Unfortunate, because that's it this season for USC.
We won't have the chance to see how the Trojans would do against Oklahoma, Florida, whoever, in a legitimate national championship game.
This USC team deserves better.
So does Pete Carroll, the USC coach.
So do all of us who appreciate sustained excellence. Because what Carroll has done since taking over at USC in 2001 is to instill a culture that is committed to the pursuit of such excellence, a culture rooted in competitiveness and challenge.
"I don't think anybody can beat us," Carroll said after the game, adding, "I just wish we could keep playing."
It is an extraordinary thing to witness, week in and week out over these years, and this 2009 Rose Bowl further cements Carroll's legacy as one of the greatest college football coaches in history.
And, arguably, the best there is now in the entire country.
Not to say there aren't other first-rate coaches. Florida's Urban Meyer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Nick Saban of Alabama and others — among them, obviously, the granddaddy of them all, Penn State's Joe Paterno — have what it takes.
But what USC did Thursday in dismantling Penn State — USC was ahead 31-7 at the half — underscores the advantage every Carroll team since 2002 has made plain.
It's not that USC has great athletes; of course it does.
It's that USC is — almost always — mentally tough.
Not to say that the Trojans can't, and don't, falter — this year, for instance, at Oregon State, the one loss keeping USC out of this year's national championship game.
Excellence is not the same as perfection, however. And as he has done following a loss in recent seasons, Carroll got the Trojans back to the Rose Bowl where — predictably — some poor Big Ten team took a pounding. Two years ago, Michigan. Last year, Illinois. This year, Penn State. The victory Thursday gave USC its fourth 12-win season in the last six years.
"Any athlete or coach would love to say that your team finishes well." Carroll had said earlier in the week, adding a moment later, "You bring your best at the end when it is most meaningful. We take great pride in that and that has become a character of the program."
The 2009 Rose Bowl had, beforehand, shaped up to any neutral observer as a thorough mismatch. Thus sportswriters near and far did their best to drum up tension by asking: would the Trojans show up?
That is, would the Trojans — with a decided advantage in size, speed and talent — turn out to be bummed about not making the national title game and play down to Penn State?
Or would USC bring the hammer?
Truly, there should not have been any doubt.
Penn State hadn't given up more than 24 points this year. USC had 31 by half. Those 31? The most first-half points for any USC team in 33 Rose Bowls.
Carroll is such a motivator that U.S. Olympic swimming officials called him to address the team last summer in Palo Alto, Calif., before departure for the 2008 Olympics — where the likes of Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin and Dara Torres showed the world what sustained excellence looks like.
As the USC players sprinted Thursday onto the sun-dappled Rose Bowl field, safety Will Harris grabbed one of the oversized USC flags that the cheerleaders typically carry and sprinted all the way to the north end zone, then planted it with gusto on the "P" in the blue-and-white "Penn State" stenciled in the north end zone.
After USC went up 17-7 in the second quarter, a group of USC players engaged in a spirited sideline dance.
The Fighting Irish have a promising future based on coaching, current talent, recruiting, title path, and program power.
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Rose Bowl postgame interviews
Jan 2: Pete Carroll thinks his team is hard to beat and Joe Paterno says his team has nothing to be ashamed of.
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No. 5 USC 38, No. 6 Penn State 24