PASADENA, Calif. - Joe Paterno stood before an estimated 7,000-plus at the Nittany Lions' New Year's Eve pep rally at Beverly Hills High School and told the blue and white faithful that made the cross-country trip "we're not going to be underdogs, we're going to be dirty dogs."
He joked that the roaring crowd should bring shovels to "clean up the mess."
What he didn't anticipate, however, was the only mess would be made by Penn State.
Mirror photo by Teri Enciso Albarano
USC coach Pete Carroll patrols the sideline during the Trojans’ victory Thursday.
Southern Cal bolted to a 31-7 halftime lead in Thursday's Rose Bowl before settling for a 38-24 final that wasn't nearly that close.
Simply put, the Lions were outclassed, and if there was a question on whether Penn State wasn't the pushover other Big Ten teams have been for the Trojans on the national stage, there surely isn't now.
It showed how wide of a gulf remains between even the best of the Big Ten and the upper crust of the BCS.
On both sides of the ball but especially defensively, the Lions could not have been worse as they turned in maybe the most embarrassing big-game performance of the Paterno Era.
Never mind that USC may very well be as good if not better than Florida or Oklahoma.
Penn State, you'll recall, had similar aspirations until it forgot to show up at Iowa. Then again, maybe the loss to the Hawkeyes was a good thing in that it spared an even greater disappointment with the lights brighter in Miami.
Credit Penn State for showing its character and continuing to play hard in the second half, but that's about it.
"The biggest disappointment is we knew we couldn't make mistakes," Paterno said. "We didnt play the game we've played [tonight] all year."
To his credit, Paterno didn't complain about the Southeastern Conference officiating crew as several early penalties wiped out the precious few good plays the Lions mustered - such as the offsides against Aaron Maybin after the latter's sack forced USC quarterback Mark Sanchez to fumble and a 40-yard zigging effort by Deon Butler was brought back by Butler's illegal motion penalty.
Penn State entered the game as the third-least penalized team in the nation.
"Playing a team as good as USC, you can't make those dumb mistakes," JoePa said.
The gap between the teams was so immense that it appeared they could play 10 times and USC would win all 10 - some in similarly lopsided fashion.
The speed difference was staggering: When the Lions got an opening, it went for 4 yards. When Southern Cal got one, it went for 8 and then some.
Penn State's players, though, maintain they were adequately prepared and anticipated the speed.
"We were ready for everything they threw at us," quarterback Daryll Clark said.
While Clark was pressured consistently, when he did have time, he was unable to hit his receivers in stride.
Sanchez, conversely, was extremely accurate and tore apart the Lions' overmatched secondary.
"I'd say he had his best game that we saw [on film]," senior cornerback Lydell Sargeant said.
The Nittany Lions' locker room, as expected, was quiet and while the record book will show an 11-2 team, the soft non-conference schedule and a so-so Big Ten makes that deceiving.
"I told the kids I'm proud of them," Paterno said. "They still got to a BCS Bowl. A lot of these kids took a chance on us when we were struggling [in 2003-04]."
A scan of the postgame notes showed USC's 31 first-half points marked its most in 33 Rose Bowl appearances, and its 24-point lead was its second-largest in the Rose Bowl behind a 26-0 halftime lead against Pitt in the 1930 Granddaddy of Them All.
Penn State vs. Pitt, no matter the year?
That may be more appealing than returning to the Rose Bowl for a rematch with Southern Cal, which, Penn State painfully learned, can get messy.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.