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Bill Plaschke | USC-Penn State matchup: a Rose Bowl the way it's meant to be

Bill Plaschke | USC-Penn State matchup: a Rose Bowl the way it's meant to be
Two emerging head coaches in USC’s Clay Helton, left, and Penn State’s James Franklin will meet Monday for the 103rd Rose Bowl. (Mark J. Terrill, Abby Drey / AP)

The awestruck Midwesterners were so enamored with the Rose Parade, they were later caught in traffic and didn't arrive at the stadium until shortly before the scheduled kickoff.

The sophisticated Southern Californians grew so impatient waiting for their opponents, when the rubes finally did arrive, a fight nearly ensued between the head coaches.

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Thus the 1923 Rose Bowl between Penn State and USC began angrily, controversially, and an entire hour late.

Ninety-four years later, the same matchup has returned splendidly, sentimentally, and right on time.

The 103rd Rose Bowl featuring the brutes of the Big Ten Conference against the ballet of the Pac-12 Conference is a welcome restoration of an ageless tradition, a glittering heirloom of a football game whose arrival Monday afternoon can be described in two words.

Whoa. Nellie.

Of all the sports gifts this holiday season, this one given by Granddaddy is the greatest, a rich antique wrapped in shiny new paper, two dusty college football history books cleaned up and carefully opened for a nation to peruse underneath a billowy Pasadena sky.

It's legendary Penn State versus legendary USC and, yeah, it's darn near perfect.

Their first Rose Bowl meeting was that 1923 game that was also the first Rose Bowl Game to be played in the actual Rose Bowl stadium. The winner was USC, by a score of 14-3. The biggest losers were the Pasadena residents whose front lawns were flattened by taxis looking for shortcuts while attempting to transport the tardy Penn State players around traffic to the game.

Their most recent Rose Bowl meeting, in 2009, was equally noteworthy, as it was the last bit of glory for either program before they were placed on NCAA probation. USC won the game, 38-24, but eventually lost Coach Pete Carroll and several years of relevancy for giving improper benefits to star Reggie Bush and his family. Penn State lost far more than that, surrendering its soul to the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal before recently rebuilding under new leadership, and, hopefully, new accountability.

Eight years later they meet again, two renewed programs, two emerging head coaches in USC's Clay Helton and Penn State's James Franklin, and two greatly respected seasons, with each team riding long winning streaks while each earning a victory over one of the national semifinalists.

USC beat Washington. Penn State beat Ohio State. They're good. They're current. They're cool. But don't be fooled. The beauty of this game will be old school. As much as their narratives have been pushed forward, this will feel like three hours of throwback.

The Rose Bowl will be serving as a national playoff site in future years, but not this year. Grandaddy had a unique chance to unearth a couple of shadowed legacies, and he got it right.

"To be part of history in such a special game, The Grandaddy of Them All, and to play an unbelievable team in Penn State, it just feels like all the stars are aligned,'' said USC's Helton, whose program has won a record 24 Rose Bowl games.

Both teams will wear the same simply colored uniforms they have worn for years. Both teams will continue their increasingly unique tradition of not putting the players' names on the back of their jerseys.

The Rose Bowl, shown in 2001, is the only college football bowl game played on an ever-changing postcard.
The Rose Bowl, shown in 2001, is the only college football bowl game played on an ever-changing postcard. (Courtesy of Pasadena Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Penn State players will wear white helmets and black shoes. USC players will wag two fingers in the air and sing a fight song that was composed in 1922.

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The Penn State fans will be the ones clad in blue T-shirts and shorts, bathing in the predicted 52-degree Pasadena weather as if they were sitting in a beach chair. The USC fans will be the ones huddled up in cardinal-and-gold sweaters as if expecting snow.

It will be traditional Midwest versus West Coast, exactly the way the game was intended from the moment it was first played, in 1902, when those hearty visitors from Michigan beat those hotshots from Stanford so bad that Stanford walked off the field in the third quarter of a 49-0 defeat.

Since then, teams from what is now the Pac-12 have played Big Ten teams 65 times, with the Pac-12 holding a 35-30 edge, but it feels a lot closer than that.

From 1946 to 1997, a 52-year stretch when the Rose Bowl was contracted to only invite teams from the Big Ten and Pac-10, each conference won 26 games.

"When you talk about the history and the pedigree of this game, I think that everybody understands it,'' USC tackle Zach Banner said. "When we first heard about the Rose Bowl, everyone was ecstatic, and it's amazing. It's amazing to be here.''

There was more publicity surrounding the College Football Playoff semifinals, the television ratings for the zillion other bowl games have been strong, but truly, once again, the Rose Bowl will be more amazing than all of them.

It will be the only game played on an ever-changing postcard. When it begins, the San Gabriel Mountains will be brown and white. By the final quarter, they will turn purple.

It will be the only game played at the end of a parade, as if it's the final Rose-covered float.

It will be the only game officially run not by a referee and his officials, but a queen and her court and a bunch of folks wearing slick white suits.

When it ends, it will be the only game after which players from both teams will weep. Ask anyone who has stood on the sidelines for the final gun. Tears are everywhere. It happens every year here. Players aren't celebrating or grieving but simply overcome with the emotion of spending three hours in this nation's most regal football game.

"This is a game and a bowl that players and coaches grow up dreaming about,'' Penn State's Franklin said.

Perhaps the only players who are more emotional about playing in the Rose Bowl are the ones who are denied that chance.

Tyron Smith is the star tackle for the Dallas Cowboys. In a couple of weeks he could be headed for the Super Bowl. But this fall, during phone conversations with Banner, he could only talk about missing the Rose Bowl in his three seasons as a Trojan.

"He said, 'I never got to play in one,''' Banner recalled. "He always dreamed about playing in one and always dreamed about being around that atmosphere and he was like, 'take advantage of it and have fun.'''

Such is the mandate for everyone lucky enough to score tickets to Monday afternoon's game. Immerse yourself in Southern California's birthright. Marvel at our town's ancient gem.

And, please, in proving that one can learn from history, get there early.

Get more of Bill Plaschke's work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke

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