Nittany Lions can't rinse out bitter loss in Rose Bowl

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There's a big scrimmage today at Penn State, and while big scrimmage is assuredly a classical coach's oxymoron, the Nittany Lions are pretty desperate to see a couple of cornerbacks identify themselves as starters, joining safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay in defensive coordinator Tom Bradley's remade secondary.

The remade secondary for 2009 is a major Penn State initiative, but the problem, though few will admit as much, is the made secondary -- the one that turned up on the lawn of the Rose Bowl in January, authoring a haunting performance that still scorches the collective memory of the remaining Lions.

A pride of Lions started the day in Pasadena there against Southern California, and the Trojans savagely separated the Lions from anything resembling pride without much room for interpretation.

Penn State can start the coming football season by washing its mouth out with Akron, Syracuse and Temple, it can rinse and repeat, but it won't get the taste of USC dominance out of its maw until at least the end of September.

"It stuck with all of us," Bradley said on the phone yesterday from University Park. "I don't think we did a particularly good job of coaching and I don't think I did a particularly good job at all. I look at myself first on that. No question it left a bad taste."

Just about everything Joe Paterno's team does between today and January, even if it rips a helping of revenge from Iowa (its only regular season loss) in the Big Ten opener Sept. 26, will be motivated in some part by potential redemption for New Year's Day, 2009.

"The way we played in the Rose Bowl last year was not good," senior quarterback Darryl Clark said recently.

A telecommunications major with a minor in understatement, Clark appears to feel as badly as the dear departed defenders who made USC's 31-7 halftime bulge and the resultant rout possible.

"It was even more frustrating when we saw the film and we were looking at all the missed opportunities that we had," he said.

"We did a lot of things in that game that we didn't do all year and it just makes you mad because we're better than that.

"That's our motivation, to hopefully play USC again."

Well, be careful what you wish for, certainly, but its no wonder the damage done by Trojan quarterback Mark Sanchez to Penn State's reputation is a primary motivator for Clark and his teammates.

In leading USC to 24 second-quarter points -- as many as Penn State had allowed in any game all year -- Sanchez launched into his own personal cadenza, a flourish of clinical football that didn't end until he'd completed 80 percent of his throws (28 for 35) for 413 yards and four touchdowns.

"We allowed six touchdown passes all year," Bradley remembered. "Then four that day."

Though I covered the football team I'd consider as possibly the best offensive force ever in the college game -- the 1994 Nittany Lions of Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, Kyle Brady, Bobby Engram et al -- I never saw anyone play better for 15 minutes than the Trojans did in making 7-7 into 31-7. Even at that, Bradley thinks it didn't have to be that way.

"I'm sure we could have stopped them," he said. "But obviously we couldn't come up with a big stop on third down. We had our opportunities and we didn't make it happen and we should have. We had a lot of penalties, nine for the game and seven for the first half. It was uncharacteristic of us. Meanwhile, they were hitting on all cylinders and we were just a step late, a step off."

It's from a rattled confidence that Penn State goes forward, talking like it can play in the national title game in the Rose Bowl, despite the complete remake in the secondary and at wide receiver and despite a debilitating injury being the most recent football event on the resume of its best player, linebacker Sean Lee.

Maybe Knowledge Timmons, the kid from York it seems Paterno has been waiting to emerge as something special since about 1978, will turn his swagger into something useful at cornerback.

"Well," Paterno sighed at media day last week, "he's got a lot of potential. I mean, he can run and he's tough and the whole bit. He's just gotta get a little bit more poise. He's on of those guys, yap, yap, yap, yap. He oughta keep his mouth shut and concentrate on the next play. When we get him to do that, I think he'll be pretty good."

Knowledge, it turns out, had an interesting interpretation of the most recent Rose Bowl events.

"I felt like they didn't respect us enough," he said recently of those Trojans. "They were doing whatever they wanted to do on the field."

That being the case, why would they ... never mind.

"I want to go back to California," Knowledge said. "And play those guys again."

Usually a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but that might be Penn State's only chance at a complete psychic healing.


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


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