Rose Bowl quarterbacks both brilliant and inconsistent

December, 31, 2008
12/31/08
1:45
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- They are similar. And they are different. Much like the programs they will lead into the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Citi.

But USC's Mark Sanchez and Penn State's Daryll Clark share an understanding that playing quarterback at their respective schools means every member of a massive fan base is going to have a strong opinion about you.

 
 Gary A. Vasquez/US Presswire
 Mark Sanchez completed 64.4 percent of his passes this season.

Sanchez, who ranked 11th in the nation in passing efficiency, is the most criticized quarterback in the country. Clark has been microanalyzed ever since his play was judged as declining following the narrow win over Ohio State, a game in which he suffered a concussion.

Both completed over 60 percent of their passes and they combined for 47 touchdowns with just 14 interceptions, but neither escaped the wrath of highly critical fans, who seem to fondly remember past quarterbacks playing much better.

"There's pressure," Sanchez said. "People expect success here. But that's why you come to USC. You want to be great and you want to measure yourself against those guys."

Those are sentiments the two share, though they arrived at their experiences via different routes.

Clark grew up tough in Youngstown, Ohio. Sanchez comes from the leafy streets of Mission Viejo, Calif. Both came from strong families.

Sanchez was everybody's All-American, the nation's top prep player in 2004. Clark was highly recruited but struggled to academically qualify, which caused many schools to back off, and he had to attend a prep school.

Sanchez challenged John David Booty for the starting job in 2006, but Booty's superior experience carried the day. He stepped in for the injured Booty as the starter three times in 2007, winning twice, but proved to be a streaky passer.

That continued this season. He started the season brilliantly, with seven touchdowns in the first two games and earned mention as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Then he started to scatter periods of inconsistency into his performances.

He started slowly in the loss to Oregon State and threw a bad interception late. He threw three interceptions against Arizona State. He turned in uneven performances against Arizona and UCLA.

Still, criticism doesn't sit well with his teammates.

"People are silly!" guard Jeff Byers said. "We're 11-1. Something had to go right with our offense."

 
 AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
 Daryll Clark has thrown for 17 TDs and run for nine more.

Clark won a hotly contested battled with Pat Devlin for the starting job in the preseason. He also started fast, throwing nine touchdowns passes while not throwing his second interception until the season's seventh game. The Nittany Lions new "Spread HD" offense became a national sensation.

But then he and that offense struggled mightily in the win over Ohio State. Clark was nine of 23 for 86 yards with an interception in the loss to Iowa and was inconsistent the following week at home against a woeful Indiana squad.

Of course, 341 yards and four touchdowns in the season-finale whipping of Michigan State smoothed things a bit.

"Daryll set the bar very high," offensive coordinator Galen Hall said. "He is probably tougher on himself than we are."

A Rose Bowl victory would probably take the sting off much of the criticism. Both have the opposing defense's attention.

For USC, that means containing Clark the runner as well as Clark the passer -- see nine rushing touchdowns.

"He's a dual threat type of guy," USC linebacker Brian Cushing said. "He can throw the ball long to a receiver or he can tuck the ball and run. Anytime you play against a quarterback like that you have to keep your options open and know that he can hurt you in many ways."

The Penn State players see Sanchez as the point where the Trojans offense starts. Or, perhaps, stops.

"What I see first is his intelligence," linebacker Navorro Bowman said. "He's what makes the USC offense, so he's the guy we have to stop the most."

Sanchez is considering jumping into the NFL draft a year early. Clark appears set to return for his senior season.

But first things first.

"A lot of people don't think we have a chance in this game," said Clark, obviously thinking a lot of people are wrong.

And Sanchez isn't buying the notion that USC will be overconfident playing another Big Ten school -- the Trojans have won eight straight against the conference by an average margin of 28.4 points -- or that they will come out flat because they are bored playing in their fifth Rose Bowl in six years.

"I don't think we'll come out flat; I don't think we'll come out overconfident," he said. "I think coach [Pete] Carroll has got this team just right."

When the smoke clears, at least one of the quarterbacks figures to be completely embraced by his fan base.

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