One thing Penn State does better, or certainly more often and more when it matters, is heave the ball deep down the field. ll you have to do is check out their come-from-behind 38-31 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
"They take shots," USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said after Wednesday's practice. "They've got playmakers. And their quarterback [Trace McSorley] makes good throws."
"When you can trust your buds to go up and get those 50-50 balls, that's what you do," USC corner Iman Marshall said. "And they came down with them."
"That's why we work twice a week playing the ball in the air," Clancy said although his emphasis this week is on his own team -- perfecting USC's techniques and fundamentals more than anything.
It's paid off in an eight-game win streak, says USC secondary coach Ronnie Bradford. "We started doing the little things right and the little things took care of themselves."
"We do those before every practice," Iman said of playing the ball in the air. This game, USC had better come down with the 50-50 balls. But that's not all.
On this day when the defense was available to the media, Clay talked about the other aspect of Penn State's offense that USC was paying attention to -- also McSorley-related. "We're trying to keep Trace in the pocket," Clay said, because he sees the field so well on the run and likes to throw it deep "to those big receivers," USC must do two things.
Not let him get outside and not allow him clean line-of-sight throwing lanes. It helps the way outside linebackers Uchenna Nwosu and Porter Gustin are playing after a season-high six-sack performance against Notre Dame for the USC defense.
"How much they've grown as pass-rushers," Clay said were his first thoughts about the pair, "how much they controlled the edge against Notre Dame."
For the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Gustin, he likes the way the pair are working together. "It's great to hold down the edges with him [Uchenna]. If it goes the other way, you know he's going to make the play."
Tying the whole defensive thing together, as he so often has been able to do in his final season, inside linebacker Michael Hutchings talked about how this is "definitely a great way to go out -- in the Rose Bowl." And it's not going to be easy.
"They're explosive, although it's not like we haven't seen that kind of offense," Michael said. "They have a great quarterback-running back combination."
And USC has been able to do some taking away of other team's strengths on offense and must do once more, Hutchings said. Because getting to the Rose Bowl isn't really enough for this USC team's finishing comeback. Getting the W is what it will take.
"I think that's huge," Michael said, "a win here would prove that everything we've done [in the turnaround] was what people said it was."
Making it 'special'
So, John Baxter, how do you get your kickoff coverage guys to bust their butts on nine straight kickoffs the way they did Tuesday, when Matt Boermeester kicks every one of them not just into, not just through but out of the end zone?
"He's a lot better player, isn't he?" Baxter responds first, noting that a) Boermeester is a lot better, and b) even if he's a kicker, he's a "player." But then back to the issue at hand. How do you keep them covering hard when the ball, kick after kick, is out of the end zone?
"They're not allowed to think like that," special teams coordinator Baxter says. "They're not allowed to look at the ball." Not that it matters on the kickoff return work. There's always a return man with a ball in his hands. "But we don't look at the ball. Our coverage is built on beating the blocks."
That's why, he says, you'll see him and Clay running behind the kickoff cover guys yelling at them to "run the angles and beat the blocks . . . if you read the blocks properly, they'll lead you to the ball-carrier anyway," even if you don't know exactly where the football is.
For Penn State, Baxter says they have four basic kickoff returns and even though they have time to add anew wrinkle, the principle holds: Beat the blocker, you'll make the play.
Unless, of course, the ball is up in the stands. Then you can still make the play if you bet the block even if there's no runback. So that's what they're doing.
Missing the rain, USC took no chances heading across the street to the artificial turf of Cromwell Field Wednesday . . . Good call. The rain stayed away and everybody kept their footing and no damage done to the grass on Howard Jones Field . . . Players in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets as is customary on Wednesdays . . . Trojans back at it at 9:50 a.m. Thursday and then they're off for Christmas until Monday evening when they'll meet and head for the team hotel -- and Disneyland -- Tuesday along with Penn State . . . Adoree' Jackson said he's heard from a whole lot of people since his three-touchdown game against Notre Dame and the awards that came with it but he's really not looking back even though some people can't let than Notre Dame game go. "I'm not thinking about Notre Dame," he said, "we're in the Rose Bowl." And for Adoree', being in one of just two or three games in a day instead of "one of hundreds," he says, is fine by him although if you ask, he'll tell you he "should have had four, I dropped that pass," so now he gets another chance 'for people to see what you're capable of" . . . Khaliel Rodgers still out on concussion protocol Clay said . . . No other injuries to report . . . Biggie Marshall on his corner back partner next season, Jack Jones: "I'm excited to be playing with him next year," Iman said -- if Adoree' doesn't return, that is, and maybe even if he does . . . For more play-by-play from Wednesday's practice, go to WEDNESDAY WEEK 2 ROSE BOWL PREP GHOST NOTES.
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