MIAMI -- On Oct. 10, as Penn State charged onto the field for a much-anticipated showdown with Miami, coach Joe Paterno punched the air with his fist and urged a record Beaver Stadium crowd of 96,704 to get excited.
The setting could not have been more perfect. On a beautiful fall afternoon, the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions finally had Miami where they wanted it -- in Happy Valley, Pa., in front of their frenzied followers, in a clash of titans.
This was the game Penn State pointed for, plotted for and schemed and dreamed about for a full year, since a 26-20 loss to the Hurricanes in 1991.
The Nittany Lions, however, sprung no traps that day. Their kicking game backfired, their quarterback made a ghastly mistake and, in a game that left a lot of room for hindsight, Penn State lost, 17-14.
One week later, still mourning the Miami loss, the Lions were stunned by Boston College at home, 35-32, and a season ripe with potential turned stale.
They lost twice more in a ragged five-game stretch, nearly fell out of the rankings, then beat Pitt, 57-13, to finish the regular season at 7-4.
Even now, the No. 21 Lions are still trying to pick up the pieces from their wrenching loss to Miami. On New Year's Day, they will try to salvage a season against Bill Walsh's No. 13 Stanford Cardinal in the Blockbuster Bowl.
Looking back, Paterno says that Penn State had gotten too far out of character in its quest to overtake the Hurricanes. The school even had installed a new sound system for that game, but those new speakers were silent the next week.
"We thought we had a chance to win the national championship," Paterno said. "Miami has a particular style of play, a horizontal style of play with its wide receivers, and we geared our whole scheme to beat them. We did some things that were not our style."
If Penn State could have beaten Miami, it probably should have beaten BC, a loss for which Paterno blames himself.
"We jumped into a [game against a] different style team, a physical team with three tight ends, and we weren't ready for it," Paterno said. "That's my fault. I did not do a good coaching job.
"To their credit, the kids never quit. I'm proud of that. I think we've got that behind us."
Penn State, though, has struggled all year to stay ahead of the game.
For the first time during Paterno's tenure, the Penn State image was tainted when several players were disciplined for off-the-field problems before the season started.
In addition, quarterback Kerry Collins, who won the starting job in the spring, broke a finger on his passing hand in August while playing volleyball. He missed the first six games -- through Miami -- and the passing game started slowly.
Tailback Richie Anderson, with five 100-yard rushing games, and flanker O. J. McDuffie, the school's all-time leading receiver, helped stabilize an otherwise unstable offense.
The defense had its problems, too. The secondary, for instance, was strafed for more than 325 yards in three games. Twice -- against Maryland and Boston College -- the Lions gave up more than 500 yards.
In the end, Penn State fell considerably short of its objective. The Lions, who lost to Florida State, 24-17, in the first Blockbuster Bowl two years ago, have one last chance to make a point this season.
"I think we still have some things to prove," Paterno said. "I hope the squad will look at it that way. . . . I think we're going into this game as if we're playing for the national championship."