— PASADENA, Calif. - It's unfortunate, USC's 38-24 beat-down Thursday of Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
Unfortunate, because that's it this season for USC.
We won't have the chance to see how the Trojans would do against Oklahoma, Florida, whoever, in a legitimate national championship game.
This USC team deserves better.
So does Pete Carroll, the USC coach.
So do all of us who appreciate sustained excellence. Because what Carroll has done since taking over at USC in 2001 is to instill a culture that is committed to the pursuit of such excellence, a culture rooted in competitiveness and challenge.
"I don't think anybody can beat us," Carroll said after the game, adding, "I just wish we could keep playing."
It is an extraordinary thing to witness, week in and week out over these years, and this 2009 Rose Bowl further cements Carroll's legacy as one of the greatest college football coaches in history.
And, arguably, the best there is now in the entire country.
Not to say there aren't other first-rate coaches. Florida's Urban Meyer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Nick Saban of Alabama and others — among them, obviously, the granddaddy of them all, Penn State's Joe Paterno — have what it takes.
But what USC did Thursday in dismantling Penn State — USC was ahead 31-7 at the half — underscores the advantage every Carroll team since 2002 has made plain.
It's not that USC has great athletes; of course it does.
It's that USC is — almost always — mentally tough.
Not to say that the Trojans can't, and don't, falter — this year, for instance, at Oregon State, the one loss keeping USC out of this year's national championship game.
Excellence is not the same as perfection, however. And as he has done following a loss in recent seasons, Carroll got the Trojans back to the Rose Bowl where — predictably — some poor Big Ten team took a pounding. Two years ago, Michigan. Last year, Illinois. This year, Penn State. The victory Thursday gave USC its fourth 12-win season in the last six years.
"Any athlete or coach would love to say that your team finishes well." Carroll had said earlier in the week, adding a moment later, "You bring your best at the end when it is most meaningful. We take great pride in that and that has become a character of the program."
The 2009 Rose Bowl had, beforehand, shaped up to any neutral observer as a thorough mismatch. Thus sportswriters near and far did their best to drum up tension by asking: would the Trojans show up?
That is, would the Trojans — with a decided advantage in size, speed and talent — turn out to be bummed about not making the national title game and play down to Penn State?
Or would USC bring the hammer?
Truly, there should not have been any doubt.
Penn State hadn't given up more than 24 points this year. USC had 31 by half. Those 31? The most first-half points for any USC team in 33 Rose Bowls.
Carroll is such a motivator that U.S. Olympic swimming officials called him to address the team last summer in Palo Alto, Calif., before departure for the 2008 Olympics — where the likes of Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin and Dara Torres showed the world what sustained excellence looks like.
As the USC players sprinted Thursday onto the sun-dappled Rose Bowl field, safety Will Harris grabbed one of the oversized USC flags that the cheerleaders typically carry and sprinted all the way to the north end zone, then planted it with gusto on the "P" in the blue-and-white "Penn State" stenciled in the north end zone.
After USC went up 17-7 in the second quarter, a group of USC players engaged in a spirited sideline dance.
With just 36 seconds to go before half, USC scored again, to make the halftime lead 24 points. Between that point after and the ensuring kickoff, virtually the entire USC team came out to the 20-yard line and danced.
All of that emotion was deliberately stoked and encouraged, Carroll said afterward, explaining that the 2009 Rose Bowl was "such a big deal" because it was "what we had in front of us — and we were going to do everything we could to make it as fun and [bring as] passionate an effort as we could possibly muster.
"And that's what you saw."
"Hey, Coach Carroll could get us pumped up to eat a hot dog," another USC safety, Taylor Mays, had said a couple days before the game.
Carroll swept aside potential distractions such as the after-the-game departure of Steve Sarkisian, USC's offensive coordinator, the new head coach at Pac-10 rival Washington.
Standout running back Joe McKnight, who played a starring role in the 2008 Rose Bowl against Illinois, went off in the first half, hurt. Others stepped up: USC quarterback Mark Sanchez completed 28 of 35 passes for 413 yards, second highest in Rose Bowl history. Receiver Damian Williams caught 10 passes for 162 yards.
Carroll had insisted all along his team would be ready. "We're playing on January 1st and thrilled to be doing it," he had said, adding, "So I don't have any frustration at all. Our team doesn't have any frustration at all."
He also said, "We get a great match-up and a great game, and who is to say who is the best team?"
No matter the Florida-Oklahoma outcome, it's hard to argue against USC.
During the regular season, USC ranked first nationally in total defense and scoring defense, among other categories, giving up only 206.1 yards and a mere 7.8 points per game.
Some of the other numbers from USC's 2008 season were similarly outrageous:
"Southern Cal deserved to win it," Paterno said after the game. "They played better than we did. They're an awfully fine football team.
"… You know, we got licked."
No doubt about it.
And no doubt about this, either: Carroll is the better coach.