A bowl game to make Joe Paterno feel old

USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and coach Pete Carroll celebrate after Sanchez's TD pass to Ronald Johnson in the fourth quarter.
USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and coach Pete Carroll celebrate after Sanchez's TD pass to Ronald Johnson in the fourth quarter.
Posted: January 02, 2009

PASADENA, Calif. - Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll playfully called Penn State's Joe Paterno the "Benjamin Button" of the college football universe the other day.

Carroll was referring to a movie character who ages in reverse, from an elderly man to a newborn.

It's fair to surmise that during yesterday's 95th annual Rose Bowl, started in sun-splashed, 70-degree weather, Paterno felt absolutely no connection to Button as he watched from the press box.

Seeing USC junior quarterback Mark Sanchez shred a defense has a way of making a youthful, 82-year-old coaching icon feel his age. Or older.

Sanchez was brilliant in the opening half, completing 18 of 23 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns. He also scored on a 6-yard run and set the tone in USC's convincing 38-24 victory over the 91/2-point underdog Nittany Lions.

"I'm a little disappointed we weren't a little bit more competitive," said Paterno, who made a curious fourth-quarter decision that virtually negated any chance for a comeback win, "and I think a lot of that is because we made so many mistakes in the first half."

Most of the mistakes were made by the secondary, which Paterno called "a little bit tentative, and I think the fact they got hurt early" left them playing soft.

Before yesterday, Penn State had allowed just six TD passes all season, but it obviously had not faced a quarterback of Sanchez's pedigree.

The secondary went from bad in the first quarter (57 passing yards allowed) to worse (219 passing yards) in the second quarter as the Lions fell into a 31-7 halftime hole.

Before yesterday, Penn State had not allowed more than 24 points in a game all season. USC's 31 first-half points were the most in any of its 33 Rose Bowl appearances. And the Trojans did it against a team that was fourth in the nation in scoring defense (12.4 points per game).

If this had been Knute Rockne-All American, maybe Paterno - who had hip-replacement surgery Nov. 23 - would have hobbled down to the locker room at halftime, delivered a game-turning speech, and watched his team make a comeback for the ages.

But, as another movie once told us, Reality Bites.

Sanchez became the third player in Rose Bowl history to surpass 400 passing yards - he finished with 413 yards and four touchdown passes - when he threw a 45-yard TD pass to wide-open sophomore Ronald Johnson early in the fourth quarter, making the score 38-14.

Illogically, Penn State, on fourth and 2 from the USC 7, kicked a 25-yard field goal with 7 minutes, 22 seconds remaining to make the score 38-17 - instead of going for a first down or TD and two-point conversion that could have made it a two-score game.

Many Penn State fans booed the decision, which looked even worse after the Nittany Lions scored with 4:24 left and could have been within 38-30.

"I probably should have gone for the score," Paterno said. "We would have to make a really good play, so I figured, 'Let's get on the board.' "

In any event, Penn State fizzled in Paterno's 35th bowl game. Maybe the Big Ten should call this matchup the Thorn Bowl. It was the sixth consecutive defeat by a Big Ten team in the Rose Bowl, and it snapped Penn State's streak of three bowl victories.

"It would have taken a heck of a football team to beat Southern Cal the way they played today," Paterno said.

Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at 215-854-5181 or scarchidi@phillynews.com.

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