It was 15 minutes past midnight, and Joe Paterno was virtually helpless to do anything but close the door to the locker room and try to figure out why his defending national champions turned into pumpkins.

On Monday night, Nebraska justified its No. 1 preseason ranking by beating Penn State, 44-6, leaving the Penn State contingent quiet, embarrassed and pensive. Was this just an early season loss to the nation's best team, or was there cause for serious concern?

Cornhuskers Coach Tom Osborne told the Associated Press this afternoon, "We're probably not as good as many people think we are. And Penn State probably is not as bad as people think they are. It was a game that can cause some overreaction."

Paterno pondered the same subject in the agonizing hours after the game, and came away as he always does, with positive thoughts. "I think we'll find out about our squad in the next two weeks . . . three weeks," he said. "I still like my squad. I still think it's a good, young squad."

Well, at least it's young. The two junior quarterbacks--Doug Strang and Dan Lonergan--played their first significant game and combined to complete only 13 of 39 passes. They missed screens, they missed dump-offs. At one point, receiver Kenny Jackson, who had run a beautiful pattern to beat his defender by 10 yards, stood in frustration and held out his hand as a target for Strang.

But Jackson knew the quarterbacks were under an enormous strain, having to play for the first time against a defense as dominant as Nebraska's. "We never reached a point of smoothness on offense," Jackson said. "You just have to have some game experience in the hardest position on the field to play."

Paterno said, "I think it's not only a question of the quarterbacks. I don't think our offensive line was ready to handle Nebraska. Nebraska was a much better organized team defensively than they were last year (when Penn State won, 27-24)."

It's replacing the players that made Penn State great last year that's causing more problems than expected in Happy Valley. Jon Williams, a good back, is not Curt Warner. Williams rushed 13 times for 44 yards Monday night, but his problems could also be attributed to the poor line play of which Paterno spoke.

Penn State appeared to need help everywhere, even on defense, which Paterno said didn't play that badly.

Nebraska took a 7-0 lead on a one-yard run by quarterback Turner Gill. It moved the ball brilliantly on the first two drives, setting up a run-right, pass-left pattern that Gill reversed slyly on the second drive, as he passed right to Monte Engebritson for a 19-yard touchdown and 14-0 lead.

The lead became 21-0 before halftime on a 20-yard pass, Nate Mason to Todd Frain, and it became 30-0 in the third quarter on a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Mike Knox and a field goal by Dave Schneider. Not much after that mattered except that the Lions avoided a shutout with 20 seconds left on Lonergan's 35-yard pass to Sid Lewis.

The outcome seemed to be a genuine shock to Osborne, who had seen so many games with Penn State come down to the last few minutes.

"We thought we might be able to win by 10 points, but we certainly didn't expect to win by the final margin," he said. "I think we're a very good football team. The question in my mind is where do we go from here?"

Gill was a little more to the point. "I feel deep down inside we're unbeatable," he said.