Fifteen minutes before game time, business wasn't exactly booming for Beaver Stadium program hawker Tia Gamble. "One fan yelled at his wife for wanting to buy a guide to a losing team," said Gamble, a Penn State senior who last Saturday unloaded only about one fifth the number of programs she regularly sold last year. "And a lot of students have stopped coming to the games at all." Those who did stream into the stadium witnessed history: The Nittany Lions fell to Northwestern for the first time ever at home. In sunnier seasons in Happy Valley, Northwestern was a gimme game en route to a New Year's Day bowl. Now, for the fourth time in five years, Penn State (2--7 overall, 0--6 in the Big Ten) will not be bowl eligible. The Nittany Lions sit alone in last place in the Big Ten, a new low in the 39-year reign of coach Joe Paterno, who in recent weeks has come under fire from columnists and even many longtime supporters who feel it is time for him to retire. "He needs to be the gentleman he's always been and realize what's best for the program," says Jan Wallace, a 30-year season-ticket holder. "If he continues on this route, things can only turn out badly."
Team members said before the game that they were playing for pride, but even that modest goal was in jeopardy from Penn State's opening snap: an interception thrown by receiver and backup quarterback Michael Robinson on a reverse. The play underscored the Lions' seasonlong offensive woes. Questionable play calls, indecisive quarterbacking and butterfingered receivers have Penn State 113th out of 117 nationally in scoring offense (15.1 points per game). Not even a sturdy defense, which allows just 288.2 yards per game, has been able to prevent Penn State's slide.
After feistily brushing away questions about his job security during a media teleconference four days before the game, the 77-year-old Paterno looked defeated late Saturday. "People should be disappointed. I'm disappointed. Nobody likes to lose." Especially the 100,353 fans at Saturday's game--the second-smallest crowd at Beaver Stadium since a 2001 expansion. Late in the game, two of those fans covered their heads with paper bags that read: WE WERE ... PENN STATE. Boos are one thing. But for this once-proud program, jokes might be worse. --Kelley King