LOS ANGELES - Stereotypes are like gum that gets stuck on the bottom of your shoe. They're difficult and exasperating to scrape off. No matter how hard you try, it never seems as if all of the gunk is removed.
To many, tomorrow's 95th Rose Bowl between No. 5 Southern California (11-1) and No. 6 Penn State (11-1) in nearby Pasadena is a matchup easy to categorize because of national perceptions that, rightly or wrongly, have been formed in recent years.
The prevailing wisdom is that the Trojans have the racehorses, a team that blurs past opponents with speed, speed and more speed.
That same wisdom holds that the Nittany Lions are Clydesdales, a bunch of big, burly clompers who might be good at plowing fields, but lack the giddyup to run for long with the Pac-10 thoroughbreds.
Given the nature of today's college football landscape - with its increasing emphasis on spread offenses and skill-position players who dash about as if their hair is on fire - the feeling is that the Big Ten Conference co-champions are simply too slow to keep pace with the Trojans.
Derrick Williams, Penn State's senior wide receiver/kick returner who was recruited by virtually every big-time school, including USC, when he was a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Maryland, is miffed by any suggestion that he has slowed down simply because he plays in a conference whose conservative mantra for decades was former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes' "3 yards and a cloud of dust."
"It's definitely outdated," Williams said of the Big Ten's stodgy reputation. "When I was in high school, the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac-10, the Big 12 and the ACC all wanted me. I had enough speed for all those conferences then, right? A.J. [Wallace], Stephfon [Green] had enough speed for them, too. Now, because we play for a Big Ten team, magically all of us got slower? I don't think so."
Perhaps, if it came to that, Williams and a few of his friends from Happy Valley could go a few furlongs as swiftly as the burners representing USC. But football is played by human beings, not horses, and it is a game in which speed is only a component of success, not always its end result.
Although each team is averaging more than 40 points a game, the level of defensive domination by both the Lions and the Trojans is such that traditional, old-fashioned Big Ten football - which is to say, trench warfare - might give Penn State, a 9 1/2-point underdog, its best opportunity to come away with the upset.
Even USC coach Pete Carroll, who has never lost to a Big Ten team in his 8 years as leader of the college game's glitziest program, is inclined to believe that this game might come down more to blocking and tackling than to long sprints to the end zone.
"Logically, everyone will think that this would be a really low-scoring game," said Carroll, whose 87-15 record with the Trojans includes two national-championship seasons.
Then again, Carroll always expected his defense to shut down opponents. This season's defensive unit might be his best ever, leading the nation in fewest points allowed (7.8 per game), fewest total yards allowed (206.1 ypg) and fewest passing yards allowed (122.8 ypg).
"We don't alter anything we've done against opponents regardless of what their makeup was or their personnel or where they come from," Carroll said of his our-best-will-beat-your-best defensive philosophy. "You have to be on it every single game. That's the only way we've ever approached it."
Although the Lions catch a break because All-Pac 10 strong safety Kevin Ellison won't play due to a bum shoulder, USC still will counter Penn State's Spread HD offense with a lineup of stoppers that includes three All-Americas - free safety Taylor Mays and linebackers Rey Maualuga, the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, and Brian Cushing.
Penn State's A.Q. Shipley, the Rimington Award winner as the nation's premier center, understands that more is at stake here than meets the eye.
"This is not only the game we've been working toward all year, but the game some of us have been working toward the last 4 or 5 years," said Shipley, who arrived on campus in the summer of 2004 when the Lions were going through a tough stretch in which they posted losing records four times in five seasons. But since Williams and cornerback Justin King, now a rookie with the NFL's St. Louis Rams, brought some much-needed speed to the program in 2005, Penn State has put some pep in its step and rebounded to go 40-10.
The Lions are 23-10-1 in bowl games under legendary coach Joe Paterno, which includes three straight victories and a 9-2 mark in his last 11. That is in stark contrast to the Big Ten's otherwise sorry postseason performance. With losses by Wisconsin and Northwestern already in the books, Michigan - which upset Florida last season - is the only Big Ten team other than Penn State to have won a bowl since 2007.
It is axiomatic in baseball that pitching and defense are emphasized in the playoffs, and so it is in football. With a defense that ranks fourth nationally in points allowed (12.4 ppg) and total yards allowed (263.9), Penn State will attempt to match USC stop for stop until something finally breaks.
"You can't beat those guys by being tricky," Lions quarterback Daryll Clark opined. "You just have to line up and play." *