While they are having all that fun on the California beaches this week, the Penn State Nittany Lions will convince themselves it’s a terrific reward for a fantastic football season.
But it’s not what they were looking for.
The Nittany Lions would much rather be in Miami for the New Year, preparing to play for the national championship next week.
Instead, they are basking in the California sun, getting ready to meet USC in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Not a bad consolation prize. But to a Penn State team that spent a whole season breaking huddles with the cry of “national championship,” a trip to the Rose Bowl looks like a letdown.
“It’s tough,” Penn State senior safety and captain Anthony Scirrotto said. “But if we didn’t lose that one game, we’d probably be in (the national title game) right now.”
That one loss, by one point in the final seconds, came at Iowa on Nov. 8. It knocked Penn State from No. 3 in the college football national rankings all the way down to No. 8, where the Lions have been ever since.
They could rise again. The Lions have a chance to wind up as high as No. 3 in the final polls, if they beat a good USC team and if a handful of teams ahead of them suffer major bowl upsets. But there is no chance for the Lions to wind up on top of college football this year.
That was their main goal all along.
“In my eyes, it was always the national championship,” said Penn State defensive end Josh Gaines, another team captain.
They have nothing against the Rose Bowl.
In fact, most Penn State players expressed excitement about a trip to the glitzy Los Angeles area at this time of year. A lot of them had never been to the West Coast before their plane arrived in California this weekend.
“You don’t realize all the rituals that go along with it,” said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who guided the Lions to a perfect 1994 season by winning the Rose Bowl and described the trip as “exotic.”
But despite the fulfillment playing in the Rose Bowl can bring, not even a victory over heavily-favored USC will remove the emptiness that’s sure to remain with a Penn State team that takes an 11-1 record into Thursday’s game.
“I think we have just as good a chance for the national title as any other one-loss team,” said Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, alluding to the fact that both Oklahoma and Florida take one loss into the BCS Championship game. “But we’re not there. I think the whole team’s going to have a chip on its shoulder.”
That likely won’t get knocked off by a victory over highly-touted and traditionally successful USC.
Usually, a Rose Bowl berth would thrill Penn State fans, who haven’t cheered for a Big Ten title team since 2005.
Not after a 9-0 start ballooned hopes that were deflated by Iowa.
“This is a game that we’re meant to play in,” Scirrotto kept saying about the Rose Bowl, as if the more he repeated it, the more convincing it would sound. “And we’re going to play in it.
“This is our national championship.”
But it won’t be the real national championship. It is only a substitute for a game in a different warm-weather state, where plenty of sun looks like a lot more fun.