The granddaddy of them all could be a grand blowout.
Unbeaten Penn State, a national title contender with an offense that seems unstoppable, faces Oregon, a team that lost to Hawaii by 20 points early this season before staging one of college football’s more remarkable turnarounds.
Oddsmakers installed No. 2 Penn State a 17- to 18-point favorite for today’s Rose Bowl game. Others predict it will be much worse.
“It’s definitely a slap in the face,” Oregon quarterback Danny O’Neil said.
Not that a lack of respect is unusual for the Ducks, who are making their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1958.
“We were born an underdog,” Oregon coach Rich Brooks said. “That’s our role. Maybe if we play Penn State a good football game in the Rose Bowl, win, lose or draw but play well, maybe that will change people’s perception a little bit about Oregon’s role or place in the upper echelon … “
The 12th-ranked Ducks (9-3) were picked to finish ninth or 10th in the Pacific-10 Conference.
“If you’d have taken five dollars to Vegas and bet on Oregon being in the Rose Bowl, you’d be a wealthy man,” Brooks said.
But after a 1-2 start, the Ducks won eight of their next nine and their last six in a row.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno and his players have been trying to convince people all week that Oregon is a tough opponent.
“They’re a good team,” KiJana Carter said. “I don’t care where they come from. They can play with anybody. Anybody who thinks they’re not a good team needs to watch the Southern Cal game.”
That 22-7 upset of the Trojans in Los Angeles was accomplished even though Oregon was without O’Neil, tailback Ricky Whittle and cornerback Herman O’Berry, all first-team allconference selections.
But is it realistic to expect Oregon’s “Gang Green” defense, which ranks 12th in the country against the run and 14th in pass efficiency defense, to slow down the Penn State juggernaut that averaged 47.8 points and 520 yards per game?
The Ducks aren’t big, relying on speed, swarm tackling, unpredictable blitzing and a fast, talented secondary that often is left to defend receivers one-on-one.
“We haven’t played a more aggressive defense,” Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins said. “They can make you look pretty bad when they blitz.”
Collins has rarely felt any pressure this season. He’s been sacked only three times all year.
“It clearly is the best line we’ve faced,” Brooks said, “and the best tailback, best quarterback, best receivers.”
Oregon’s hope is that it can prevent the Lions from blowing open an early lead, somehow hold them well below their scoring average, and move the ball consistently against a Penn State defense that gave up 21 points and 383 yards per game but is bolstered by the return of several injured players.
“It is not going to be easy for our offense to move the ball on them, but it’s something we’re going to have to do,” Brooks said. “We’re not going to win this game if we score 14 or 17 points. We’re going to have to be in the high 20s or low 30s, in my mind, to have an opportunity to win.”
Collins, who threw for 2,679 yards this season while completing 67 percent of his passes, will be playing his final game for Penn State. Carter, a junior who rushed for 1,539 yards, says he may skip his final year of eligibility to go to the NFL.
With a victory, Paterno would pass Bear Bryant as the leading winner of bowl games with 16. He also would be the first to coach a team to victories in the Orange, Cotton, Sugar and Rose bowls.
O’Neil comes into the game on a hot streak as he ends a rollercoaster career at Oregon, where he was booed when the team failed and cheered in the final six games.
He threw five interceptions in early losses to Hawaii and Utah, then threw only two more the rest of the year. He was not intercepted in his last four games.
Paterno doesn’t buy the role of overwhelming favorite, warning that his team was an underdog in last year’s Citrus Bowl but upset Tennessee 31-13. He said he thinks his players have been around long enough to know not to believe what they read about a mismatch.
“I think you’ve got a heck of a football game on your hands,” Paterno told a crowded news conference Saturday.
It was a tough sell.
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