PASADENA, Calif. -- Penn State didn't want any of USC. That much was apparent before the game, as the Trojans ran onto the field and running back Marc Tyler planted USC's flag in the Penn State end zone while other USC players began taunting Penn State's white clad fans.
Considering Penn State's players trailed USC's by mere feet, I figured there might be an altercation or at the very least one of the Nittany Lions would remove the USC flag. They never did. They looked at it, walked around it and never touched it. It would be reminiscent of Penn State's defensive strategy against Damian Williams and USC's other receivers, which finished the game with over 400 yards.
After the Trojans essentially put the game away by taking a 31-7 lead in the second quarter (entering the game, USC had given up only 22 total points in the second half this season), Trojan players jumped up and down near Penn State's end zone, before Rey Maualuga ran and kicked the end zone a few times as if he were sweeping up trash. He later planted the USC flag in Penn State's end zone before the second half. On both occasions, Penn State players simply stood and watched. Never once showing an ounce of fire or pride against a team clearly disrespecting them.
At least Notre Dame and UCLA players fought back and had to be restrained by officials and coaches when USC taunted them in a similar fashion. Sure, it might not have helped them on the final scoreboard, but at least they stood up for themselves and their fans.
Penn State's lackadaisical reaction to being disrespected and insulted was an extension of the way the Nittany Lions played throughout the Rose Bowl and really the way the Big Ten has played in BCS games the past three years (0-5 since 2006).
All the talk about the disparity between USC and the Big Ten teams it has beaten up in the recent past -- including Ohio State this year -- was quickly reaffirmed. Penn State hadn't given up more than 24 points all year and could do nothing as USC rolled up 31 first-half points. USC's offense, which had struggled for much of the year, looked like it did in blowouts of Virginia and Ohio State to start the season, easily scoring more first-half points than in any of its previous 33 Rose Bowl appearances.
Mark Sanchez and Damian Williams, who hemmed and hawed this week about leaving early for the NFL, looked like first-day draft picks, picking apart Penn State's secondary with ease. It was the best game both had this year, as Williams had 127 yards and a touchdown before halftime and Sanchez became only the third player in Rose Bowl history to throw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns.
The biggest misconceptions about this year's Rose Bowl coming into the game was that the Trojans would come out flat since they were disappointed about playing in their fourth straight Rose Bowl (and fifth in the last six years) after having their sights set on the BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
While it's true USC wasn't initially thrilled to be in the Rose Bowl, the fact is the Trojans have always played well in "The Grandaddy of The All" under Pete Carroll (4-1 in the game, with the lone loss coming to Texas in one of the greatest college football games ever) and have a 28-1 nonconference record since 2003. They've beaten their last six Big 10 opponents by an average margin of three touchdowns.
There was no reason to think this wouldn't be the rout that it was. The Trojans' biggest weakness since 2005 hasn't been underperforming in big games, but rather overlooking weaker conference opponents. Think about it: If USC had beaten UCLA (2006), Stanford (2007) and Oregon State (2008) -- all unranked Pac-10 teams that were double-digit underdogs against USC -- they would have been playing in the past five national championship games. Playing in big games against ranked teams has never been an issue for USC, it's those other pesky games that have tripped them up. This year it was also the lack of playing in enough big games that cost them a chance to play fellow one-loss teams Oklahoma or Florida in the national title game.
So USC will have to "settle" for another Rose Bowl rout of a Big Ten team and wonder what if. What if their offense went up against Oklahoma's defense? What if their defense went up against Florida's offense? It's a nagging question they will continue to ask as long as they continue to slip up against unranked conference teams. What if?