MIAMI -- Penn State's last chance to beat a ranked team ended like all the other chances this season:
In frustration, futility and defeat.
After the Nittany Lions endured a 24-3 loss to No. 13 Stanford in the Blockbuster Bowl yesterday, their 7-5 season carried a sorry bottom line.
History will show they lost to all five ranked teams they played this season, and handled -- but not always easily -- the seven that weren't.
Maybe that's why coach Joe Paterno looked like a legend who stayed beyond his time, dodging questions about Penn State's erratic season of underachieving.
"I think I know what's wrong, but I don't want to discuss it publicly," Paterno said in a voice barely above a whisper.
What went wrong yesterday was everything. Penn State's running game disappeared in the face of Stanford's stout eight-man fronts. The passing game of quarterback Kerry Collins misfired consistently. And the defense, reduced to risky blitzes in the second half, made just enough mistakes to self-destruct.
In the end, there was no genius at the Blockbuster Bowl, although Stanford coach Bill Walsh tried mightily to live up to the label. Neither was there a legend to be found. This was a game quickly forgotten, lost mercifully in the shuffle of New Year's Day football.
Even the announced attendance of 45,554 at Joe Robbie Stadium appeared to be a generous count. The stadium was barely half-filled.
As with Penn State's season, the game started with great promise then quickly fizzled.
After Stanford drove 71 yards to an opening touchdown, Penn State answered with a 66-yard drive that led to a 33-yard field goal by V. J. Muscillo.
That was it for Penn State's offense. The Lions never got inside the Stanford 15.
"We didn't play very well, we didn't catch very well, we didn't throw very well," Paterno said. "But I think Stanford is a good team.
"I thought we might be able to run on them. When we couldn't do that, we had to throw."
Collins, who was 12-for-30 with one interception, took a helmet on his right elbow at the end of the first half, but declined to blame his problems on the injury.
"I could still throw," he said. "It got a little tight, and I might have lost some zip. But it did not have an overriding effect."
Collins left the game briefly in the second half, giving way to John Sacca (0-for-2) for one series. In the fourth quarter, Paterno resolved to give freshman Wally Richardson (1-for-8) some work.
That left Penn State's quarterback picture for next season in a maze. Worse yet, the Lions may be losing tailback Richie Anderson. The Marylander from Sandy Spring's Sherwood High said after the gamethat he had made a decision on whether to return for his final year of eligibility, but wouldn't announce it until Monday. He did not look like he had a happy announcement.
Penn State definitely is losing senior flanker O. J. McDuffie, who caught six passes for 111 yards in his farewell appearance. But McDuffie also dropped two passes.
Paterno, who talked about putting McDuffie in the backfield earlier in the year, finally did -- but with meager results. Running out of the T-formation three times and a fourth time off a reverse, McDuffie gained a total of 5 yards.
Paterno also dipped into an old playbook in the second quarter and pulled out a statue-of-liberty play. On a fourth-and-eight from the Stanford 33, Anderson swung behind Collins, took the ball and ran left for a 7-yard gain. He was short of the first down by less than a yard.
The innovations were left to Walsh, who achieved Stanford's first 10-win season since 1940. The Cardinal finished 10-3.
Walsh called a flea-flicker that ended in a Penn State interception inthe first quarter. Then he used a "wraparound" handoff on a draw play to fullback J. J. Lasley, who went 5 yards for the touchdown that gave Stanford a 14-3 second-quarter lead.
Quarterback Steve Stenstrom dropped into the pocket on the play, then placed the ball in Lasley's arms from behind. Lasley had an open path on the right side.
The most effective wrinkle Walsh threw at Paterno came in the third quarter and took the Lions out of the game.
Stanford had increased its lead to 17-3 on a 28-yard field goal by Eric Abrams with 5:56 to play in the quarter. On Stanford's next possession, Stenstrom tossed a short screen pass over the heads of two blitzing Penn State defensive backs to Glyn Milburn. Forty yards later, Milburn had a touchdown and Stanford had a 24-3 lead.
"That was the only one of our new plays that really worked," Walsh said.
Stenstrom passed for 210 yards and two touchdowns, including a 2-yarder to tight end Ryan Wetnight in the first quarter.
It was a day that belonged to Stanford's defense, though, more than any offensive gimmickry. Penn State was left with regret.
"We're not as sound a team as we can be," Paterno said. "I'm not demoralized. But I am frustrated and discouraged."