Will USC or Penn State provide best answers to Rose Bowl questions?

January, 1, 2009
1/01/09
2:50
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

PASADENA, Calif. -- Redundant questions are part of any BCS bowl game buildup, but two predominant inquiries served to annoy the participants in the 95th Rose Bowl Game Presented by Citi more than usual.

For No. 8 Penn State: "So what do you think if USC's top-ranked defense?"

"I've lost count how many times someone has asked about USC's defense," Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark said.

For No. 5 USC: "Penn State beat Oregon State, 45-14. If you're so great, how did you lose to the Beavers?"

"For whatever reason, that game for us was one that was not respected in a sense, and Oregon State proved that anybody who thought that was wrong about the year they had," USC coach Pete Carroll said.

The value of these and other microanalyzed curiosities will be shortly revealed, as the Trojans and Nittany Lions go nose-to-nose on a beautiful Southern California afternoon.

A third well-explored topic: Motivation.

Penn State is playing in its first Rose Bowl since 1995. USC is playing in its fifth over the last six seasons, and the Trojans began the year thinking national championship or bust.

"I would never back away from any opportunity to play [Florida or Oklahoma]," Carroll said. "I think with our defense that we have we can beat anybody. I don't have any question in my mind that could happen. I think Penn State is just as worthy as all of those teams."

That is part of it. It's possible that if one team wins impressively, it will earn a handful of No. 1 votes in the final polls.

As for that USC defense, it enters the game on pace to finish with one of the best statistical seasons in the last quarter century. The Trojans are holding opponents to 7.8 points per game. No team has gone an entire season allowing fewer than eight points per game since Auburn in 1988 (7.2 ppg).

"These guys pack a punch," Clark said. "But I feel our offense does, too. This is going to be a 12-round bout."

Penn State averaged 40 points (11th in the nation) and 452 yards (14th) a game.

And Penn State's defense also packs a punch. The Trojans and Nittany Lions are two of the three schools that rank in the top 10 in all four primary defensive categories (rush, pass efficiency, scoring and total). TCU is the other.

"It's obvious we're not getting the respect we deserve," Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman said. "We're in California. We expected that. We've played as an underdog all season... It gets annoying. I want to say, 'What about Penn State's defense?' But you'll find out on Thursday."

Opined USC offensive guard Jeff Byers: "I understand. I'm sick of hearing about our defense, too."

Penn State doesn't sound too fearful. Said running back Evan Royster: "We've found some holes in their defense, so we can open it up and try and run the ball against them."

Hmm.

Carroll was asked if the Penn State defense was the best USC has faced in a BCS bowl game. His answer was curious.

"We've faced some very, very good defenses over the years," he said. "Iowa's defense was great. Oklahoma's defense was great. Michigan had a tremendous run defense a couple of years ago. I think [Penn State] is right in there."

The Trojans scored 38 vs. Iowa, 55 vs. Oklahoma and 32 vs. Michigan.

The beleaguered Big Ten is another story line. USC has won eight straight against the conference, all by double-digit margins and by an average of 24.9 points. And we're not talking about Indiana. Four of the last five have been in BCS games.

Yet this will be the first Rose Bowl matchup of Pac-10 and Big Ten champions since Jan. 1, 2004, when USC defeated Michigan, 28-14, to clinch a share of the national title. Penn State isn't a stand-in, like, say, overmatched Illinois was last year.

Penn State's 82-year-old coach, Joe Paterno, coaching in his record 35th bowl game, wasn't actively waving the Big Ten flag this week.

"It's a tough load to carry if you're trying to carry the whole conference," he said.

The USC players insist they are highly motivated and respect Penn State.

"This is not your typical Big Ten team," Byers said. "They are quick. They are mobile. They are fast on offense. On defense, they run just a couple defenses, but they are very good at it. They play very disciplined. Their linebackers are solid. Their line is extremely good. Their secondary plays really well in their schemes. We have a lot of work to do to execute against these guys."

A Trojan victory means they will finish ranked in the top 5 for a seventh consecutive season, tying Miami (1986-92) and Oklahoma (1952-58) for the second longest streak.

It also would give the Pac-10 a perfect 5-0 bowl record.

A Penn State win would probably attach this label to the Trojans season for the first time since Carroll went 6-6 in 2001, his first season: Major disappointment.

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