PASADENA It was not a good time for Joe Paterno‘s football team to take on a new identity: Penalty State. An uncharacteristic spate of bungles Thursday afternoon put Penn State into a big hole in the big saucer known as the Rose Bowl. USC jumped out to a 31-7 halftime lead over the Nittany Lions en route to a 38-24 victory in the bowl matchup of the Pac-10 and Big Ten champions.
Before anybody jumps to conclusions about the superiority of the West Coasters, it must be acknowledged that the Nittany Lions were limping around in the first half after continually shooting themselves in the foot.
“We just didn’t play the way we’ve been playing all year,” said Paterno. The 82-year-old coach concluded his 43rd season as Penn State’s maestro with only his 11th defeat in 35 bowl games. With an overall record of 383-127-3, he remains the winningest major college coach, ahead of Florida State’s Bobby Bowden (382-123-4).
The Nittany Lions, the Big Ten’s least penalized team – in their crucial victory over Ohio State, they did not commit a single infraction – were flagged seven time for 62 yards in the first half. Several of the penalties nullified big plays, including a fumble recovery in the first quarter.
“Stuff that’s usually a trademark of our football team didn’t take place today,” said Penn State receiver Deion Butler. “We knew we had to play four quarters to beat a team like USC.”
Butler, a crime and justice major, has worked as an intern with the Philadelphia Police Department homicide division. If he were to investigate Thursday’s defeat, he would find the DNA of USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and receiver Damian Williams all over the scene.
Sanchez passed for a career-high 413 yards, the second most in Rose Bowl history, and four touchdowns. Williams was a stealth receiver – like that B-2 stealth bomber that swooped over the stadium before the kickoff – as he kept finding holes in the Penn State defense. Sanchez connected with him 10 times for 162 yards.
A big deal was made about the size of USC’s receivers – such as 6’5″ Patrick Turner – versus Penn State’s 5’10” cornerbacks, but one of those mini defenders, Lydell Sargeant, discounted the advantage. “I think a four-foot-ten guy could catch some of the passes Mark was throwing,” he said. Sanchez completed 80 percent of his passes (28-for-35) with no interceptions.
Sargeant was quite a popular figure during the past week. He is the only Penn State starter from California, having played at Cabrillo High in Lompoc. He was an outstanding running back – piling up more than 1,700 yards in his senior year – and he was a teammate of several USC stars, including Sanchez and linebacker Rey Maualuga, in a California-Florida all-star game. Sargeant also was sought in pregame interviews because of his presidential connections – he presented then-candidate Barack Obama with a Penn State football jersey at a rally attended by 22,000 last March.
Accepting a scholarship from Penn State was not a big leap for Sargeant. He grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Lompoc because that’s where his father Drew, an Air Force veteran, had been transferred. A large contingent of Sargeant’s family and friends attended Thursday’s game.
But it was very much the Mark Sanchez Show. The junior quarterback riddled a Penn State secondary that had allowed only six touchdown passes in 12 previous games. The Nittany Lions took some solace in playing a solid second half, during which they outscored the Trojans 17-7. They had a couple chances to score late touchdowns, but USC twice intercepted passes by quarterback Daryll Clark.
“It was getting messy at the end,” said Josh Pinkard, a USC cornerback who played lock-down defense. “Penn State is right at the top of the teams we played – look at the score.” Only Oregon State, in its 27-21 upset of the Trojans, put up more points against them. “We held them down for the most part,” said Pinkard, a senior from Oxnard (Hueneme High).
For his part, Penn State’s junior linebacker Navorro Bowman said, “I’d like to play USC again, maybe at State College.” That’s the town where Penn State is located. Geographically, it’s called Happy Valley. But for the Nittany Lions on Thursday, the Rose Bowl’s location lived up to its name – Arroyo Seco: a dry gulch.