DALLAS — Pacing the Penn State sideline just the way his dad did for 46 seasons, Jay Paterno couldn’t help but wonder what JoePa might be doing back home in Happy Valley.
A 30-14 loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl on Monday ended a tumultuous season for a program shrouded with uncertainty following the firing of a Hall of Fame coach in the aftermath of a child sex-abuse scandal that shook college sports.
“It wasn’t easy … It wasn’t easy on game day without him because you think about him,” said Jay Paterno, Penn State’s quarterbacks coach. “I always came to work knowing we had an ace up our sleeve in Joe because of all of his experience, so yeah it was tough.”
For the players, too.
“We’ve been to hell and back in a lot of ways, more so for our kids,” Paterno said. “They did nothing.”
The 24th-ranked Nittany Lions were picked apart by Case Keenum and the 20th-ranked Cougars. He threw for 532 yards and three touchdowns, a dispiriting finish for a defense that was allowing 162 yards passing per game.
Keenum threw for more than double that by halftime. Now, Houston (13-1) gets to relish in the satisfaction of extending its school record for victories in a season.
Penn State must push forward still without a permanent head coach. Longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who was appointed the interim coach after Paterno’s dismissal, is a candidate in a search that overshadowed the game itself.
“I thought the guys came out and they played hard. It’s been a difficult year for them,” Bradley said. “It just didn’t go our way.”
Keenum burned the Nittany Lions’ veteran secondary with touchdown passes of 40 and 75 yards to build a 24-7 lead by halftime. It was the school’s first bowl game without Paterno as head coach since the 1962 Gator Bowl, a 17-7 loss to Florida.
Paterno was fired Nov. 9 by school trustees amid mounting criticism that school leaders should have done more to prevent the shocking abuse allegations against retired assistant Jerry Sandusky. He is awaiting trial after pleading not guilty in December.
Bradley’s enormous task: guide players besieged by the resulting media scrutiny.
Bypassed by more prominent bowls, some Nittany Lions (9-4) debated whether to travel to Dallas at all, then vowed they were over getting jilted and focused on stopping Houston.
Turned out Linbacker U. got trampled over by Keenum and Houston’s high-octane offense.
“When you have a lot of fast guys, it makes my job a lot easier,” Keenum said.
Start with receiver Patrick Edwards, who burned safety Macolm Willis for a 40-yard touchdown pass from Keenum down the left sideline for a 7-0 lead just 1:52 into the game that often resembled a one-sided track meet. Keenum hit Justin Johnson for an 8-yard TD pass with 2:35 left for a 17-0 lead.
Houston coach Tony Levine, leading the Cougars for the first time since replacing Kevin Sumlin, was pretty impressed.
“I’m biased, obviously. I’d put him right at the top,” Levine said of Keenum. “You don’t win 12 games by accident and I don’t think you don’t break the records he broke by accident, either.”
Already the NCAA career leader coming into the game for passing yardage and touchdown passes, Keenum added another record to his impressive resume.
His 227 first-quarter passing yards set the record for most passing yards in one quarter in any bowl game, breaking the mark previously held by Louisville’s Browning Nagle (223 yards) against Alabama in the first quarter of the 1991 Fiesta Bowl, according to TicketCity Bowl officials.
Penn State All-American defensive tackle Devon Still, already slowed by turf toe, couldn’t keep up with Keenum’s quick release and Houston’s no-huddle attack. The Cougars exploited Penn State’s bend-but-don’t -break defense across the middle, including Edwards 75-yard touchdown reception up the seam from a scrambling Keenum for a 24-7 lead by halftime.
Keenum finished 45 of 69 passing <0x2014> two fewer attempts than the number of offensive plays Penn State ran all afternoon.
Down by 20 midway through the third quarter, cornerback Stephon Morris tried to keep his fellow defenders motivated on the bench with high-fives.
The struggling offense without injured starting quarterback Matt McGloin provided a glimmer of hope after Rob Bolden connected with Justin Brown for a pretty 69-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 27-14 at 2:38 of the third quarter.
Penn State’s defense adjusted to hold the Cougars to just two field goals in the second half, but the early deficit proved too much to overcome and Bolden threw three second-half interceptions <0x2014> two by safety Nick Saenz.
“We knew they were going to be tough, we watched a lot of film on them,” left tackle Quinn Barham said about Houston’s defense. “We knew <0x2014> and they brought it to us.”
With 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Penn State had already given up 552 yards of total offense to Houston, the most allowed by the Nittany Lions all season.
This wasn’t the lasting impression Bradley wanted to leave on the Penn State committee searching for Paterno’s replacement.
The outgoing Bradley, who is popular with players, is among the candidates who have been interviewed. Acting athletic director David Joyner has said he hopes to have a new coach in place to give him a few weeks to recruit before Feb. 1, when high school seniors can announce their college choices.
Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill said he wasn’t relieved a difficult season was over.
“I’m glad that we’re going to get to move on, but it’s hard letting go of this team because we’re so close,” he said.
Bolden finished 7 of 26 passing for 137 yards, while Stephfon Green ran for 63 yards on 15 carries including a 6-yard scoring run on a direct snap in the second quarter.
It was one of the few times the Cougars’ D got tricked. After getting upset 49-28 by Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA title game to lose a chance to play in the BCS, Houston ended the season with an impressive win over a power conference team.
Edwards finished with 10 catches and 228 yards for two touchdowns, while Johnson had 12 catches for 148 yards at the 92,000-seat Cotton Bowl.
The stands were about a half-full on a sunny afternoon that ended with Houston’s red-clad fans celebrating and chanting “Houston.”
Back in State College, the 85-year-old Paterno planned to watch from home, Jay Paterno said. He may not have been happy by what he saw - though he was still rooting for his players.
“One thing he said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to watch because I care so much about these kids,’” Jay said. “He cares about those kids.”