ORLANDO, Fla. - Joe Paterno said prior to Friday's Capital One Bowl matchup that the Nittany Lions didn't have "anything to prove."
Maybe he assumed his position to keep the pressure off the players, or maybe he actually believed it, but one thing's clear: The Nittany Lions played with tremendous resolve in coming from behind to beat a game LSU team, 19-17, at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
Afterward, the players said what their coach wouldn't.
"We can win big games," senior defensive tackle Jared Odrick said. "It's about playing and executing, and that's what we did in the clutch."
In doing so, Penn State ended or began the decade, whichever your preference, with an exclamation point.
It capped an 11-2 season and ushered out a senior class that was part of 51 victories over the past five years in style.
It marked its fourth bowl victory in the last five seasons.
And it crowned its at-times maligned quarterback, Daryll Clark, as the Capital One Bowl's most valuable player.
"It kind of validates what we felt about ourselves - that we were a great football team, and we finally came up with a win against a solid football team," center Stefen Wisniewski said. "It makes the program and the Big Ten look a lot better nationally."
In part because of the conditions - the rain turned the field into a mud bowl - neither team played its best game, particularly on offense.
Penn State fumbled four times but didn't lose any. It lived in the LSU red zone and yet, maddeningly, could not finish any of its four penetrations inside the 10, including three inside the 5.
In one sequence, the Lions ran seven plays from inside the LSU 10 before settling for a field goal that gave them a 13-3 lead moments before halftime.
The defense once again kept the Lions afloat and twice presented turnovers inside the LSU 25 only to watch as the offense kicked field goals.
"In a big game like this, against a team the quality of LSU, you have to cash in when you have a chance," Clark said. "Our defense definitely played great today."
But the Lion defense finally cracked and yielded a couple of key pass plays that allowed the Tigers to take a 17-16 lead early in the fourth quarter.
"I knew Daryll was going to take them down the field and score a touchdown or a field goal," senior linebacker Sean Lee said.
After the teams exchanged punts, the Lion offense took over with 6:54 left and moved from its 31 to the LSU 4, setting up Collin Wagner's game-winning field goal with 57 seconds remaining.
Featuring strong play from Clark and an offensive line that played its best game, the drive was similar to the one that Michael Robinson engineered to put the Lions in position to win at Michigan in 2005.
And, then as now, Joe Paterno kicked off to the most explosive returner on the field. In 2005, it was Steve Breaston, who sparked the game-winning TD drive with no time on the clock.
This time, JoePa kicked to speedy Trinton Holliday, who brought it back 26 yards to the LSU 42.
But unlike the disappointment in Ann Arbor five years ago - and unlike last year's game at Iowa - this time the Lion defense, helped by LSU being out of timeouts, stiffened to deliver the program's biggest win since decking Ohio State in '05.
Paterno came to the media room wearing an ear-to-ear grin and was flanked by Lee and Clark. It was obvious the team's strong leadership helped overcome various miscues Friday.
"The bowl preparation, both offensively and defensively, was so good," Clark said.
Lee said beating LSU will create a positive offseason carryover.
"I think it's big because it builds momentum for next year," he said. "It was good for the younger guys to see a big-time drive in the end."
That's true, but it was even more fitting that Clark and Lee, two of the best leaders in Penn State history, ended their careers the right way.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.