Lions strive to be in league of their own

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

For decades, Penn State didn't have this problem. The Nittany Lions could never be deemed guilty by association.

As a Division I-A independent until 1993, Penn State was judged solely on its own merits, not according to the strength of its conference or its league's recent bowl performances. The Lions played for themselves, for their head coach, Joe Paterno, and for a storied program that held unique national appeal.

That's it.

The Lions carry a heavier burden into the Rose Bowl Game (presented by Citi), a load they arguably don't deserve to bear. Despite a phenomenal regular season and standout players on both sides of the ball, Penn State has been chained to the Big Ten Conference, which right now serves as more of an anchor than a buoy.

The Big Ten has lost its last four BCS bowl games and its last five Rose Bowl appearances. And no team has contributed more to the Big Ten's recent struggles than USC, which faces Penn State on Jan. 1 (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET).

According to such on-the-surface logic, Penn State has no shot against the Trojans and enters the game as a heavy underdog. But the Lions are determined to distinguish themselves and show they shouldn't be linked to the Big Ten's recent failures.

"We never looked at the past like, 'OK, the Big Ten hasn't won this, so that means we're not going to win,'" Lions senior wide receiver Derrick Williams said. "This is a new year, this is a new season, this is a new team. This Penn State team never played USC and USC has never played us, either."

In a way, Penn State wants to return to its independent roots.

"We refuse to allow ourselves to be lumped in a category with any other team," star defensive end Aaron Maybin said. "We try to do everything to set ourselves apart as a different team that plays a different brand of football. We're just going to keep on doing that and take that into the Rose Bowl."

Lions players are well aware of the Big Ten bashing. Senior center A.Q. Shipley said the league has received "a black eye" after the last two BCS bowl seasons.

Helping to repair the Big Ten's national reputation in the league's signature bowl game would be nice, but it's not the Lions' sole motivation. They're looking out for themselves first.

"They're talking bad about the Big Ten, and that's something to think about," Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark said. "That's a little bit of motivation, but we can't make that our focal point. We have to go out and play Penn State football the Penn State way. We're at our best when we play that way."

The Penn State Way has been awfully impressive this season.

The Lions won 10 games by 14 points or more and rank in the top 15 nationally in both total offense and total defense. They boast All-Americans on both sides of the ball (Shipley, Williams, Maybin) and several special-teams standouts. They were a last-minute field goal away from playing in the national championship.

But those accomplishments seemed to be overshadowed by a factor Penn State couldn't control -- its conference affiliation. After falling to Iowa, Penn State tumbled to No. 8 in the BCS standings and was cropped from the national title picture despite having a similar résumé to other one-loss contenders.

"You look at it and say, 'This team has one loss and they're trying to make their case of should they be in the national championship, and our name's not even getting mentioned,'" Shipley said. "So it's frustrating at times, but you play with the hand you're dealt and we're obviously very excited to play against a team like USC."

USC can be the great equalizer for a Penn State team that has been hurt more by its conference's reputation than anything it did on the field. When it comes to national respect, USC stands alone. An upset win against the Trojans might give the Lions their due.

Clark isn't so sure.

"USC deserves all the respect that they get," he said. "But you know what? If we happen to go out and win, I'm pretty sure people will find something else to say about us. We've been getting counted out all year. No one thought we could win the Big Ten, no one thought we'd be in contention for the Big Ten title, and we ended up winning.

"There's no greater feeling than proving people wrong. You don't have to say anything. Your play is what talks the most. I think we can handle going to try to prove some more people wrong. The country, actually, on New Year's Day against USC."

USC's big-game record is nearly spotless under Pete Carroll, but Penn State's postseason success should not be discounted. Paterno is 23-10-1 in bowl games, and his teams have prevailed in their last three bowls, including the 2006 Orange Bowl, the Big Ten's most recent BCS bowl victory.

Another BCS triumph would put Penn State in a league of its own.

"It'll be a very big win for this program, for the Big Ten, for us in general," Clark said. "It's a big opportunity for everyone. And we're playing in the Rose Bowl. This is our national championship."