LOS ANGELES - From the sounds of Tuesday's press conference at the Downtown Marriott, brace yourself for a low-scoring Rose Bowl.
Southern Cal brings the nation's best defense to the game, and when he was asked to compare the Trojans' unit to the most formidable ones he's seen, Joe Paterno quickly mentioned the 1978 Alabama and '86 Miami teams.
''We played a great defensive game against Alabama for the national championship in '78, and [former Tennessee and Pitt coach] John Majors told me later that was the greatest defensive game he ever saw,'' JoePa said. ''When we played Miami in '86, I don't think Miami got the credit as a defensive team they deserved.''
Then he added, ''and that's where USC is.''
Penn State lost to Alabama 14-7 in the '79 Sugar Bowl - still the biggest disappointment of JoePa's career - and beat Miami 14-10 for the '87 national title in the Fiesta Bowl.
For Paterno to reference those two games likely means he has no intention of trying to win this Rose Bowl 35-34 - probably because he knows that's not possible.
His players have already gotten the message.
''We've stressed the importance of not turning it over,'' senior receiver Deon Butler said. ''Obviously, it's going to be a defensive struggle. Both our defense and theirs don't give up big plays. It's going to be methodical, where we try to keep the ball and not turn it over.''
Enter Exhibit A - Penn State's 13-6 win over Ohio State.
''We've been in positions like this before when field position plays a major part in the game,'' Butler said. ''We're ready to score points, but we also know there are situations when a punt is not a bad thing.''
Penn State, rightfully so, has also put an emphasis on ball protection. This team particularly quarterback Daryll Clark, has been too loose with the football. It's not close to the school-record 40 fumbles by the 1965 team - Rip Engle's last year - but 23 in 12 games were too many.
Clark, himself with 10 fumbles, said JoePa has warned him to avoid sacks and get rid of the ball quickly. The entire offense has been instructed not to put the defense in bad field position and create short fields because the coaching staff knows it's going to be tough enough to sustain drives.
''Coach Paterno and our staff know exactly what they want to do,'' Butler said.
The defense, though, is not shifting the burden.
''We're going to try our best to keep points off the board,'' defensive tackle Jared Odrick said. ''But I believe in my teammates on offense just as much if not more [as the defense].''
Back to the Alabama and Miami comparisons. The '86 offense was built around ball control and springing D.J. Dozier. The '78 offense, led by Chuck Fusina, pretty much ate up an inferior schedule and was ultimately exposed by Alabama's superior speed.
Both PSU defenses - in '78 and '86 - among the best in school history.
Penn State today is capable of more offensively than either of those predecessors, but then again, Southern Cal's defense may be, too.
''USC is one of the best five teams in the country, no doubt,'' Paterno said. ''They might be the best team in the country.''
Which is why it sounds like Penn State plans to try to win this one the best way it knows how - with its defense and kicking game.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.