Like usual, Carroll's Trojans saved their best for last (cont.)
All week, players from both sides insisted the Nittany Lions (11-2) were fast and athletic enough to keep up with the Trojans, and for a quarter, it appeared they were right. After USC drove 86 yards to score its first touchdown on a pretty 27-yard Sanchez-to-Williams strike across the middle, the Nittany Lions responded with an 80-yard drive of their own in which QB Daryll Clark went nearly untouched on a nine-yard touchdown draw up the middle.
After one quarter, Penn State had outgained USC 112 yards to 105 -- but that changed soon enough. The Trojans racked up 236 yards on four straight second-quarter scoring drives; the Nittany Lions gained 60 yards in the second and third quarters combined. After throwing just six passes in the first quarter, Sanchez went 14-of-17 for 219 yards, 100 of them to Williams, who seemed to be perpetually running clear of any Penn State defensive back.
"That was the plan coming in -- we thought there would be opportunities to throw the ball around a little bit," said departing Trojans offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, calling his last game before taking over full-time at Washington. "In one-on-one matchups, we made plays."
Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions didn't help themselves with a uncharacteristic slew of self-inflicted wounds -- their season-high nine penalties included an offsides call that wiped out a potential sack and forced fumble against Sanchez, and an illegal shift negated a long catch-and-run by receiver Deon Butler. Meanwhile, with Penn State down 24-7 late in the first half, freshmen tailback Stephfon Green -- pressed into action when starter Evan Royster went down early with a left leg injury -- broke off a 30-yard catch-and-run only to fumble, allowing USC to tack on another touchdown 36 seconds before halftime on a 20-yard C.J. Gable slip screen.
"I felt it was kind of slipping away from us when they started to get into rhythm and we couldn't quite get them out of snyc," said Penn State coach Joe Paterno. "But you know, until they got to 31, that last touchdown [before the half], I thought we had a shot at it."
The Trojans -- never short on swagger -- chose that occasion to begin their celebration. During the timeout prior to the next kickoff, about half the team came out onto the field in front of their sideline and began jumping up and down. Star linebacker Rey Maualuga drew rousing boos from the Penn State half of the crowd when he made a point of running into the Nittany Lions' end zone and making a kicking gesture. (After halftime, he also planted the USC flag on the "P" in the same end zone).
Carroll, apparently unaware of the flack Georgia coach Mark Richt took over a similar situation last season, joked it would have been "awesome" had his team "[gotten] a penalty called on us for having too much fun."
The Trojans may have gotten a little too confident. Penn State, to its credit, chipped away at the deficit throughout the fourth quarter, closing a 38-14 margin to 38-24. Twice in the final three minutes, the Nittany Lions got the ball back with a chance to cut the lead to one score. But it didn't take much to wake up USC's defense. Trojans defensive backs Will Harris and Cary Harris each picked off Clark passes, the last one in the end zone on the game's final play.
"You've got to hand it to [Penn State]," said Carroll," But we stopped them. Our defense came through one more time just like they've done all year."
Ultimately, the 2008 Trojans will be remembered for fielding one of the most dominant defenses in recent memory. Even with Penn State's second-half effort, Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Taylor Mays and Co. finished the season having allowed just 14 touchdowns in 13 games.
Carroll admitted afterward that the defense's dominance throughout the season prompted the Trojans to play close-to-the-vest offensively at times, including a 17-10 win at Arizona and 17-3 win at Cal. While that approach got the job done, it also created the impression of USC as an inconsistent offensive team. In a year marked by the aerial shootouts of the Big 12 and Florida's never-ending string of lopsided SEC wins, it may have cost the Trojans a shot at the BCS title game.
"This is a terrific offense," said Carroll, who could welcome back 10 of its starters next season. "We've got all kinds of weapons. Mark is a great quarterback, as you saw tonight. There's times we've run to win the games and times we throw the football and play defense. Having that kind of flexibility showed up here tonight."
Indeed. Whenever you can combine a quarterback capable of throwing for 400 yards against a top-five defense with four different tailbacks that have gone over 100 yards in a game and the nation's most dominant defense, you have all the makings of ... a might-have-been national champion.