SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Penn State's future was on full display, but it was a fifth-year redshirt senior running back - who didn't start until the fifth game this season - that stole the Alamo Bowl last night.
Rodney Kinlaw rushed for 143 yards on 21 carries as the Nittany Lions ended their long, tumultuous and sometimes disappointing season on a high note with a 24-17 victory over Texas A&M before 66,166 fans at the Alamodome.
"It's been one of the toughest years I've had," said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, referring the multitude of off-the-field incidents.
Kinlaw, who didn't get the starting job until Austin Scott was suspended from the team for one such incident, wasn't the only hero for the Lions. And with maybe 19 starters returning next season, there were plenty of non-seniors to chose from.
"I think this gives us a boost because we're a fairly young team," Paterno said.
Junior Sean Lee showed why he's the next great linebacker - if he's not already - at Linebacker U. And backup quarterback Daryll Clark got into the fray, rushing for 50 yards on six carries, as the Lions used a somewhat new package to confound Texas A&M.
And lastly, Kinlaw's backup, Evan Royster, provided the game-winning score when he bolted 38 yards as Kinlaw sat on the sideline with an injury.
Kinlaw - who finished with 1,361 yards for the season - was the game's offensive MVP
"I'm happy for him because he stuck with us. He never griped," Paterno said. "I never heard a word from him that he wasn't getting a fair shake."
Lee, with 14 tackles, took defensive MVP honors.
The game marked the 500th game of Paterno's head coaching career. The 81-year-old icon has coached in 34 bowl games and has 23 postseason wins, both records for Football Bowl Subdivision coaches.
Texas A&M (7-6) had two opportunities to tie the score in the fourth quarter but failed. The first drive - a 16-play march - was all for naught when quarterback Stephen McGee slipped and fell on a fourth-and-one on the Lions 2-yard line. The junior rolled to his right on an option. But before he could pitch, his legs went out from underneath him, and he lost four yards.
"We were going for it no matter what," Texas A&M interim coach Gary Darnell said. "We already had a two-point play called if we scored there. We were playing for the win."
The Aggies had one more chance with 3 minutes, 59 seconds left but chose to punt with 2:09 left after they couldn't advance past midfield. They never got the ball again.
Late in the third quarter, Texas A&M tied the score, 17-17, when Matt Szymanski hit a 38-yard field goal. The 18-play drive gobbled up 8:45.
But the Lions' offense gave its defense a rest and answered with an impressive drive of its own. Even though Kinlaw hobbled off the field early in the drive, Penn State hardly missed a beat. The highlights were two third-down conversions. First, quarterback Anthony Morelli - 15 of 31 for 143 yards with a touchdown and an interception - hit wide receiver Derrick Williams for 21 yards on third-and-six. Then Royster shook a would-be-tackler on third-and-one and raced the rest of the way untouched 38 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
Considering how poorly Penn State played for a nine-minute stretch in the first quarter, it was a minor miracle the Lions led, 17-14, at the half.
But that's just the type of oddball first half it was.
Texas A&M scored the game's first 14 points in a 12-second span, giving off an air of doomsday for Penn State. But the Lions rebounded almost immediately and tallied two touchdowns to tie the score, 14-14, in just over a two-minute span. A Kevin Kelly 25-yard field goal, ended a 16-play drive before the break and gave Penn State a seemingly improbable lead.
It was Kinlaw, though - scooting to the right side behind guard Stefen Wisniewski and tackle Dennis Landolt - who willed the Lions back from a 14-point deficit. He clicked off big gainers that moved Penn State into Aggies territory. And after Kelly's earlier miss, the Lions decided to go for it when they faced a fourth-and-three from the 30-yard line.
With wide receiver Deon Butler in single coverage, Morelli lofted a pass that an out-stretched Butler hauled in for a 30-yard touchdown. Replays proved inconclusive, and Butler's gem stayed on the scoreboard.
Texas A&M got the ball back, but running back Mike Goodson fumbled when defensive end Maurice Evans tackled the sophomore from behind. Cornerback A.J. Wallace pounced on the ball on the 11.
The Lions lined up Clark in the shotgun, with Morelli split wide. Clark took the snap and hit the hole for an 11-yard touchdown.
See highlights of last night's game on CineSport at http://go.philly.com/