- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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PASADENA, Calif. -- Well, say this much for Penn State. The Nittany Lions won the fourth quarter.
In most games, against most teams, winning the fourth quarter wins the game. That's why USC coach Pete Carroll handed out T-shirts to his team this season with "FINISH" emblazoned across the chest. And it's especially true in games such as the Rose Bowl, which featured two 11-1 teams.
On Thursday, No. 8 Penn State won the fourth quarter over the No. 5 Trojans, 17-7. But don't bother looking for the word "upset." All Penn State did was make the final score respectable: USC 38, Penn State 24.
The Big Ten doesn't want to hear "respectable," given that it lost another Rose Bowl, is 1-5 in this postseason and would like to begin talking about basketball now, thank you very much.
Maybe Carroll, known for making adjustments in the second half, not the second quarter, didn't feel like waiting. The differences between the Trojans and the Nittany Lions revealed themselves in the second quarter, a 24-point explosion that gave USC a 31-7 halftime lead and turned a tie game into the Trojans' third consecutive Rose Bowl victory.
For the Nittany Lions fans among the 93,293 in the stadium, the second quarter lasted longer than a Russian novel -- and was just as hard to fathom.
Take USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who at one point in the second quarter completed seven consecutive passes for 132 yards. Sanchez finished the quarter 14-of-17 for 219 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 6 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, the first time this season he has done more than sneak over the goal line for a score.
"I know the numbers say it, but from a coach's standpoint, Mark played a really good football game," said USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, not yet wearing the purple of Washington. The numbers say that Sanchez finished 28-for-35 with 413 yards and four touchdowns. What else is there for a coach to say?
"He made good decisions," Sarkisian said. "He was going to the guys on time. He was able to avoid the rush when he had to, to create plays. When the opportunities were there, he didn't miss many of them. This wasn't an easy game plan for them. We had a lot of stuff in there for them, especially the quarterback. Mark executed it extremely well."
Trojans redshirt sophomore Damian Williams, the Arkansas transfer, caught six passes for 100 yards in the second quarter alone. He described the Penn State secondary as playing "straight vanilla defense."
"They're really sound in what they do, and they're really disciplined," Williams said. " But in the same time, when you're so schooled and so disciplined, it kind of turns into a machine mode."
Sarkisian said a receiver who runs routes against zones as well as Williams does is "a quarterback's best friend." Penn State corners Lydell Sargeant, Tony Davis and A.J. Wallace all gave Williams his space, scared of getting burned. So Williams caught the ball, then burned them by gliding for yards in the open field.
He would finish with 10 catches for 162 yards and one touchdown. It's especially impressive considering that Williams didn't practice until last week to help heal his left shoulder, which he banged up against UCLA.
"I had a whole lot of off time. I just made sure I was in the film room. When you miss practice, it's hard to get a look. I still wasn't quite sure this morning. I had to make sure I took an extra peek, for about 45 minutes."
He didn't see anything new Thursday.
"They really like to run Cover 3 and a lot of zone," said USC wide receiver Patrick Turner (four catches, 74 yards). "I didn't see too much man. They were just backing off, and we have good plays for that. We haven't seen that all year. We love cushion."
So zone didn't work. The Nittany Lions weren't going to play man. That's about it for football. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley could have tried a box-and-one, or bringing his infield to the edge of the grass, or moving his king's pawn two spaces. Any of them might have been worth a shot.
The fact is, USC is better. The Trojans had more talent than the Nittany Lions, and, in the second quarter, they played so well that they forced Penn State into mistakes.
Penalties aren't always an indication of sloppy play. Sometimes, they indicate a difference in talent. A tackler who is a half-step slow finds his hand landing on the face mask instead of the jersey. A pass defender trying to jump on a receiver jumps offside.
Penn State got penalized for both plays in the second quarter. The Nittany Lions incurred five penalties for 52 yards in that period. They had committed only 40 penalties in 12 games.
Then there was the third-and-2 test. With the Trojans leading 17-7 midway through the quarter, quarterback Daryll Clark tried to complete a pass while wearing USC tackle Fili Moala. To Clark's credit, he avoided the sack.
Four plays later, USC had a third-and-2. Sanchez rolled right and found Williams near the sideline for 14 yards. His next two completions went to Williams, too, for 15 and 17 yards.
"It's just that they're mistake-free," Sargeant said, "and Mark did a good job throwing to the receivers that were open and really reading our coverages."
That, basically, was that. You can't play catch-up against USC. The Nittany Lions, to their eternal credit, did not spend the second half wishing the clock would run faster. They closed within two touchdowns and had the ball in the USC red zone in the last minute.
Clark threw for 273 yards, nearly 100 yards more than anyone had against USC all season. But the Nittany Lions had to grind their scoring drives out -- three of the four drives needed at least nine plays.
After Clark drove the Nittany Lions 80 yards in 10 plays to close within 31-14, USC responded by going 82 yards in three plays. Sanchez again rolled right, again drew up the defense, and Ronald Johnson slipped behind everyone to cradle a 45-yard touchdown pass. Game, set, no match at all.
Sarkisian heads north to Seattle. Sanchez will think about going pro, and the Trojans will grit their teeth as they watch Oklahoma and Florida play for the BCS championship. They proved they belong in the same conversation as the Sooners and Gators -- and did so before halftime.
FINISH? Almost before it started.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
2dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna