LOS ANGELES - The Oregon State football team is in El Paso, Texas, preparing to take on Pitt in tomorrow's Sun Bowl. Nonetheless, the Beavers are very much on the minds of the teams that will square off the following day in Pasadena, Calif., in the 95th Rose Bowl.
In a sense, because of how each squad fared against Oregon State more than 3 months ago, it might be said that Big Ten Conference co-champion Penn State (11-1) has the upper hand against Pac-10 titlist Southern California (11-1).
As dominant as fifth-ranked USC has been in recent years in building a dynasty for coach Pete Carroll, there have been occasional stumbles against double-digit underdogs, at least in part because the Trojans believed their press clippings.
In 2006, both Oregon State and UCLA upset USC. The following year, the shocker was a loss to Stanford, which had gone in as a 40-point no-hoper.
This season, the only blemish on the record of the most talented team in college football - go ahead, ask any Trojan - was a 27-21 stunner at Oregon State on Sept. 25, when diminutive OSU freshman tailback Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 186 yards on 37 carries and scored two touchdowns. That defeat ultimately had the effect of eliminating USC from national championship consideration.
The Beavers were walloped, 45-14, Sept. 6 at Penn State.
Fili Moala, USC's fine defensive tackle, said his team had been lulled into a false sense of security after watching film of that Penn State runaway .
"We lost to Stanford last year because we took them lightly," Moala said. "We saw Oregon State lose to Penn State the way they did and I guess we figured we could just have our way with them. We went into that game not as aware or on our toes as we needed to be."
Reminded again that not even they are invincible, the Trojans reeled off nine consecutive victories, outscoring opponents, 342-56. USC, ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (7.8 points per game), total defense (263.9 yards per game) and passing defense (122.8 ypg), allowed more than 10 points only once over that stretch and registered three shutouts.
That USC, which is nearly flawless on both sides of the ball, is a 9 1/2-point favorite over a Penn State outfit that is very good, but is widely perceived as being not nearly as athletically dominant.
But the Nittany Lions believe that if Oregon State and, to a lesser degree, Stanford, can move the ball on the Trojans, so can they. The Cardinal rushed for 202 yards in a 45-23 loss to USC on Nov. 15, after going into halftime tied at 17-17.
Perhaps for inspirational reasons more than tactical ones, Penn State's offensive players have spent more time studying film of USC on shaky ground against Oregon State and Stanford than its drubbings of Washington State (69-0), Washington (56-0) and Notre Dame (38-3).
"Their games against Oregon State and Stanford showed us that they have weaknesses like any other team, and that we can move the ball on them," said Penn State tailback Evan Royster, who has rushed for 1,202 yards this season, while averaging 6.5 yards per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns. "We haven't watched too much tape of the games where people aren't moving the ball on them, because, really, that doesn't teach us anything."
Galen Hall, Penn State's offensive coordinator, said what worked for Oregon State against USC won't necessarily work for the Lions. But the Lions have at least a blueprint of what might be accomplished with a sound game plan and superior execution.
"We looked at the Oregon State film," Hall said. "Are we going to be able to do what Oregon State did? I don't know. We'll try some of it. We won't try all of it. We're a different team than Oregon State. It's helpful, but is it the answer to beat Southern Cal? No. We've got to do what Penn State does and, hopefully, it's good enough."
Ohio State is the teams' other common opponent. The Trojans rolled over the Buckeyes, 35-3, on Sept. 13, while the Lions had to come from behind to win, 13-6, in Columbus on Oct. 25.
Judging the strength of football teams based on comparative scores is always risky. In this instance, it probably proves nothing. Maybe that's why USC guard Jeff Byers does not think the Trojans will again have their way against a collection of Big Ten mules that don't have the speed to keep up with the West Coast thoroughbreds. He, for one, pays no heed to the fact that USC is 5-0 against Big Ten teams since Carroll took over in 2001, winning those games by a cumulative margin of 182-69.
"We've had some success against the Big Ten the last couple of years, but this is not a typical Big Ten team," Byers said of the Lions. "They have a quick, mobile offensive line, a quarterback who runs well [Daryll Clark]. Their offense is similar to ours, and their defense is solid. They have fast guys. It's not Big Ten football as we know it.