DALLAS (AP) -- 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 at 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 last month. 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 -- 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 -- 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 -- 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."
The main takeaway from a 15-minute press conference where Tommy La Stella talked a lot and said very little: Only the Cubs.
Even La Stella realizes he’s fortunate to be working for Joe Maddon, perhaps the most liberal manager in an extremely conservative industry, and Theo Epstein’s front office, which takes a holistic view of player development and built out an entire wing for mental skills.
There aren’t many other markets where one of the last guys on the roster could dominate multiple news cycles, but the appetite for information on the best team in baseball appears to be endless, and this story is so bizarre, even by Cubbie standards.
La Stella addressed his teammates inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse for about 10 minutes before starting at second base and batting seventh in Wednesday night’s lineup against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But La Stella – the second act in a trilogy of media sessions in the underground interview room, after Maddon and before Epstein – didn’t offer any real insight into why he refused to report to Triple-A Iowa in late July, moved home to New Jersey, told ESPN he might retire if he couldn’t play for the big-league Cubs and finally ended his three-week holdout in the middle of August.
“That’s pretty much between me and them – and me and Theo,” La Stella said. “I understand that there’s going to be people out there who kind of draw conclusions and stuff. And that’s fine. I’m not necessarily out here to make anybody see anything or explain anything.
“As long as people understand that there are things out there that are kind of personal to me – and I’ve shared those with the guys. It’s not necessarily going to be just like a cut-and-dry, black-and-white answer where everybody goes: ‘Oh, yeah, I get it now.’ That answer doesn’t really exist.”
La Stella confirmed the answer didn't involve a health issue or crisis in his family. This reunion became inevitable the longer the Cubs played this game, taking a softer approach, knowing his left-handed swing could help win a playoff game and not immediately cutting him.
“That was obviously a very real possibility that I was fully prepared for,” La Stella said. “I was at a point in my life, just personally and professionally, (where) that wasn’t something that I was in fear of. I was OK with it.
“The way Theo approached it…I was very lucky because he treated me like a person and not an employee.”
La Stella, 27, isn’t sure if he wants to remain a Cubs employee beyond this season: “I don’t know, to be honest with you. I don’t want to say something, because I don’t have an answer.”
And when asked if he missed the game during his retreat, La Stella said: “I missed the guys. The game, to me, that’s kind of just the avenue for the other type of enjoyment that I get through those guys and the stuff that we get to do together.”
How much of your decision to step away came out of pure frustration after being sent down to the minors with a .295 average?
“None of it,” La Stella said. “I know that sounds absurd to say. (But) that had absolutely nothing to do with that. I made that very clear to Theo. I told him when it happened: I totally understood the move. He’s doing what he believes is in the best interest of the team. I’m all for that.”
It got to the point where an exasperated columnist asked: Do you understand how strange this is for us to comprehend, how there’s nothing to grasp here?
“I hear ya,” La Stella said. “It’s certainly not a typical situation.”
Epstein – who’s in his 25th season in Major League Baseball, which should be converted into dog years after all the time he’s spent with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox – had never seen anything like it before.
“There are appropriate times for punishment,” Epstein said, “and standing up for the organization if we think an individual is acting in a malevolent way and putting himself before the organization and trying to do damage to the team concept.
“I can just tell you that after talking to him, we didn’t feel that way. We felt it was more misguided and not malevolent, so we wanted to work with him to get him back to this point.”
La Stella’s personal journey included temporarily quitting baseball in high school, transferring from St. John’s University to Coastal Carolina University and deserting the Atlanta Braves, which he explained as a “completely different” situation: “Somebody close to me was sick in the hospital.”
“One of the things I like about Tommy the most is that he is his own man,” Maddon said. Another thing: “The guy can wake up in the middle of the night and hit a line drive on a 1-2 count.”
La Stella clearly made a connection with Maddon, forged alliances in the clubhouse with respected professionals like Jake Arrieta and Jason Heyward and should still have that unique hand-eye coordination and contact skills. As for the reaction from the fans…
“It’s tough for me to say, because I haven’t read anything,” La Stella said. “I haven’t looked at anything – good or bad – so I don’t really necessarily know what the perception of all of it is. I’m sure negatively there’s going to be some people who don’t understand, or don’t agree. And that’s fine.
“A couple difficult personal experiences for me between now and the end of the year isn’t going to outweigh all the incredible stuff I’ve gotten to see here at Wrigley. It’s a pretty sacred place. It’s going to take more than a couple difficult moments for me personally to change any feeling on that.”
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La Stella did admit that he wondered how he would be received by teammates – and if they would question his commitment to the game.
“I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t something that eventually enters your mind,” La Stella said. “But the thing that outweighed that for me was I couldn’t not do what I felt was right for me, just because of how it might be perceived by other people.
“That group of guys in there is an unbelievably special group. And if there was one team that would welcome something like this back, it’s those guys. I’m very lucky.”
Only the Cubs.
The White Sox take on the Minnesota Twins on Thursday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.
Thursday’s starting pitching matchup: Jose Quintana vs. Ervin Santana
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The Bears will conclude their preseason with the Cleveland Browns for the 13th straight season, part of the NFL’s preference for teams playing closer to home in final preseason games such as Buffalo at Detroit, Indianapolis at Cincinnati, Houston at Dallas and Jacksonville at Atlanta, among others.
Correlations between Bears results in Game 4 and what the regular season holds aren’t worth the effort. But several other aspects of Bears-Browns will be:
Who’s up, who’s down
Who plays and who doesn’t have decidedly different meanings for Game 3 vs. Game 4. Healthy scratches from Game 3 typically are at risk in the first round of cuts; five of those DNP’s were among the initial cuts.
The reverse is commonly the case in Game 4. Players sitting out are generally those already included in the roster plans, with playing time going to backups competing for a late roster spot or to show skills sufficient for scouts from other teams to look for them on the waiver wire after the weekend’s final trims. Virtually all of the Bears players sitting out Game 4 last year, won by the Bears 24-0, were ticketed for the initial 53-man roster.
The Bears face some tight decisions at a number of positions, not the least of which is at wide receiver, where only Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White are assured roster spots. Marc Mariani has played his way into quarterback Jay Cutler’s comfort zone and is in a contest with oft-injured Eddie Royal for the No. 3/slot receiver job. Both could secure spots on the “53” as could Josh Bellamy, who was among the Bears’ top special-teams tacklers.
Royal is guaranteed $4.5 million for 2016 but Bears Chairman George McCaskey has been consistent in stating that money will not be the sole reason for personnel decisions.
Rookie Daniel Braverman has been a non-factor in games and has not flashed on special teams. Cameron Meredith has a TD catch but has not stepped out on special teams, while returner Deonte Thompson has not been able to overcome injuries enough to make a clear roster statement yet.
“It's so tough,” Royal said. “We've got a lot of guys who can play. This is one of the most talented groups I've ever been around, just from top to bottom. These guys can play, you can see it out there with these practices and the few preseason games that we've had, the guys are out there making plays, so it's going to be some tough decisions to make because everybody in our room can play.”
A chance for an impression
A small handful of players may see the field simply because the Bears haven’t had many chances to see them this training camp and preseason. And they may just need some work.
Linebackers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, both coming off leg injuries that ended their 2014 seasons, both started and played nearly two-dozen snaps against the Browns. Hroniss Grasu, a roster lock as a third-round pick, nevertheless started at center and played every snap. Charles Leno Jr., after starting in a trial at right tackle the two previous games, was tried at left tackle and showed enough to hold onto the swing-tackle job while Jordan Mills’ Bears tenure was ended.
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This year linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski was a fourth-round Bears pick in this year’s draft but went down with a hamstring injury early in camp and hasn’t seen the field at all through preseason.
“Truth be told, we didn’t see a whole lot of him,” said coach John Fox. “Obviously, we evaluated him on his college tape. Saw him in some of the offseason stuff. He got hurt very early on in camp. It was a legit injury to his hamstring. He’s been in meetings. He’s been with us. But as far as our true evaluation, it’s a little bit of a leap of faith. We’ll kind of march down that road as we move forward.”
How special are ‘teams?
Non-starters typically need to demonstrate a willingness and ability to play special teams. Linebackers Jonathan Anderson and John Timu were undrafted longshots going into camp but played double-digit snaps on special teams, contributed tackles, and by season’s end had each started three games.
The Bears have been anemic on punt returns (1.9 ypr.) and the Bears have spread the job around looking for solutions.
And pay attention to Browns special-team’ers. The Bears once were impressed by the special-teams devastation wrought by Browns fullback Tyler Clutts in the 2011 Game 4 against them. The Browns waived Clutts, the Bears signed him to a three-year deal and Clutts played through the 2015 season, finishing last year with the Dallas Cowboys.