PASADENA, Calif. – Overwhelming from the start, Southern California put on a championship performance.
Too bad for the Trojans, they weren’t playing for the national title.
Mark Sanchez passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns, USC dominated on defense and the fifth-ranked Trojans beat up No. 6 Penn State 38-24 on Thursday in the Rose Bowl.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno watched from the press box, where he’s been for most of the season because of hip problems. He couldn’t have liked what he saw — at one point in the first half, the TV camera caught him shaking his head as USC (12-1) rolled to a 31-7 lead.
But even before the game, the 82-year-old coach said several times he thought USC was at least as good as any team in the country, perhaps better.
It doesn’t matter.
Out of the BCS championship mix, the Trojans can only wonder what might have been had they not lost at Oregon State 27-21 on Sept. 25.
What was thought to be a weak Pac-10 hurt the Trojans’ chances to reach the national championship game in Miami — where Florida and Oklahoma will play next week. But the Pac-10 finished the postseason 5-0.
“With all due respect, those are two great programs, I don’t think anybody can beat the Trojans,” USC coach Pete Carroll said. “I just think we can beat anyone we played. That’s happened a lot to us late in the season. This is a terrific finishing program. There are so many things we can do. We’re just hard to beat right now.
“I just wish we could keep playing. Unfortunately, we don’t get to. Maybe someday there will be a chance, but not now.”
And not soon, either. There’s no playoff in sight for major college football.
USC scored four touchdowns and a field goal on five consecutive first-half possessions for a 24-point halftime lead against a team that allowed only 12.4 points per game during the regular season.
With the No. 1 defense in the nation, there was no way the Trojans would blow that kind of lead.
The Nittany Lions (11-2) scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to make the final score respectable, yet fell far short of their 40.2-point average.
Paterno, who has won 383 games, including 23 bowls — both records — thought the Trojans were every bit as good as advertised. USC won 10 straight after losing to Oregon State, outscoring the opposition 380-80.
“I thought that we were playing against the best and I thought we had to play our best to be competitive,” Paterno said. “In the first half, we just did the dumb things that we have not done all year. We didn’t play our game in the first half, but we came back and we hung in there. So we have nothing to be ashamed of.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Southern Cal, because they played a heck of a football game and their quarterback played a great game,” he said. “They certainly deserved to win it, but I’m a little disappointed that we weren’t a little bit more competitive. And a lot of that was because we made so many mistakes in the first half.”
The Trojans’ 31 first-half points were the most they’ve scored in any of their record 33 Rose Bowl games. They spent most of the second half working the clock while their defense held Penn State in check until the fourth quarter.
“The offense was on fire in the first half,” Carroll said. “I thought Mark just set the tempo, (wide receiver) Damian Williams came through and the whole line really protected well so we had a chance to really get moving on these guys. We just kept firing on all cylinders, the defense kept giving them the ball back, and the guys just took advantage of it.”
USC finished with 27 first downs and 474 yards of total offense.
“We mixed up the run and the pass so they couldn’t really key on anything,” Sanchez said. “I think we really maximized our potential. I don’t know if it was a matter of opening up the playbook or us just executing very well. Maybe a little bit of both.”
The Nittany Lions committed three turnovers and nine penalties for 72 yards.
“A lot of things happened in this game that weren’t typical, but you can’t put the blame on anybody but yourself,” Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin said. “We did kind of shoot ourselves in the foot with a lot of dumb penalties and a lot of mental mistakes.”
Sanchez, who completed 28-of-35 passes without being intercepted and finished the season with 3,207passing yards and 34 touchdown throws, might have played his final game for USC. The strong-armed junior has said he will consider making himself available for the NFL draft. The deadline is Jan. 15.
Sanchez became the third player to pass for more than 400 yards in the Rose Bowl.
“I’m going to celebrate this victory first and worry about it somewhere down the line,” he said. “I’m excited that I have a great coach to talk about it with. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to this place. I don’t think I can do it.”
Said Carroll: “We’ll go through it and really take our time doing it. This should not be an emotional decision.”
Williams caught a career-high 10 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown and Ronald Johnson caught two TD passes.
Penn State’s Daryll Clark completed 21-of-36 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. Evan Royster, who averaged 6.5 yards per carry in gaining 1,202 yards during the regular season, came out with an injured left knee in the first quarter after picking up 34 yards on six carries.
Carroll’s Trojans have won seven straight conference championships and played in seven consecutive BCS bowls — both records. They’re 6-1 in big games — 5-0 against Big Ten teams such as Penn State — and 82-9 since 2002, Carroll’s second year on the job.
The Trojans have played in a record-tying four straight Rose Bowls, winning three straight since losing to Texas 41-38 with the national title on the line. They became the first team ever to win three consecutive Rose Bowls.
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