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December 31, 2008
Rose Bowl: Can Penn State keep up with USC?
The perception started when USC whipped Michigan, then Illinois in the past two Rose Bowls. By the time the Trojans pounded Ohio State 35-3 in September, the notion had made the transition from theory to fact.
Big Ten teams simply don't have the speed or athleticism to keep up with USC.
Penn State knows all about the perception, but it doesn't mean the Nittany Lions agree with it. They will try to defend their conference's honor Thursday as they attempt to prevent USC from winning a third consecutive Rose Bowl.
The lack of respect surrounding the Big Ten already has hurt Penn State. The Nittany Lions went 11-1 this season and were two points away from an undefeated season, but they're only eighth in the BCS standings and enter the Rose Bowl as nine-point underdogs.
"We get the least amount of respect of the one-loss teams, and everyone that says that doesn't give us a chance," Penn State wide receiver Deon Butler said. "We have a big chance to get some respect against USC."
USC has won its past eight games against Big Ten foes by an average margin of 28.4 points. The Trojans beat Michigan 32-18 in the Rose Bowl two seasons ago and dismantled Illinois 49-17 in last season's Rose Bowl.
Although USC's offense isn't as explosive as usual, the Trojans boast arguably the best defense this decade. Hard-hitting linebacker Rey Maualuga, the winner of the Bednarik Award that goes to the nation's top defensive player, leads a unit that ranks first in the nation in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. USC has allowed more than 10 points in a game just twice all season.
No wonder the Trojans are feeling confident.
"We're preparing for them like we've prepared for anyone else," USC quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "We don't want to make them any different. We want it to be just a football game.
"It's no disrespect to Penn State. We know they are a formidable opponent, but we need to prepare the way we know how, and Coach [Pete] Carroll has a knack for preparing us for these big-time games on a national stage like this. I think we'll be just fine."
Of course, Penn State coach Joe Paterno also knows a thing or two about getting his team ready for the big stage. Paterno is 23-10-1 in bowl games and owns the NCAA records for bowl appearances and victories. Paterno should make sure Penn State avoids the awestruck approach Illinois seemed to take into last season's Rose Bowl, even if the Nittany Lions can't match USC's speed.
Penn State defensive end Josh Gaines said he believes the contrast in styles between Penn State and USC could allow the Nittany Lions to offer a tougher test than the Trojans' past two Rose Bowl opponents.
"People get so caught up on the speed, but I'm not sure it's just the speed," Gaines said. "It might be the names. A lot of times, people get caught up with who they're playing against. Different teams fit for different people. Last year it was Illinois, and Illinois likes to use speed. I don't think you can beat USC on the edge and try to use speed and try to use some of the stuff that they use. That's my personal opinion.
"I feel that if you want to go against USC, you have to hit them right in the mouth. You've got to run straight at them. Look at Oregon State. In the Oregon State game [a 27-21 Beavers victory], they took the ball right at them. The only way you can beat them, I think, is to go right at them. … I feel that with our line and our running backs, we definitely can have an advantage."
Oregon State offers Penn State plenty of cause for confidence. The Nittany Lions buried Oregon State 45-14 in the second week of the season. Less than three weeks later, Oregon State handed USC its only loss of the season.
Of course, a look at common opponents also could give USC reason to feel good about itself. USC buried Ohio State 35-3 at home in one of the most heavily hyped games of the regular season. Penn State struggled to beat the Buckeyes 13-6 at Ohio State.
Penn State supporters would argue the Ohio State team that went to USC hardly resembled the squad that gave the Nittany Lions a major scare six weeks later. Ohio State star running back Chris Wells sat out the USC game with an injury. The Buckeyes also played USC before they had made freshman Terrelle Pryor their starting quarterback.
At least one Ohio State player says Penn State could give USC quite a battle.
"Penn State's defense is going to surprise a lot of people," Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "USC's defense is going to have to play. Having played both of them, Penn State's defense really did a great job of stopping pretty much everything we gave them, and their offense is very talented, too. …
"I think it's going to be a closer game than people think as far as Penn State playing up to USC's ability, but I can't say who will win or not."
Who has the edge?
Penn State run offense vs. USC run defense
Penn State pass offense vs. USC pass defense
USC run offense vs. Penn State run defense
USC pass offense vs. Penn State pass defense
Penn State special teams vs. USC special teams
Penn State coaches vs. USC coaches
X-factor: The Sarkisian situation bears watching. USC's offense hasn't necessarily played up to its talent level this season, and the distraction of Sarkisian's impending departure could have an impact on this game. Will his divided loyalties result in a lack of focus?
Penn State will win if: The Nittany Lions' chances could depend on Clark's performance. If Clark plays the way he did against Oregon State and Michigan State, Penn State just might pull the upset. If he delivers a repeat of his Iowa performance, the Nittany Lions have no shot. Penn State also has to hold McKnight in check and limit USC's big plays in the passing game. If this game is close enough to come down to special teams, the Nittany Lions have an edge in that department.
USC will win if: This game probably won't feature enough scoring to turn into a replay of the past two Rose Bowl routs, but USC should win as long as it takes an early lead. If USC's defensive line wins the battle with Penn State's talented offensive line, the Trojans should capture their third consecutive Rose Bowl title.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.