Dec. 20, 2008

(AP) - A stunning road loss is all that kept Southern California and Penn State out of the national championship game. The aftermath, though, has led to an enticing and more traditional New Year's Day matchup.

A week before watching two other one-loss teams play for the BCS title, the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions play the Granddaddy of Them All with Joe Paterno - a granddad to 16 children - and the Nittany Lions trying to prevent the Trojans from winning a third straight Rose Bowl.

USC and Penn State are fifth and sixth, respectively, in the AP poll with 11-1 records.

"It's cool to play Penn State and Joe Paterno," USC safety Taylor Mays said. "With all of the history of both schools, it's a classic matchup."

The Nittany Lions are No. 6 all-time with 800 wins and the Trojans are 10th with 765. The 82-year-old Paterno, who agreed to a three-year extension Dec. 16 that runs through the 2011 season, is the leader in coaching victories with 383.

"I hope we can go out there and be competitive with them. I'm a little bit nervous," said Paterno, the Big Ten coach of the year and all-time leader in bowl victories with a 23-10-1 record.

"This is a very, very impressive football team, Southern Cal. They do everything well."

USC and Penn State are fifth and sixth, respectively, in the AP poll with 11-1 records, partly because this was considered a down year for the Pac-10 and Big Ten.

None of the four teams ranked ahead of them finished unbeaten, but they were all from either the Big 12 or SEC. It's the winners of those conferences - Oklahoma and Florida - who finished 1-2 in the BCS standings and will play for the national title on Jan. 8.

"Hopefully, down the line, there's a playoff system," said USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, winner of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the best defensive player in college football. "As for now, we're just happy we get to play in the Rose Bowl."

USC dominated its first two opponents, 52-7 at Virginia and 35-3 over then-No. 5 Ohio State, before visiting Oregon State on Sept. 25. The Trojans fell behind 21-0 by halftime and could not complete a comeback, losing 27-21 to a Beavers team which had lost its first two games.

"All year, for whatever reason, the loss we had hung on us," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "It didn't seem that the opinion of that loss ever changed."

Penn State entered a game at Iowa on Nov. 8 with a 9-0 record and was coming off a victory in what many considered its biggest remaining obstacle to a perfect season, winning 13-6 at then-No. 10 Ohio State. The Nittany Lions blew a nine-point fourth quarter lead and lost 24-23 on a last-second field goal to a Hawkeyes team which had been 5-4.

Paterno's squad had no problem beating the only team to which USC lost, routing Oregon State 45-14 at home on Sept. 6.

However, USC was the more dominant team over the final two months of the season, outscoring opponents 342-56. That nine-game winning streak included three shutouts and only one game in which its top-ranked defense allowed more than 10 points.

"I think Southern Cal has every right to think they could play anybody and do as well," Paterno said. "I don't know whether we can do that kind of bragging, but we're pretty good, and we'll see."

It's possible Paterno will be back on the Penn State sideline for this matchup following hip replacement surgery. He coached the last seven games from the press box due to hip pain.

Because either USC or Ohio State has been part of the last four BCS championship games, this is the first Rose Bowl to include the top Pac-10 and Big Ten teams since USC played Michigan in 2004.

One reason the BCS emerged was Paterno's most recent trip to the Rose Bowl in 1995. Penn State was obligated to head to Pasadena on New Year's Day, beating Oregon 38-20 to complete a perfect season. However, the crown of national champion went to top-ranked Nebraska after it beat Miami in the Orange Bowl.

This is the 95th Rose Bowl and USC has won a record 23 of them, including 49-17 over Illinois last season and 32-18 over Michigan the previous year. The Trojans also fell to Texas in the 2006 game - losing the national championship - and beat Michigan in 2004.

It was the offense that carried USC to those Rose Bowls, but clearly it was the defense that did it this time.

No team has given up fewer points (7.8) or total yards per game (206.1). The average of 122.8 passing yards allowed is particularly impressive because it's nearly 37 better than any other team even though most of USC's opponents had to throw a lot after falling well behind.

"It's a heck of a defensive team," Paterno said. "I mean, they got a couple guys in that secondary that will knock your head off."

Penn State's strength is also on defense, ranking in the top 10 nationally in points (12.4) and total yards (263.9) allowed. Defensive end Aaron Maybin keyed that unit with a Big Ten-leading 12 sacks, and now he'll try to chase down the Pac-10's top-rated passer.

USC's Mark Sanchez had a 159.1 quarterback rating, throwing for conference highs of 30 touchdowns and 2,794 yards.

The Trojans offense was just as good if not better on the ground, rushing for at least 170 yards in 11 games. Carroll split most of the carries between Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable, who each rushed for between 600-650 yards.

A trio of senior receivers highlights the Penn State offense. Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams combined for 121 catches, 1,769 yards and 15 touchdowns.

They've been the favorite targets of All-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark, who successfully guided Penn State's new spread HD offense by throwing for 2,319 yards with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions. His last game of the season was his best, going 16-of-26 for 341 yards and four TDs without an interception in a 49-18 win over Michigan State.

The Nittany Lions haven't faced USC since a 29-5 loss in 2000. The programs have split eight all-time meetings, including Penn State's only other trip to the Rose Bowl besides 1995 and the first bowl game in its history - a 14-3 loss to the Trojans in 1923.

"We match up so unbelievably close statistically, it should be a great game," Carroll said. "Maybe this is the best game in the country. I know we're going to go about it in that manner. ... There's no room to talk about what could have been."