A major setback for Penn State, Big Ten

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Penn State entered the Cardinal and Gold inferno known as Rose Bowl Stadium in search of national respect for its football program and secondly, its beleaguered conference.

The Nittany Lions ended up getting burned, and so did the Big Ten.

Penn State players had grown tired of hearing how great No. 5 USC was this season. The eighth-ranked Lions don't have to hear it any more. They experienced it in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi.

In a game that would define Penn State and the Big Ten more than any other this postseason, USC beat the Nittany Lions 38-24. The result wasn't a total surprise, but the way it happened was shocking.

A team that had been so balanced and so disciplined suffered a complete meltdown in the second quarter. After ranking third nationally in fewest penalties, Penn State drew seven flags for 63 yards in the opening half, including an offside call on rush end Aaron Maybin that nullified a USC fumble. Many of the fouls were mental mistakes -- late hits, pre-snap penalties -- and uncharacteristic of a Joe Paterno-coached, senior-led team. The result was a 31-7 halftime deficit.

Penn State's defense, a unit ranked third nationally in scoring and fifth in yards allowed, simply didn't show up.

USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and quarterback Mark Sanchez exposed the Nittany Lions secondary, a weakness all season that was masked by a terrific defensive front seven and a conference with subpar quarterbacks.

Penn State generated minimal pressure on Sanchez, and the USC junior made all the throws against a secondary that reinforced the Big Ten's slow stereotype. Sanchez silenced his doubters, and created some for Tom Bradley and the Penn State defense.

Recapping the first-half carnage:

  • No team had scored more than 24 points against Penn State this season. USC had 31 in the first half.

  • The Lions had allowed 24 first-half points combined in their last four games.

  • Penn State allowed an average of 168 pass yards per game. Sanchez had 276 in the half.

  • Penn State allowed an average of 263.9 yards per game. USC had 341 in the half.

I never thought Penn State would do the things it did in the first half against USC. And yes, I'm the yutz who picked Penn State to win a defensive struggle today.

But that's what USC does to teams in the Rose Bowl. Perhaps it's a psychological edge after so many years of winning.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about it all was the fact that Penn State answered USC's first punch. After the Trojans took a 7-0 lead, quarterback Daryll Clark led a masterful touchdown drive against the nation's top defense. Clark actually played a good first half, but Penn State couldn't convert several third-and-short situations and got no help from its defense. The injury to running back Evan Royster certainly hurt, and Penn State couldn't get the ball to Derrick Williams as much as it hoped.

The second half lacked much drama, but Penn State didn't quit, especially Clark (273 pass yards, two touchdowns). Unfortunately for the Lions, neither did Sanchez (413 pass yards, four touchdowns).

Head coach Joe Paterno watched it all from the press box. He might have had more fun spending the day at the beach.

Penn State had a great season and likely will enter 2009 as the preseason Big Ten favorite, a dubious distinction. The Nittany Lions will be very solid on defense and with Clark back, they'll have a chance to erase this stain on their bowl résumé.

If this is the best the Big Ten has to offer, and Penn State earned that designation during the regular season, then the league has some major problems. The Big Ten's bowl lineup looked murderous, but four double-digit losses is pretty weak.

Three traditional powerhouse programs and major TV markets will always make the Big Ten relevant in college football, but we're in the dark ages for the conference. The Big Ten hasn't won a Rose Bowl since 2000 and, like many around college football, can't find an answer for USC.

Ohio State could dull the pain with a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl win against Texas on Monday, but Jim Delany's league has to do some soul searching after the season. The Big Ten entered the 2008 season with a poor national reputation and thus far has done nothing to change it.