UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It was the ultimate in cautious play-calling, the nadir of offensive strategy.
Penn State had just covered 79 yards of prime Beaver Stadium real estate in nine plays and two pass interference penalties. Three straight runs by Mike Archie produced a first down inches from the goal line.
A touchdown here would erase Michigan's 14-10 third-quarter lead and shift momentum to Penn State. The alternative, for the Nittany Lions, was utterly unthinkable.
Yesterday, Penn State learned to live with the utterly unthinkable.
Four ghastly plays later -- two of them quarterback sneaks -- the Lions reeled away from the goal line empty-handed, and staggered away from their first game against Michigan with a brutal 21-13 Big Ten loss.
Penn State (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) could not recover from the series of conservative plays on the goal line. Nor could it account for a number of mistakes, such as an offsides penalty against Shelley Hammonds that led to Michigan's go-ahead touchdown in the second half.
Even when the Lions had a chance to make amends in the fourth quarter with a drive to the Michigan 8, they could score only on Craig Fayak's 25-yard field goal.
In the end, there was no way they could dress up the 1,000th game in their illustrious history and make it look presentable.
"We could point fingers if we wanted to," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "But there's no reason to do that. We're not ready to give up the ship yet."
This game was about unfinished business. Four times Penn State had the ball inside the Michigan 20. The net gain from those threats was six points. The only touchdown it got was a 37-yard pass from Collins to Bobby Engram in the first half.
"We missed too many opportunities to win the game," Paterno said after the Lions relinquished their share of the Big Ten lead and became Rose Bowl long shots.
Until the goal-line series, Hammonds' mistake loomed as the back-breaker. With erratic Michigan place-kicker Peter Elezovic aiming at a 41-yard field goal halfway through the third quarter, Hammonds, from the left end of the rush line, stepped across the line of scrimmage and got caught. Elezovic missed the kick, but the penalty gave Michigan a first down on the 19.
On third down, Michigan quarterback Todd Collins teamed with wide-out Mercury Hayes on a picture-perfect 16-yard touchdown pass. Michigan (4-2, 2-1), had a 14-10 lead it would not surrender, thanks to the strong running of Tyrone Wheatley, who gained 120 of his 192 yards in the second half.
It was the goal-line series, though, that earmarked this game the way Alabama's goal-line stand in the 1979 Sugar Bowl once denied Paterno a national championship.
Archie, Penn State's No. 2 tailback, subbed for Ki-Jana Carter (127 rushing yards) on the 79-yard drive after Carter took a shot on his left hand.
On three successive plays, Archie, running outside, moved the Lions from the Michigan 22 to inside the 1.
Penn State burned a time-out, then Paterno called two straight quarterback sneaks for Collins. Neither worked.
On third down, Carter came back, but his inside run was smothered for no gain.
On fourth down, the call again was for Carter, again up the middle, again for no gain.
"We went with the two sneaks because we felt the way they were going to play it that we could get it in," Paterno said. "We just didn't make it go."
Paterno said he wanted to run the ball inside on that sequence because Michigan had "a clever little scheme where they pinch and then loop out. If you run the sweep -- and we were debating doing that -- and they loop out, then you're in trouble."
"It was my decision, my call," he said, "and I guessed that they would loop out, expecting something like a bootleg pass."
Paterno guessed wrong. Michigan pinched on all four plays. Penn State hollered ouch.
"They were like three inches off the ground," Penn State left tackle Marco Rivera said. "They shot off the ground into our knees, four into three. Then the linebackers jumped on top. It's pretty hard to run inside against that."
Rivera said he was surprised when the final inside run came into the huddle.
"The quarterback called '43-iso,' and we looked at each other like, 'Are you kidding me?' The linemen all knew it wasn't going to work. The defense was coming into the gaps, and it was hard to move them."
Impossible, it turned out. And Rivera wasn't the only surprised Lion. Carter favored an outside run, because he had ravaged Michigan on the outside all day.
"We asked the coach, 'Maybe that can work?' " Carter said. "He said, 'The play we run will work better.' I was kind of surprised because they slanted inside."
On the decisive play, middle guard Tony Henderson submarined Carter, and linebacker Jarrett Irons wrapped him up high to stop the play.
"They got to me before I had a chance to do anything," Carter said.
Penn State was left with the utterly unthinkable alternative to 6-0. It will be a long two weeks before the Lions travel to Ohio State for their next game.