PASADENA, Calif. – Southern California made a strong case of its own to be No. 1.
JoePa certainly recognized what a talented team the Trojans were — and that was before they beat up Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
Mark Sanchez passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns, USC dominated on defense and the fifth-ranked Trojans defeated the No. 6 Nittany Lions 38-24 Thursday.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno watched from the press box, where he's been for most of the season because of hip problems. He couldn't have liked what he saw — at one point in the first half, the TV camera caught him shaking his head as USC (12-1) rolled to a 31-7 lead.
Out of the BCS championship mix, the Trojans could only wonder what might have been had they not lost at Oregon State 27-21 on Sept. 25.
What was thought to be a weak Pac-10 hurt the Trojans' chances to reach the national championship game in Miami — where Florida and Oklahoma will play next week. But the Pac-10 finished the postseason 5-0.
"With all due respect, those are two great programs, I don't think anybody can beat the Trojans," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "I just think we can beat anyone we played. That's happened a lot to us late in the season. This is a terrific finishing program. There are so many things we can do. We're just hard to beat right now.
"I just wish we could keep playing. Unfortunately, we don't get to. Maybe someday there will be a chance, but not now."
And not soon, either. There's no playoff in sight for major college football.
USC scored four touchdowns and a field goal on five consecutive first-half possessions for its 24-point halftime lead against a team that allowed only 12.4 points per game during the regular season.
With the No. 1 defense in the nation, there was no way the Trojans would blow that kind of lead.
The Trojans' 31 first-half points were the most they've scored in any of their record 33 Rose Bowl games. They spent most of the second half working the clock while their defense held Penn State in check until the fourth quarter.
"The offense was on fire in the first half," Carroll said. "I thought Mark just set the tempo, (wide receiver) Damian Williams came through and the whole line really protected well so we had a chance to really get moving on these guys. We just kept firing on all cylinders, the defense kept giving them the ball back, and the guys just took advantage of it."
The Nittany Lions (11-2) scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to make the final score respectable, but fell far short of their 40.2-point average.
"I don't want to take anything away from Southern Cal, because they played a heck of a football game and their quarterback played a great game," Paterno said. "They certainly deserved to win it, but I'm a little disappointed that we weren't a little bit more competitive. And a lot of that was because we made so many mistakes in the first half."
USC finished with 27 first downs and 474 yards of total offense. Penn State gained 410 yards, almost twice the average the Trojans allowed during the regular season. But it hardly mattered.
Paterno, whose won 383 games, including 23 bowls — both records — said several times in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl that he thought USC was at least as good as any team in the country, perhaps better.
Clearly, the 82-year-old coach knew what he was talking about. The Trojans won 10 straight after losing to Oregon State, outscoring the opposition 380-80.
"I thought that we were playing against the best and I thought we had to play our best to be competitive," Paterno said. "In the first half, we just did the dumb things that we have not done all year. We didn't play our game in the first half, but we came back and we hung in there. So we have nothing to be ashamed of."
The Nittany Lions committed three turnovers and nine penalties for 72 yards.
Sanchez, who completed 28-of-35 passes without being intercepted and finished the season with 3,207 passing yards and 34 touchdown throws, might have played his final game for USC. The strong-armed junior has said he will consider making himself available for the NFL draft. The deadline is Jan. 15.
Sanchez became the third player to pass for more than 400 yards in the Rose Bowl.
Afterward, many in the crowd of 93,293 chanted: "One more year, one more year" to Sanchez.
"That was special," he said.
"We'll go through it and really take our time doing it," Carroll said. "This should not be an emotional decision."
Williams caught a career-high 10 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown and Ronald Johnson caught two TD passes.
Penn State's Daryll Clark completed 21-of-36 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. Evan Royster, who averaged 6.5 yards per carry in gaining 1,202 yards during the regular season, came out with an injured left knee in the first quarter after picking up 34 yards on six carries.
Carroll's Trojans have won seven straight conference championships and played in seven consecutive BCS bowls — both records. They're 6-1 in big games — 5-0 against Big Ten teams such as Penn State — and 82-9 since Carroll's second year on the job, 2002.
They've also won 11 or more games in seven straight seasons — another record.
The Trojans have played in a record-tying four straight Rose Bowls, winning three straight since losing to Texas 41-38 with the national title on the line.
Sanchez was the offensive player of the game and Kaluka Maiava was the top defensive player, becoming the third straight USC linebacker to win that award, following Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga.
It became clear in the first quarter that Penn State's usually dominant defense was vulnerable.
Sanchez threw a 27-yard scoring pass to Williams, capping an 86-yard drive that appeared to be short-circuited early on when Aaron Maybin sacked Sanchez and forced a fumble that Ollie Ogbu recovered at the USC 34. But Maybin, who had 12 sacks during the regular season, was offside.
The Nittany Lions, who were 9 1/2-point underdogs, tied it on a 9-yard run by Clark, capping an 80-yard, nine-play drive.
Maybe the Big Ten would finally hang in there against USC.
Sanchez scored on a 6-yard quarterback draw, completing an 80-yard drive that put USC on top for good.
David Buehler's 30-yard field goal made it 17-7, and Sanchez threw scoring passes of 19 yards to Johnson and 20 yards to C.J. Gable in a 48-second span late in the second period for USC's 24-point halftime lead.
Clark threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Williams early in the fourth quarter, capping an 80-yard drive and trimming USC's lead to 31-14. The Trojans wasted no time in answering, going 82 yards on three plays, the last one a 45-yard scoring pass from Sanchez to a wide-open Johnson with 12:02 left.
If there was going to be any drama on a typically clear and mild evening in Pasadena, that ended it.