No better lesson for USC's Trojans about how to finish the season than the one they got last December -- the hard way.
How a tough-minded Big Ten team that believes in what it's doing and is willing and able to punch you in the mouth can make your life miserable -- and your season finale a night you'd like to forget,
So as the USC players finish up finals and work out in smaller groups with the coaches not out recruiting this week before coming back for three solid game weeks of Rose Bowl practice next week, here's a list of what we'd like to see happen here.
1) FIGURE OUT THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK: With Max Browne moving on, this is one of those deals where it may not matter at all -- but you have to get it right. You have to prepare like it might matter and make sure it's not a distraction or a place where there's any indecision. Something could happen to Sam Darnold. It could happen today, next week, Jan. 1 or in the first quarter Jan. 2. Do you have two plans -- one with Matt Fink if there are weeks to adjust and you're willing to take off his redshirt and another if it happens during the game? Or is Jalen Greene the run-pass RPO guy no matter what with an adjusted offense? Or is it a combo deal for both of them? If we have these questions, so will the players. Make them go away with the way you prepare. And should something happen in the game, your guys are ready to handle it knowing they've prepared for it and how it can be an edge, for example, since Penn State can't possibly be ready for someone other than Sam. We're inclined to say make it Jalen, go hard with his athleticism and game-readiness, and don't go back and forth. And never forget, Ohio State won a national title a couple of years back with two backup quarterbacks. It's not impossible. Creating a can-do mindset is what bowl prep is all about.
2) GET PHYSICAL/STAY PHYSICAL: Again, with last year's Holiday Bowl still ringing in their ears, these Trojans know what happens when you fail to prepare to play physical, tough-minded football. You get pummeled. It's embarrassing. It happened against Alabama and a little bit again against Stanford in September. But not recently. USC was the more physical team against Colorado, Washington, UCLA and maybe just a bit -- if you count special teams speed -- against Notre Dame. It must be against a Penn State team that just keeps coming back and fighting, especially in second halves. You can't wish away a team like that, you have to whip them. That's the challenge the next three weeks as "No-pants November" gets extended through December into January and it's something this team has gotten pretty good at. During the season, teams get the chance to show and reinforce their physicality every week in games and USC has done that. Now it will be more than five weeks between big hits for this Trojans team. Getting the mix right in practice will be a key here, especially the way the O-line and D-line keep getting after one another and the tackling has to get up to game-speed and precision. Here's where the team leaders -- JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree' Jackson, Michael Hutchings, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Justin Davis, Taylor McNamara, Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler -- matter so much. For so many reasons, this is their game. And it's their three weeks of practice as well.
3) KEEP PLAYING FAST: On both sides of the ball and as it has in the eight-game win streak, USC must play faster than Penn State can play. That's the challenge of the next three weeks. Get faster every day. Don't just get up to speed, get speedier. The schedule helps here. USC has had to play fast and when it didn't, it paid the price. When we say fast, we're assuming error-free. With precision. And certainty. But speed has been the historic edge for West Coast teams in the Rose Bowl. It's just harder coming from the bad-weather states to get there. And we're not talking just this month or this season. It's the way things are. Quarterbacks and wide receivers have an edge here from pee wee football on up playing wide-open 12 months a year out here. Sam is pretty much the prototype, doing what he does so well. Quick feet, quick arm, quick decision-making. A Pac-12 team must play with a speed edge against the Big Ten. Last year's sluggish USC performance in San Diego made that clear. The indecisive, slowed-down Trojans served as Wisconsin tackling dummies. You cannot stand around and wait for them. You have to get the edge -- literally and figuratively. Competitive practices are the key. It's why Pete Carroll's teams were almost always significantly better in their bowl games than in the final regular season games. They competed like crazy -- because it was so much fun -- in practice. It's just what they did. This team looks like it's getting there. But it can't slow down now.
4) EXPAND THE BASE: One way to get fast and physical and competitive is to incorporate all the new or late-arriving guys who were clearly not ready for this in September [although they weren't the only ones] -- Michael Pittman, Connor Murphy, Oluwole Betiku, Christian Rector, Jacob Daniel, Josh Fatu, Jordan Iosefa, Ajene Harris and Jack Jones to mention a few -- and now have a season of experience under their belts Add to the mix the entire redshirt group, many of whom will have to step up this spring, and you have the makings for three weeks of highly competitive prep work. This is their big chance. Give the coaches something to remember them by going into the spring and next August. And for some of them, going into Jan. 2. This coaching staff clearly lets the players make the decisions for them the way they produce in practice.
5) GET THE GAME PLAN CLEAR: As much as practice and personnel matters, getting the game plan down, figuring out all the edges on both sides of the ball -- and on special teams -- against Penn State is obviously critical. And since September, and since Sam, the game plans have seemed to fit. On defense, what Clancy Pendergast has decided to take away from an opponent, he seems to have been able to do in ways his players have been able to execute and in ways Clancy has been able to install. How he chooses to go after Penn State will be interesting to see. Does he go after 6-foot quarterback Trace McSorley and his scrambling pass/run game or explosive tailback Saquon Barkley -- Penn State's two All-Big Ten players? And how many defenders does he go after them with? Or does he replicate the Washington game and try to do both? And what are the edges for the USC offense? Can Penn State match up sideline to sideline against the Trojan athletes all over the field? Can they get to Sam when no one else has? And if they can't, where does that leave them -- and where does it leave USC? Does Clay Helton give Tee Martin a chance to dial up a number of plays for Adoree' in what could be AJ's Trojan swan song if PSU's James Franklin makes the logical decision -- as so many have -- not to kick to him? Just looking at the matchups on paper, the edge would seem to go to USC. but that's on paper. Penn State has played against the paper since September just the way USC has. But a great game plan everyone believes in on every side of the ball, including John Baxter's special teams, could give this Trojans team the kind of clear-eyed edge it did not have the last Holiday season..
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