USC leaves things unsaid

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LOS ANGELES -- On the carpeted sprawl of the ballroom at the downtown Marriott yesterday, Penn State's Nittany Lions and USC's Men of Troy showed up in their game jerseys for no apparent purpose except to make you wonder how the Rose Bowl would turn out were it played immediately, right there on the second floor.

No fair using the escalator. That's a gadget play.


Tomorrow

Who: Penn State (11-1) vs. Southern California (11-1).

When: 4:30 p.m.

Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.

TV: WTAE.


Sillier things, by the way, have been attempted to avoid a New Year's Day commute on the 110 Freeway to Pasadena.

"They are an incredibly well-balanced, gifted football team," Trojans head coach Pete Carroll said of Joe Paterno's fellas. "I don't know how you can look at it as anything other than a great matchup."

Oh really.

The Trojans know how to play, know what to say. Know exactly what they want the rhetorical ramp-up to a hotly anticipated collision of two 11-1 teams to sound like. So why do I hear this unspoken undercurrent?

"I think they have more speed than the normal Big Ten team," said USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt.

And that's as close as anyone got to saying it out loud, wasn't it?

That's because on New Year's Day, an all-too-typical college football score would be, umm, USC 34, Normal Big Ten Team 6. And sometimes even USC 35, Incredibly Balanced, Gifted Big Ten Football Team 3.

Much as they've concealed it in interviews, it seems to me Southern California's NFL-ready defense thinks a similar score would be a perfectly reasonable outcome for this 95th Rose Bowl. You can't blame a team that's beaten its past eight Big Ten opponents by an average of 29 points for thinking Penn State might be a pliable No. 9. It's been 20 years, after all, since USC lost the Rose Bowl to a Big Ten opponent.

"There's nothing different as far as their offense goes," said Trojans middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. "They're probably the best spread offense we've seen, the best offense we've played, but we just have to continue to dominate."

Sounded simple didn't it? So anticlimactically simple.

This Trojans defense has allowed 7.8 points per game, the best such figure around here in 56 years. After being bushwhacked at Oregon State, USC allowed six touchdowns in its final nine games. Scouts indicate that nine of the 11 starters will play on Sundays in the near term.

Penn State's answer is the cryptically named Spread HD Offense, which differs from the popular spread in ways not terribly evident to Maualuga, who is only the nation's best defensive player, or so his Bednarik Award would theoretically attest.

You don't need an HD TV to watch Penn State move the football, but you might have to ask a whole pride of Lions to explain it before anyone comes close.

"You know, I don't think anybody knows what HD means," said senior all-purpose threat Derrick Williams. "I've always taken to mean that anybody can make a play."

Darryl Clark, who runs the thing from the quarterback spot, said he's not real sure either, except that it's something assistant coach Jay Paterno came up with.

"Our quarterbacks coach did that," Clark said. "It can mean a lot of things -- high def, highly diverse. I think it's a pretty cool name. When we first heard it, we said hopefully, it won't become a huge dud. Thankfully, I don't think it's become a huge dud."

Not yet.

The plan the Trojans have put in place attacks the balance Carroll refers to in his weeks-long testimonials to Paterno. USC wants to make Clark beat it with the pass, as its initial focus will be to blow up Penn State's ground game.

"We want to make them one-dimensional," was all Maualuga would say about it. "We'll stay with the things we always do."

Funny, Clark said the Lions would do exactly that.

"We're just going to play our game," said the Lions' resourceful quarterback. "We're not going to change our offense to account for one player or one defense."

That, of course, is complete eyewash. Or is it earwash?

Penn State might have Spread HDed its way to 40 points a game, might have walloped the same Oregon State team to which USC allowed a highly upsetting 343 yards and 27 points, but if Jay Paterno or Galen Hall think they can beat USC without any misdirection or weakside innovation, or heaven forbid a couple of gadget plays that may or may not involve an escalator, they are deluded.

Hall, the old Lion QB who splits the play-calling with the son of the head coach, said this about the film of the USC-Oregon State ambush.

"It's helpful, but is it the answer to beating USC? No."

No. That film with that answer doesn't exist. Beating USC calls for an original screenplay, an original score or four, a breathtaking performance by an ensemble cast, all the things Hollywood understands and normal Big Ten teams so rarely deliver.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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