Penn State at USC

Finally, the Rose Bowl is the Rose Bowl again. This isn’t 2008 (Illinois vs. USC), or even 2007 (Michigan vs. the Trojans). This is the Big Ten champion vs. the Pac-10 champion for the first time since 2004, and just the second matchup of the traditional conference champions since Washington beat Purdue in 2001. The Big Ten also has a legit shot at its first win in Pasadena since Wisconsin beat Stanford in the 2000 Rose Bowl.

—Penn State was a heartbeat away from playing for the national title, but lost to Iowa on a last-second field goal. Other than that hiccup, the Nittany Lions were dominant; they had the Big Ten’s best offense, defense and special teams. PSU blasted Oregon State 45-14 a few weeks before the Beavers beat USC, but the Lions’ key win came in a knockdown, drag-out 13-6 battle with Ohio State in Columbus.

—USC didn’t need to dig deep for its 35-3 win over the Buckeyes, but it lost its next game, 27-21, to Oregon State. In the end, that defeat kept the Trojans out of the national title picture. Helped by one of the most dominant defenses in Pac 10 history, the Trojans rolled through the rest of their schedule; only Arizona lost by fewer than two touchdowns. Penn State’s defense was amazing, too, giving up more than 17 points in just two games. USC might have led the nation in just about every defensive category, but Penn State wasn’t far behind. This won’t be a shootout, but that’s hardly a negative with these two teams.

Penn State: This team is the real deal. The offensive line is among the best in America, the defensive front is great at getting into the backfield, the special teams are explosive and consistent, and the offense is balanced and ruthlessly efficient. A slew of good, speedy runners have produced when needed, and the receiving corps — led by seniors Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood — might be the best in school history. The only question mark is quarterback Daryll Clark’s ability to step up in a big game. He has failed to produce in the fourth quarter with the game on the line; he was knocked out of the Ohio State win and threw a killer interception late in the loss to Iowa.

USC: Was the defense that good or was the Pac-10 that bad? Both. USC allowed seven points or fewer in eight games this year, gave up three or fewer in six games, and led the nation in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. The Trojans never allowed more than 179 yards of total offense in any game this season. They gave up just 11 touchdowns total, and more than two touchdowns in only two games. With the linebackers, led by All-Americans Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, setting the tone, and hard-hitting safety Taylor Mays the sheriff in the secondary, this is arguably USC’s most intimidating defense ever. The offense has failed to follow suit. The numbers aren’t bad (452 yards and 40 points per game), but this is hardly a Matt Leinart-Reggie Bush-LenDale White type of attack. Coordinator Steve Sarkisian is splitting time between his Rose Bowl preparation and his new job as Washington’s head coach; that won’t help matters.

Ready to break out: USC fullback Stanley Havili. He may be the most versatile and athletic fullback in the country, but he doesn’t get many touches in an offense loaded with star tailbacks. When he does, however, he usually makes them count. He has been a reliable outlet in the passing game, catching 62 passes for 596 yards and eight touchdowns in his first two seasons. He also is a tremendous lead blocker for those tailbacks. At just about any other school, Havili would warrant a dozen or so carries a game.

Last time you’ll see. . . USC linebacker Rey Maualuga. Part linebacker and part YouTube sensation, no player in college football can intimidate opponents the way he can with the prospect of his devastating hits. He returned to L.A. for his senior season to win a national championship, and while that won’t happen, he did enhance his legacy as one of the greatest linebackers to ever play for the Trojans.

Ready to break out: Penn State running running back Stephfon Green. Evan Royster got the majority of the touches this fall, but Green succeeded in laying a foundation for the future as a redshirt freshman. The 5-11, 194-pound burner has 521 yards and four TDs on 95 carries, and he has 201 yards on just 10 receptions (one TD). Royster remains the starter, but Green is a big-play option out of the backfield.

Last time you’ll see… Butler. He has set the bar for all future Lions walk-ons. The kid from Virginia with the questionable size and the burning desire to play in Happy Valley became a four-year starter. He has 175 catches for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns. His departure, along with that of Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood, will leave Penn State hurting at the position heading into 2009.

Number To Know: 10—Passing touchdowns allowed by the two teams combined. Penn State gave up six, with two coming against Illinois. Oregon State had two of the four passing TDs USC allowed. No other Division I-A team allowed fewer than eight touchdowns through the air.

Watchability: 5. This could be as entertaining a low-scoring game as the BCS has ever seen. The way these two teams play defense, it would be a shocker it it’s a blowout either way.

And the winner is. . . USC 20, Penn State 16

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