They came. It rained. They lost. The cadences of defeat were familiar on the afternoon of what may have been the Washington Federals' most heartbreaking loss of all.

After the New Jersey's Dave Betz kicked a 50-yard field goal with no time left to give the Generals a 32-29 victory yesterday before 11,264 stunned, soaked spectators, the Federals seemed unwilling and unable to leave the scene of their own undoing.

Although New Jersey's Herschel Walker played his finest game as a pro and the best ever by a U.S. Football League rusher, gaining 194 yards on 23 carries--going 83 yards to score on the game's first play--the Federals had played valiantly.

And with the Generals rejoicing around Betz, a 25-year-old playing his first pro game after a college career at Louisville and Western Kentucky, the Federals could not believe what they had done to deserve such treatment. Tackle Bennie Smith lay face down on the turf, defensive end Coy Bacon refused to move from a kneeling position.

New Jersey safety Donnie Harris, who left the Federals after losing his starting position to Mike Guess last month, tried to console Bacon, who had played an excellent, aggressive game.

"What could I really say to him? It's what's been going on all season long," Harris said. The loss is the Federals' 12th in 13 games and the ninth in a row. The Generals are 4-9.

"The attitude of this team is that this is ridiculous," said Federals running back Craig James, who ran for 70 yards on 14 carries.

The ridiculous happened this way:

With the score 29-29, Mike Hohensee quarterbacked the Federals downfield from their 24. After an illegal procedure penalty, a 12-yard pass to Joey Walters--his 12 receptions tied Tampa Bay's Sam Platt for the league record, his 193 yards was a league mark--gave them fourth and three on the New Jersey 34 with 1:01 to play. Rather than try for the first down, Coach Ray Jauch had Sandro Vitiello attempt a field goal from 51 yards.

The kick fell way short.

"I didn't want to lose a chance to win," Jauch said. "Even though it's 51 yards, there was a chance to win."

"It started out all right," Vitiello said. "But when they get that long, they tend to fade out at the end."

Quarterback Jeff Knapple, starting his first game for the Generals after leaving the Denver Gold in a trade, took over from the 34. He passed to Mark Slawson for 27 yards and to Mike Friede for six, then threw two incompletions. With six seconds to play, Coach Chuck Fairbanks sent in Betz for the 50-yard attempt.

"I never thought he'd make it," said Federals guard Dave Pacella. "I thought he'd miss and we'd go into overtime. The way we were moving the ball, I thought we'd win."

But Betz's kick cleared the bar by a whisker and the game was over.

"I'll be honest with you," said Jauch. "I don't know what to say other than the fact that I have as much admiration for these guys as for any I've coached. It's really sad that we lost this game. They all hurt, but as they pile up, it gets tougher."

The Federals trailed, 17-9, at the half, their only scoring coming on Vitiello's field goals from 42, 45 and 28 yards. The Generals had scored on Walker's 83-yard run, Knapple's 27-yard pass to Friede with 13:22 left in the second quarter and Betz's 28-yard field goal with 10:13 left in the half.

The Federals came out of the locker room in the second half with as much determination as they have shown all season. In three plays they scored. A 19-yard completion to Walters, a 20-yard run by James and, finally, a 32-yard scoring run by Billy Taylor made it 17-16.

After two exchanges, the Federals again moved on the Generals. Hohensee passed 8, 20 and 32 yards to Walters to put the ball on New Jersey's 11.

On first down, with 5:22 remaining in the third period, Hohensee threw James a pass in the flat for a 23-17 lead.

Betz then kicked a 45-yard field goal to make it 23-20 with 2:05 left in that period, and the Generals had an opportunity to go ahead when they recovered Mike Muller's fumble on the ensuing kickoff. But solid defense by linebacker Mike Corvino, who played brilliantly all day, and Gregg Butler limited the Generals to another field goal, this a 19-yarder by Betz that tied the score at 23.

As the defense began to play increasingly well against Walker, the Federals' offense started to roll once again. A 17-yard completion to Walters, padded by a roughing the passer call, brought Washington to New Jersey's 15. And on third down from the 19, Mike Harris outran William Holliday on a sideline timing pattern and took in Hohensee's pass for a 29-23 lead with 5:50 left. Vitiello's conversion kick skittered wide left.

The Generals answered quickly. Knapple worked his team upfield with passes to tight end Sam Bowers and wide receiver Tom McConnaughy. The 75-yard drive ended with Bowers catching a 28-yard pass that tied the score at 29 with 3:40 left. Betz missed his conversion attempt and the drama unfolded from there.

The 12,437 who bought tickets but did not come to the game may have stayed dry, but they missed not only a close game but Walker's tremendous individual performance.

J. Walter Duncan, the Oklahoma-based oil man who owns the Generals and bet the ranch on Walker, said, "I never had any doubts about Herschel. He's the surest thing I've ever put my my money into."