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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, his son 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 Paterno said. "He cares about those kids."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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