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Ready! Or Not?

The Trojans are saying the right things, but their body language suggests a feeling of 'been there, done that' about this year's Rose Bowl

December 31, 2008|Bill Plaschke

The Penn State players marched into the hotel ballroom with strides steady and faces tight.

The USC players swaggered in with yawns and chuckles.

The Penn State players spent Tuesday's 30-minute Rose Bowl media session sitting upright, quiet, attentive.

The USC players lounged. Some buried their heads in their hands and slept. Some talked on cellphones. Others bounced to iPods.

One player spent nearly the entire session stretched out on the floor underneath his table. A couple of others used their hands to pound out rhythms on top of the table.

As a giant clocked ticked off the final moments of the interview session, many of the Trojans chanted "3 . . . .2 . . . 1 . . . Happy New Year!"

Hmmm. Will it be?

If media day was any indication -- and it usually is -- there are two ways to look at how USC has handled The Week That Nobody Wanted.

1) The Trojans are loose enough to be dominant.

2) They are bored enough to be ambushed.

One thing for certain is, Penn State is neither.

Said defensive end Aaron Maybin: "They could feel [bored], but that's got nothing to do with us. We'll be ready to play."

Added quarterback Daryll Clark: "Lots of people don't think we have a chance. That's what we like."

It has been written here several times that USC doesn't want or need this game, so it would be disingenuous to criticize the Trojans' players if they are acting that way.

But if they are, they are setting themselves up to fall into a trap of mistaken identities.

Penn State isn't quite Illinois. Penn State isn't exactly Michigan. Penn State could actually make them pay.

"We know this," protested Trojans guard Jeff Byers. "From the moment they announced this game, Coach [Pete] Carroll has reminded us that Penn State was one point from playing in the national championship game. One point. He tells us this every day."

Yeah, well, Carroll also told them to stop celebrating the Ohio State victory and concentrate on Oregon State, and how did that turn out?

Once or twice a year, it seems, this Trojans monster takes on a life of its own.

No matter what their creator preaches, they hear only an inner voice that reminds them of their incredible skill. They interpret this to mean their immortality. A humbling loss usually follows.

Could they be tuning out Carroll and hearing that voice now? Considering Carroll was the one who first referred to this repetitive Rose-Bowl-as-consolation-prize-business as "Groundhog Day," maybe they are getting the voices confused?

"No, this is an extraordinary challenge. They want to go out and show who they are," Carroll said of his team.

That will certainly happen Thursday, when they will play for a fourth consecutive January in a stadium down the street, against a team from a conference with no juice, in a game that has zero bearing on a national championship.

As witnessed Tuesday at a downtown hotel, the Trojans will be locked in a battle with their toughest opponent.

Yeah. Themselves.

"Hey, from what I've seen, Penn State is pretty good," protested defensive end Kyle Moore.

This means the Trojans have watched the films. This means that they've surely seen how, athletically and strategically, USC is clearly better.

The writers were able to compare the players in person Tuesday, and the differences were obvious.

USC looked like Humvees. Penn State looked like jayvees.

"Did you know that Penn State was just one point from playing in the national championship game?" Moore said.

Um, yeah, we heard that.

The Trojans admit that a fourth consecutive year of beef eating and joke telling and Mouse chasing has been a bit strained.

"But we look at it this way," Byers said. "Disneyland is Disneyland, new comics were at the comedy club, and you can never beat [a good steak]."

They're trying. Heavens, they are trying.

"This means a lot to us to finish well, this is what our program stands for," Byers said. "I just can't see anybody falling asleep at the wheel."

As opposed to the interview table.

"We look at Penn State like they're the No. 1 team in the country, like this is a national championship," safety Taylor Mays said.

Say what?

Mays smiled.

"Hey, Coach Carroll could get us pumped up to eat a hot dog," he said.

Better than choking on one.

USC is also battling internal distractions so potentially big that they could hinder a program that thrives on them.

Steve Sarkisian, the guys who calls the plays, is leaving after the game to become the head coach at the University of Washington. Dennis Slutak, the invaluable guy who runs the football operations, is joining Sarkisian.

In the end, it will come down to the focus of the seniors. That's how Carroll structures it, that's the only way it can work.

The Trojans will not lose if Byers and Rey Maualuga and Fili Moala and Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews won't let them lose.

"We have a chance to do something special, if we all believe it is special," Matthews said. "Trust me, by the time that game starts, we'll believe."

And if they don't?

Matthews shook his head and grimaced.

"Do you know Penn State was just one point from playing in the . . . ?"

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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