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Paterno reaches heights again, but all that's ahead is sad dive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Miami --The stadium was divided in half and the energy level never ebbed. Penn State players bounced out of the tunnel for the biggest game of their lives. Some will be back next year, some won't.

Their field general, Joe Paterno, walked to his place on the sidelines. His second home since 1950. No one questions whether he'll be back next year. And that's precisely what made last night's Orange Bowl a bit sad, despite the pageantry and the crowd support and the inspired performances.

Paterno, who's as proud as he is grumpy, has doomed his storybook career to a sad, ill-fated ending. By all accounts, the 79-year-old coach has a deep appreciation for the arts. Well, if he's shooting for anything that resembles poetry, he would walk away now. He's as close to the top as he's going to get.

You don't need a crystal ball to see how this will all end. If you could TiVo real life and hit fast-forward, here's what you're watching: an unfortunate and agonizing conclusion to an otherwise beautiful career.

For all of the inflated, hyperbolic euphemisms used to describe Penn State's resurgence these past few months, we'll look back on this season and realize that it's been just a quick flash of light in an otherwise dark period of Nittany Lions football.

After suffering through four straight losing seasons, Paterno's group was amazing this year, posting a 10-1 record, winning a share of the Big Ten title and taking their embattled coach into a BCS bowl game.

With little trepidation, we can safely assume that, next year, Penn State will resemble the teams that underachieved those four years, not the squad that played with such passion last night against the Seminoles.

Just look over the roster. The Nittany Lions stand to lose their entire offensive line, their star quarterback, all of the secondary and three-quarters of the defensive front -- 13 starters in all. The only thing they have returning is a few reserves and Paterno's manhole-sized glasses.

They aren't losing starters; they're losing stars. Go to commencement ceremonies next spring in State College, Pa., and, one by one, you'll see the reasons why Penn State was a single play away from an undefeated season and a chance at a national championship.

Michael Robinson is the senior quarterback with smarts that match his athleticism. He forced Paterno to open up his offense and the results will be stored forever in record books. He broke the school mark for total offense (2,097 yards passing, 785 rushing) and became the first Nittany Lions quarterback to rush for 10 touchdowns.

Much of his success is credited to the offensive line. From left guard to tight end, they'll all be gone next season. The only one who might return is junior Levi Brown. But he was named first-team All-Big Ten and is thought to be considering a pro career.

The defense will also suffer huge losses. It will lose the entire secondary, including cornerback Alan Zemaitis and safety Calvin Lowry, both all-conference players. The defensive line loses three key pieces, two of which -- defensive ends Tamba Hali and Matthew Rice -- may be wearing NFL uniforms next season.

The team's biggest question mark during the offseason hangs over the head of linebacker Paul Posluszny. Just a junior, Posluszny won the Chuck Bednarik Award, given annually to the nation's top defensive player, and the Butkus Award, presented to the top linebacker. He also might declare for the NFL draft.

Losing Posluszny and Robinson not only means Penn State won't be able to match this year's feats. The Nittany Lions could be even worse than some of those drab teams that Happy Valley has been trying to forget these past couple of years.

The forecast isn't good. The players won't be back. Paterno will be.

The wins won't be back. The losses will be.

This is not how it should end for a legend like Paterno. This season was something special, a gift sent by the football gods, blessed by Bear Bryant himself, we can assume. This is Paterno's chance -- his last chance -- to leave the game on good terms, without staining a legacy, without forcing us to someday reminisce about how heartbreaking it all was at the end.

It's a predictable script, though. Walking away on top would mean Paterno would have to walk away, something he's just not interested in doing. The Orange Bowl, the Big Ten title, the entire 2005 season -- he didn't see any of this as a chance to call it quits atop the mountain.

The coach on the sidelines, the fool on the hill. There's no difference.

These have been good days in Happy Valley. But deep down inside, they all know. This is as good as it will get. The sun is setting on this party and, overnight, tomorrow will start to resemble yesterday.

It's sad, it's unfortunate and because we're talking about Paterno, it's inevitable.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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