Case Keenum carved up the Lions in the first quarter, passing for 227 yards and two touchdowns as the Cougars took a 17-0 lead, and the Texas team delighted its red-clad fans in the Cotton Bowl crowd of 46,817 with a 30-14 victory.
The game could have marked the last one for interim head coach Tom Bradley and members of his staff, many of whom have been with the program a long time. Acting athletic director Dave Joyner, chairman of the committee seeking a new head coach, has not given a timetable for when a hiring would take place.
The loss left the Nittany Lions (9-4) with a 1-3 record in games played after the Nov. 6 indictment of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on child sexual abuse charges.
But the Penn State players denied that all the nonfootball drama, including the fact that the Insight, Gator and Meineke Bowls had passed them over, had any effect on their drab day.
"I don't think the distractions got to us at all," said wide receiver Justin Brown, who caught a 69-yard touchdown pass from Bolden. "We were used to it from the whole season. The coaches did a great job of preparing us, focusing on the task at hand. So I wouldn't say distractions were a problem."
Offensive tackle Quinn Barham said he didn't think past events "had anything to do" with Monday.
"Houston's a great team, their offense was great, their defense was great as well," he said. "They brought it to us. We knew what we were going to see from them and we got what we expected."
Keenum, a sixth-year senior who holds several NCAA passing records, put up numbers not close to anything ever seen in the staid Big Ten - 45 completions in 69 attempts for 532 yards and three scores.
The fact that the Lions, who yielded 600 yards, nearly twice their season average, were able to hold the Cougars to 30 points - just six in the second half - was an achievement. But the 17-0 start proved too much to overcome.
"I would give us an F," Bradley said when asked his first-quarter grade. "That's the one thing about bowl games, you've got to get caught up to speed as fast as you can. You can't duplicate because you haven't played in five weeks. You're just not used to it."
Defensive tackle Jordan Hill called the adjustment "definitely a struggle," but praised Keenum.
"It's extraordinary how efficient he really is," Hill said. "He's out there calling his own plays sometimes. He's making audibles. He's not looking to the sidelines, looking what we're in, looking if we're blitzing, and he's changing the play right there."
The Penn State offense sputtered. Bolden took over for McGloin, who suffered a concussion in a Dec. 17 scuffle with wide receiver Curtis Drake and never recovered in time to practice, and hit just 7 of 26 passes for 137 yards with three interceptions.
Two of Bolden's completions were the 69-yard TD pass to Brown and a 43-yarder to Devon Smith that set up Stephfon Green's 6-yard run for a score.
The Cougars (13-1) scored on three of their first four possessions. Keenum hit Patrick Edwards for a 40-yard touchdown and later found Justin Johnson with an 8-yard flip while Matt Hogan kicked his first of three field goals. Keenum's 227 passing yards the most ever in a bowl for a quarter.
Meanwhile, the Lions were unsuccessful attaining a single first down in the period. They came around a bit in the second quarter when Green scored but Keenum found Edwards wide open after defender Drew Astorino fell, and hit him on a deep ball for 75 yards.
Bradley was disappointed at the result but praised his players.
"I wanted to thank them for all the things they did for us, for what they had been through," he said. "I told them we still had a lot to be thankful for. Things didn't go our way today. I told them in life, it's not what happens to you, it's how you react from it."
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or email@example.com