much snow that most of the stadium parking was closed, so much snow that hundreds of volunteers, and eventually inmates at local penitentiaries, were called on to try to clear the Beaver Stadium bleachers. So much snow, in fact, that by the time the Nittany Lions and Wolverines took the field on Nov. 18, 1995, the best that could be done was to pack much of that snow under the bleachers.
At kickoff, it was an open-air igloo for 80,000 shivering fans.
The fans who toughed it out that day witnessed one of the most memorable afternoons in Beaver Stadium history. There wasn’t a title of any sort on the line—both teams came in ranked in the lower half of the top 20—but so much about that day was compelling, not least the game itself.
The Lions led 10-0 in the first half, then went up 20-10 early in the fourth when Wally Richardson ’96 hit Bobby Engram ’95 on a 12-yard fade route. But the Wolverines marched right back down the field and matched that score with a touchdown run from Tim Biakabutuka. Both teams traded punts after that, and the Lions finally got the ball back with about four minutes left, time enough to either seal the game—or give the Wolverines one last shot to steal it.
Penn State moved the ball behind workhorse tailback Stephen Pitts ’96, who finished with 164 yards rushing on the day, and got deep into Michigan territory before stalling inside the five. Facing fourth and goal, with a 20-17 lead and 2:43 showing on the clock, the Lions sent in their field-goal team for a chip-shot that would only push the lead to six. Up in the broadcast booth, ABC play-by-play man Brent Musburger questioned the seemingly cautious decision.
He needn’t have.
What happened next was memorable for everyone who saw it, but none more so than for Joe Nastasi ’99. Now married with four children and living in State College, where he works as an investigator with the state Bureau of Labor Law Compliance, Nastasi was a redshirt freshman wide receiver on the ’95 squad. He saw most of his action that season as a kick holder, hardly a glamorous gig. But for one moment, that was about to change.
We caught up with Nastasi recently to talk about his memories of the “Snow Bowl,” from a fired-up Joe Paterno chastising the Penn State student section to his own unforgettable moment—figuratively speaking—in the sun.
TFL: What sticks out about that week of practice going into the Michigan game?
Nastasi: On Monday, I remember [offensive coordinator] Franny [Ganter ’71] came to me, and he goes, “Do you want to be the hero this week?” I’m a redshirt freshman, I’m like, “Sure.” We had a lot of horses on that team. I had no idea what he was talking about. I’m thinking, is he joking with me?
So we get to the special teams period in practice, and he stops and basically says, “Michigan, anytime they need a block—and they’ve blocked several—they will shift these individuals, and we’ll get a number on one side.”
TFL: When you say “we’ll get a number,” you mean you guys would have an advantage on one side?
Nastasi: Right. We were basically counting numbers. They’d have numbers on one side, and have a heavy overload. So Fran said to me, “You’re going to throw dummy calls on field goals during the game.” Basically on kicks, we would always have the same cadence. On long snaps, everyone would hear the cadence, and then everybody would go on the actual snap. We only had one “hot” call—the call for a fake. We would always go through a sequence, and we were doing it the entire game—when they had the overload, when they didn’t. Most of the game, they didn’t have the overload.
TFL: Obviously they had it as you guys lined up for that late field goal—watching it on YouTube now, you can see they had seven guys lined up left of the long-snapper. When you came out and saw the alignment, did you know right away you had it?
Nastasi: Oh, yeah. This was going to be a score. There wasn’t a safety, nothing. This was simple.
TFL: It looks so easy on tape, but on some level it’s still a crazy call—on the YouTube clip, you can hear Dick Vermeil say he’s never seen a fake field goal quite like it. How much prep time went into that?
Nastasi: We did it every day in every special teams period, so probably 10-12 times a day that week. You’re just reading that pulling guard, either up or under, and then you just hit it. Kicking in the college game, guys come from everywhere, so you’re never just walking through. I remember just being on high alert—ball up, just go. And it absolutely opened up.
TFL: Just like that, you’re in the end zone. How did that feel?
Nastasi: It was the first touchdown of my college career, and it’s fun to look back—that’s the one I’m remembered for. It’s funny how easy that was. We were pretty excited, but if you remember back then, celebrations were short lived—we didn’t get too much into anything. We were more business. That’s what it was under Joe.
TFL: Of course, that’s the most riled up a lot of us ever saw Joe Paterno, when he had to tell the student section to stop throwing snowballs on the field. In the midst of the celebration, did you guys know that was happening?
Nastasi: Yeah, I did see him run down there. We were like, “Look at Joe running down there, going nuts. What’s he gonna do? Throw everybody out?” But that’s exactly how he was.
TFL: As someone who lives in State College and goes to games, does the anniversary of that game, and having Michigan back in town this week, make it a little more special?
Nastasi: The amazing thing is that it was 20 years ago—it seems like yesterday. It’s so hard for me to fathom the time that has gone by. But the beauty of Penn State, it’s always home. All the guys that come back, we all stay in touch, and it really is like home.
For more on the The Football Letter, including online archives (requires Alumni Association member log-in), click here.
Not yet an Alumni Association member? Click here.