LOS ANGELES - Deon Butler, Penn State's 5-10, 170-pound senior wide receiver, didn't hesitate when asked if he had ever come across a free safety as freakishly athletic as Southern California's Taylor Mays.

"Never," Butler said of Mays, a junior who, at 6-3 and 230 pounds, looks more like a linebacker chiseled out of marble by Michelangelo. "Well, maybe in a movie. And I think you can create somebody like that on 'Madden.'

"But in real life . . . nah, there can't be anybody else like him. He's a one-of-a-kind athlete and he looks the part."

Even on a team densely populated with future NFL players, Mays - who almost certainly will play his last college game in Thursday's Rose Bowl against the Nittany Lions - inspires a rare kind of awe.

USC defensive tackle Fili Moala carefully considered his options when someone asked about the most amazing thing he ever saw Mays do on a football field.

"Saw the guy run a 4.29 [in the 40-yard dash]," Moala finally decided. "It's probably impossible to be that big and that fast, but he is."

Mays said one of his role models at the so-called "next level" is veteran Eagles safety Brian Dawkins. "I've always admired his game," Mays said of Dawkins. "He's ferocious. That's something I try to bring to my own game.

"I'd like to meet him and talk to him, to pick his brain about what it takes to be great at safety. I think that could be an interesting conversation."

A real slugfest

For historical purposes, there were eight "Rose Bowl" games played at various sites in the Los Angeles area between 1902 and 1922. But the inaugural contest played at its current site, the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, Calif., was on Jan. 1, 1923, which technically makes that the first Rose Bowl.

Southern California beat Penn State that day, 14-3, a precursor to what will be the second Rose Bowl matchup of the Trojans and Nittany Lions some 86 years later. It's likely coaches Pete Carroll, of USC, and Joe Paterno, of Penn State, won't confront one another as was the case with their long-ago predecessors, Elmer Henderson and Hugo Bezdek.

Following the Tournament of Roses parade, Bezdek and his Penn State players hopped into a fleet of Model-T taxicabs for what they incorrectly assumed would be a short trip to the new stadium. Wrong; heavy traffic caused the Lions to arrive 10 minutes past the scheduled 3:15 p.m. kickoff time, and Penn State didn't take the field until a little past 4.

Henderson angrily accused Bezdek of having his team arrive deliberately late, which nearly led to their engaging in a fistfight.

Havili status iffy

USC might not know until right before Thursday's kickoff if the starting fullback, redshirt junior Stanley Havili, will be academically eligible to play.

Havili's backup, Adam Goodman, is coming off minor knee surgery and also might be unavailable. For now, coach Pete Carroll has true freshman D.J. Shoemate practicing with the first unit, and he is considering shifting tight end Rhett Ellison, an excellent blocker, to fullback if Havili and Goodman aren't good to go.

Rose buds

John Cappelletti, who in 1973 won Penn State's only Heisman Trophy, attended a Lions practice a few days ago and he renewed acquaintances with coach Joe Paterno. Cappelletti, a Monsignor Bonner grad who played in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers, is now in sales and manufacturing in Laguna Niguel, Calif. . . . Bani Gbadyu, a redshirt sophomore who started three games this season at outside linebacker, did not make the trip because of academic issues. *