LOS ANGELES - Rey Maualuga is a beast, a 6-2, 248-pound linebacker who chews up quarterbacks and running backs for snacks.

Earlier this season a national publication called Maualuga the scariest player in college football, a title the Southern Cal senior embraces.

"I don't want to sound too weird, but I enjoyed it," he said. "I enjoyed the fact they called me that. It felt good people thought of me that way."

Maualuga has been the driving force behind a top-ranked defense that has carried the fifth-ranked Trojans (11-1) to their Rose Bowl berth against sixth-ranked Penn State (11-1) at 5 p.m. on New Year's Day (TV-ABC; WRAW-AM/1340).

With his punishing tackles and his surprising speed, he has intimidated USC opponents the last three years. But the same guy who strikes fear in opponents and gives coaches nightmares was terrified himself when his father became stricken with cancer.

Talatonu Maualuga was close to his three sons, including Rey, the middle child. Born in Samoa, Talatonu moved to the United States, eventually settled in California and became a Pentecostal minister.

"We went to church every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday," Rey recalled. "My dad was appointed a pastor in Eureka (Calif.), where we live now. You can imagine what it was like growing up (in a minister's house), with the perfect haircut, the Christian look.

"There were no earrings. There was none of that wearing baggy pants and showing your underwear. You got discipline in order to become a better young man. We were so close."

Talatonu pushed his son to play football and attended Rey's Pop Warner and high school games. He was there when Rey traveled to summer camps and visited colleges, offering advice and encouragement.