TAMPA, Fla. - Penn State entered Saturday's Outback Bowl hoping to use the game as a springboard into a 2011 season the Nittany Nation could feel better about.
Instead, the Lions left here with a 37-24 loss to Florida, a 7-6 record - yeah, there's a reason openers are now Youngstown State or Indiana State - and even more question marks than they brought.
Starting with the quarterback position.
Matt McGloin threw five interceptions, setting a school single-game record, and effectively opened up the position for next year with this one performance alone.
The accuracy he had displayed in emerging as one of the greatest walk-on stories in recent PSU history completely disappeared as he forced balls into traffic, threw across his body, was repeatedly under throwing, and made all the wrong decisions previously absent from his development.
To his credit, McGloin faced a throng of media and showed his strong leadership skills afterward (see related story) by answering every last question.
Penn State receiver Derek Moye catches a 5-yard touchdown pass in front of Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins to give the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead.
In the meantime, he has an offseason to patch up what one game did to taint his otherwise strong season.
"He'll be fine," quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said.
Joe Paterno, as is his custom, acknowledged the turnovers as "too many" but shifted sole blame from McGloin.
He preferred to focus on the blocked punt that Florida cashed in for a touchdown as well as the breakdown of the Lions' coverage teams, which gave Florida field-position advantage.
"I must have spent more time on the kicking game for this ballgame than any game we've ever played because I was worried about it," he said.
Indicative that this is far from a great Florida team, Penn State was not knocked out until McGloin's final, fatal, interception after the Lions gamely got a last defensive stop and gave the offense another chance inside three minutes.
Paterno didn't seem overly down after the loss in part because he's been sending signals that he felt this year would be for rebuilding.
He admitted after the regular-season finale that he envisioned "three losses," and in the past few days, he mentioned how his expectations changed after Pat Devlin's transfer.
To that end, he said Saturday, "We're obviously way ahead of where we were at this stage a year ago. We played a lot of young kids today. Some of them got themselves into situations they shouldn't have, but that is all part of the experience."
JoePa concluded that the team performed against the Gators "about the way we've played most of the year."
And that was usually just well enough to lose to the better teams on the schedule (Alabama, Ohio State, Iowa) and some that were only better that day (Illinois, Michigan State, Florida).
Penn State's bright spot was a defensive unit that used the bowl preparation to improve over its regular-season showing.
Florida's defense and special teams scored 14 points, and the Lion offense gave the Gators possession inside the PSU 25 on three other occasions - twice at the Nit 15.
"I thought we played pretty good defense considering how many times we turned it over," JoePa said.
Offensively, of course, was a much different story as McGloin, who had been so successful in the pocket all year, found himself rolling into trouble all day. The Lions' short-yardage offense was blown up on a third-and-1 in the third quarter, ending one possession, and a McGloin pick on a later third-and-1 ended another.
Then there were the usual red-zone issues. After a nifty McGloin 30-yard dump to Evan Royster gave the Lions a first-and-goal at the Florida 7, the Lions wasted one timeout and then were forced into their last one when, you guessed it, the play clock was about to expire.
This also hurt the team in losses to Iowa and Michigan State and will continue to do so as long as virtually every offensive coach, including JoePa, seemingly have playcalling responsibilities.
Instead of cashing the late second-quarter rush into a 21-14 lead, Penn State settled for a field goal.
The uncertainty, though, wasn't limited to the offense. On a day when the special teams were outshined, it's reportable that the Lions used five different kickoff returners.
And yet, along with considering the Gators have a national-championship pedigree and were playing hard for departing coach Urban Meyer, there was a sense in the Penn State camp that a productive offseason will fuel fall optimism.
"We were right there," said graduating senior Chris Colasanti, who led all tacklers with 10. "Turnovers are difficult, and they hurt the team, but I felt the defense played really well today. We made some mistakes, but as a whole we battled back and played pretty well. I think they'll have a great season next year."
Great will have to be defined. Or redefined. A three-game improvement would be 10-3 - and by Penn State's standards, that's never been great.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.