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Magnitude of loss hits Nittany Lions hard

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- There was no anesthetic for Penn State on Saturday afternoon.

The pain of what had just happened, the magnitude of what it all meant, set in as soon as Daniel Murray's field goal sailed through the uprights.

"It's hitting me now, man," Nittany Lions quarterback Daryll Clark said, his voice cracking as he spoke. "I'm hurting real bad because I let my team down."

Obviously, Clark didn't deserve all the blame for a 24-23 loss to Iowa.

Normally sure-handed wide receivers dropped passes in the clutch. A dominant defensive line couldn't pressure Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi on the final drive. The nation's third least penalized team drew two flags in the final five minutes.

"There's 25 plays in that game that if we make one of them, we win the game," quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said.

In the end, it came down to one play, a 31-yard field goal with six seconds left. Murray drilled it, and Penn State's hopes for an undefeated season and a national title floated away into the frigid Iowa night.

"It was like a huge bomb exploded," senior wide receiver Deon Butler said. "It was so close to being a perfect season our senior year."

Moments after the kick, 81-year-old coach Joe Paterno hobbled of the visitors' coaching booth, his arm around an aide, as he made his way toward the press box elevators. Like Clark, Paterno couldn't hide the disappointment on his face.

This season was widely regarded as the coaching legend's final shot at a national title. He has no contract for 2009 and is expected to have surgery on his right leg following the season. Though Paterno has every intention of returning to the sideline next fall, he might never get this close to the top again.

"We still can have a heck of a year," Joe Paterno said. "We can't start moaning about this one, though. Maybe go home and cry on Sunday, but Monday we've got to come out ready to go to work. ...

"People are people. They have expectations and they're disappointed. I'm more worried about my football team. Their balloon isn't busted."

It's certainly deflated, at least for the moment.

Penn State can still win the Big Ten title and reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1995 (1994 season). But with the Big Ten down, the national championship is off the table.

"We're out of the hunt right now," center A.Q. Shipley said.

There was second-guessing for Penn State, just like after any loss.

Why did the Lions come out passing the ball into a stiff wind? Why did Clark go deep on third-and-24 in the fourth quarter, rather than set up a field goal or a punt that could have pinned Iowa deep? Did Penn State go to Derrick Williams one too many times?

But players and coaches tried to turn their focus to the final two games, using history as motivation.

In 1999, Penn State was ranked No. 2 nationally when it fell to Minnesota and went on to lose its final two regular-season games.

"It's not going to happen with this team," Jay Paterno said. "We're not going to let it happen. That's for sure."

Penn State would rather follow its 2005 model, when it lost at Michigan, only to rebound and win its final five games, including the Orange Bowl.

"There is still a lot to play for," Clark said. "But when you lose like this, it just hurts. It hurts really bad."