The Trojans will be making their fourth straight appearance and record 34th overall in college football's oldest bowl game, known as the Grandaddy of Them All, an especially appropriate moniker this time around considering legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno turns 82 in two weeks.
The teams met in 1923 in the ninth Rose Bowl, with USC beating Penn State 14-3, one of the Trojans' record 23 wins in the game. The Nittany Lions evened their Rose Bowl record 14 years ago under Paterno, beating Oregon 38-20.
Both teams have 11-1 records, and both realize they were just an upset loss away from playing in the BCS championship game Jan. 8. Pac-10 champion USC dropped a 27-21 decision at Oregon State on Sept. 25, and Big Ten winner Penn State fell 24-23 at Iowa on Nov. 8, losing on Daniel Murray's 31-yard field goal with 1 second to play.
Big 12 winner Oklahoma and SEC champion Florida, another pair of one-loss teams, will meet for the national title because they played more difficult schedules than the Nittany Lions and Trojans. "All year, for whatever reason, the loss we had hung on us," Trojans coach Pete Carroll said of the setback at Oregon State. "It didn't seem that the opinion of that loss ever changed."
That's because the Big 12 and SEC were considered much stronger than the Pac-10, and the Big Ten as well. Oregon State was the only team USC and Penn State both played this season, with the Nittany Lions routing the visiting Beavers 45-14 on Sept. 6.
Paterno enters the Rose Bowl with a 383-126-3 record including a 23-10-1 bowl mark since becoming the Penn State coach in 1966. Paterno's 383 wins, 34 bowl appearances and 23 bowl wins are all records.
Paterno, hobbled by a bad hip, coached the last seven games from the press box. He had hip replacement surgery Nov. 23 - a day after the Nittany Lions completed the regular season with a 49-18 victory over Penn State. He hasn't made a public appearance since that time.
Paterno's contract expires after this season, but he said following the Michigan State game he would return for a 44th season next year.
"I'm planning on coming back, yeah," Paterno said. "I never planned otherwise. Everyone's making a big deal that I don't have a contract signed. I've never even asked to do that." No agreement has been announced.
Carroll doesn't have the same kind of long-term success as Paterno, but his accomplishments at USC the past seven years compare favorably with what any coach or school has been able to do during a similar time period. The Trojans have won or shared the Pac-10 championship, won at least 11 games, and played in a BCS bowl in every season since 2002, going 81-9 during that time.
Defense is the strength of both teams. USC led the country in total defense (206.0 yards) and scoring defense (7.75 points), while Penn State was fifth in total defense (263.9 yards) and fourth in scoring defense (12.4 points).
The offenses were pretty good as well, with the Nittany Lions averaging 40.2 points and the Trojans close behind at 37.5 points. Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark passed for 2,319 yards and 17 touchdowns this season while USC's Mark Sanchez threw for 2,794 yards and 30 TDs.