The Trojans and Nittany Lions – whose 2016 campaigns have been near-mirror images – kick off 2017 in an unexpected Pasadena pairing.
Capping a pair of stunning turnarounds, the No. 9 USC Trojans (9-3, 7-2 in the Pac-12) face the fifth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions (11-2, 8-1 in the Big Ten) in the 103rd Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual on Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, at 2 p.m. PST in Pasadena and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. This is the 10th meeting between the storied programs, with USC holding a 5-4 edge. It’s the first meeting since the 2009 Rose Bowl (a 38-24 Trojan victory) and the schools’ fourth all-time New Years Six bowl matchup – including the first-ever Rose Bowl held in the current stadium (1923), a 14-3 USC win, and the 1982 Fiesta Bowl, a 26-10 Penn State triumph.
Monday’s tilt marks the Trojans’ 34th Rose Bowl appearance – that’s nearly one-third of the Rose Bowl Games ever played. USC holds a 24-9 overall record in The Granddaddy of Them All, including wins in six of its past seven appearances (dating to 1990). The Trojans’ overall bowl record is 34-18, the second-most bowl wins in college football history (Alabama, 36). The Nittany Lions are appearing in their 47th bowl (ninth nationally), and hold a record of 28-16-2 in postseason contests. Those 28 bowl wins rank Penn State fourth nationally. The Lions are 1-2 in the Rose Bowl – a 38-20 victory over Oregon in the 1995 game is sandwiched between the aforementioned 1923 and 2009 losses to USC. Both teams lost in their 2015 postseason appearances: USC, 23-21, to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl; and Penn State, 24-17, to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
On Nov. 26, Thorpe Award-winner Adoree’ Jackson scored on a 55-yard punt return, a 52-yard pass reception, and a 97-yard kickoff return in then-No. 12 USC’s 45-27 whipping of Notre Dame at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Ronald Jones II added 134 yards rushing on 16 carries (including a 51-yard TD) while the USC defense forced two turnovers and held the Irish to 80 rushing yards in the game’s final 55 minutes (after a first-play burst for 74 yards by Notre Dame running back Josh Adams). Meanwhile, on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis, then-No. 7 Penn State stormed back from a 28-7 second-quarter deficit to stun then-No. 6 Wisconsin, 38-31, in the Big Ten Championship Game. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 384 yards and four TDs, including a pair of deep balls to since-suspended receiver Saeed Blacknall that got the Nittany Lions back within striking distance.
Under Coach Clay Helton (15-7 in parts of three seasons), the Trojans have rolled off eight consecutive victories (the school’s longest winning streak since USC won 12 straight in 2008-09) following a 1-3 September. He’s got company in the “hot seat to hot team” category in this matchup: third-year Penn State headman James Franklin (49-29 in six seasons as a college head coach; 25-14 at Penn State) was feeling a bit uncomfortable at the end of September, as well, with the Lions sitting at 2-2, including a 42-39 loss at rival Pitt and a 49-10 drubbing at Michigan. All Penn State’s done since is win – nine in a row, to be exact, including a 24-21 home victory over then-No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 22.
Penn State Offense
First-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead – he served as head coach at Fordham from 2012-15, with stints as an OC at Connecticut and Akron before that – arrived with question marks at quarterback and on an offensive line that had been, to be kind, horrific. Departed quarterback Christian Hackenberg took the brunt of the Lions’ 83 sacks allowed in 2014-15. Penn State’s growth on offense mirrors McSorley’s – as well as the play of an offensive line that’s battled injuries. The Lions rank fourth in the Big Ten in total offense (430.1 yards per game, No. 52 nationally), and third in scoring (36.7 points per game, No. 22 nationally). Though he’s only completed 57.5 percent of his passes, McSorley’s big-play prowess allows the Lions to rank 14th nationally (No. 1 Big Ten) in passing efficiency. He leads the Big Ten in passing yards (3,360, No. 14 nationally) and passing TDs (25), while completing 61 passes of 20 yards or longer. Unsurprisingly, he leads the nation in passing yards per completion (16.3). And he’s done all of this while throwing just five picks. He’s also an effective runner, with 352 rushing yards and six rushing TDs, which helps Penn State’s O-line: McSorley was sacked 11 times in the season’s first four games, but just 12 times in the past nine.
Junior Chris Godwin is McSorley’s favorite target – averaging 15.9 yards on 50 grabs with nine touchdowns. Classmate DaeSean Hamilton (34 catches, 14.9, one score) is effective both in the slot and outside, while sophomore DeAndre Thompkins (25 catches, 17.2, one TD) filled in for Blacknall (15 grabs, 23.1, three scores) after an early season injury and continued to perform well upon his return. However, the loss of Blacknall to suspension for Monday isn’t minor after his record-setting (155 yards) performance in the Big Ten title tilt. Six-foot-six junior tight end Mike Gesicki (47 catches, 14.2, four TDs) is one of the best the Trojans have seen this season.
Sophomore running back Saquon Barkley is an All-American and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year for good reason. Not only does he rank second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,302) and first in rushing TDs (16), he’s also caught 23 passes (15.1 yards per) with three receiving scores. He also has 11 carries of 25 yards or longer. That’s helped lift his per-carry average to 5.3 yards. Inasmuch as Barkley sees rest – which is to say, rarely – redshirt freshman Andre Robinson (4.9 yards per on 28 carries with five TDs) seems to have earned the bulk of the limited snaps as the season has continued.
Injuries have ravaged the Penn State offensive line, especially late in the season – making their push to Pasadena that much more impressive. The Lions have used five different combinations in the past five outings. Only senior center Brian Gaia has started all 13 games (38 career starts) at the same position this season. During the course of 2016, three tackles with multiple starts – juniors Andrew Nelson and Brandon Mahon and senior Paris Palmer – have been lost to injury. Redshirt freshman Ryan Bates has started the past three at left tackle (after starting the first nine at left guard), with sophomore Chasz Wright starting the past four at right tackle. Redshirt freshman Steven Gonzalez has started two of the past three at left guard, though senior Derek Dowrey (six starts across both guard spots) is likely to rotate in. True freshman Connor McGovern has started eight of the past nine at right guard.
Penn State Defense
With the departure of Bob Shoop to Auburn, Brent Pry added the defensive coordinator title to his two-year role as the Lions’ linebacker coach. He’s assisted by co-DC Tim Banks (safeties), who came to Happy Valley after serving four years in a similar role at Illinois. And though the Lions have suffered a bevy of injuries at linebacker, Penn State’s front four and back four have keyed a defense that’s allowed 352 yards per game (24th nationally) while forcing 20 turnovers (its 11 fumble recoveries rank second in the Big Ten and 22nd nationally) and notching 39 sacks (3.0 per game ranks second in the Big Ten and No. 14 nationally). That’s part of an aggressive style that’s created 8.6 tackles for loss per game, third in the country. While the Lions have been middling against the run (153.5 yards allowed per game, eighth in the Big Ten), they’ve been solid against the pass, ranking 24th nationally in pass yards allowed (198.5 per game) and 31st in pass efficiency defense.
Penn State boasts a solid two-deep rotation across its defensive line. The playmakers are at defensive end – junior Garrett Sickels (46 tackles, a team-leading 12.5 for loss) and senior Evan Schwan (28 stops, 8.5 for loss) share the team lead with six sacks each. Behind them, sophomore Torrence Brown (four starts, 31 tackles, six for loss) and redshirt freshmen Shareef Miller (22 tackles, 5.5 for loss, two sacks) and Ryan Buchholz (16 stops, 4.5 for loss, three sacks) see plenty of action. Inside, juniors Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran (not a typo) start at tackle – they have 42 stops, 10 for loss, and 2.5 sacks between them – are tasked mostly as run stuffers. Their reserves – sophomore Antoine White (17 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and redshirt freshmen Robert Windsor (22 stops, 1.5 for loss) and Kevin Givens (six starts, 24 tackles, seven for loss, 4.5 sacks) – also get opportunities to shine.
Not only have the Lions lost five linebackers for the season due to injury – the two biggest losses were seniors Von Walker and Nyeem Wartman-White – but their starting weakside LB – senior Brandon Bell (nine games/starts, 87 tackles, 7.5 for loss, four sacks, one interception, three forced fumbles) – and middle linebacker – junior Jason Cabinda (eight games/starts, 70 stops, four for loss) – each missed multiple games due to injury. During the past seven games though, things had settled – with sophomore strongsider Manny Bowen (68 tackles, 8.5 for loss, two sacks) joining Bell and Cabinda as starters. But Bowen is out for the Rose Bowl – joining Blacknall on suspension – leaving sophomore Koa Farmer (27 tackles, 4.5 for loss, three sacks) looking at his first start of the season. Junior Brandon Smith (two starts, 54 tackles, four for loss, two INTs) provides depth in the middle, while freshman Cam Brown (29 tackles, 1.5 for loss) could see time on the outside.
Things have been much more stable in the Penn State secondary. A core group of four – cornerbacks John Reid and Grant Haley, free safety Marcus Allen (no relation to the 1981 Heisman winner from USC), and strong safety Malik Golden – has earned 48 of 52 possible starting assignments this season. Allen, a junior, leads the Lions with 101 tackles (six for loss) and also has two fumble recoveries. He also blocked an Ohio State field goal, leading to the game-winning TD return by Haley, in Penn State’s season-turning upset win. Golden, a senior, has 68 tackles, five for loss, plus an interception and a fumble recovery. Haley, a junior, has 32 tackles, while the sophomore Reid has five tackles for loss among 35 stops, seven pass break-ups, one INT and one fumble recovery. Junior Christian Campbell (three starts, 25 tackles, one INT, five PBUs) and sophomore Amani Oruwariye (22 tackles, one INT) are reserve corners who see time in the nickel, while junior Troy Apke (28 tackles, one INT) provides depth at safety.
Penn State Special Teams
Junior Tyler Davis earned All-Big Ten honors by making 22-of-24 field goal attempts (a long of 40) and all 55 PATs. Those 22 three-pointers give him 1.7 per game, ranking ninth nationally. Sophomore Joey Julius handles kickoffs, with 45 touchbacks on 93 opportunities (Penn State’s kickoff coverage ranks No. 28 nationally). Freshman Blake Gillikin is averaging 42.1 yards on 56 punts – the Lions rank 55th nationally in punt coverage. Freshman running back Miles Sanders is averaging 21.1 yards on 30 kickoff returns, while Reid is averaging 7.5 yards on 22 punt returns. One more note: Penn State has blocked two punts, as well as that aforementioned field goal.
USC Offensive Gameplan
USC’s victory over Notre Dame didn’t feature its most efficient offensive performance of 2016. Jackson’s explosive special teams plays limited the number of possessions for Sam Darnold and Co. – a “problem” any team would be glad to face. While it felt like USC was operating in fits and starts (the Trojans’ six punts were their most since the season opener) it still held the ball for 31 minutes, averaged more than six yards per play, scored on a pair of 50-plus-yard plays by Jackson and Jones, and converted on both of its red zone trips.
The matchup with the Nittany Lions presents a few interesting angles: Helton’s history with Penn State’s Pry (they worked on the same Memphis staff for three seasons); the Lions’ tackles-for-loss/sacks prowess vs. a Trojan offense that ranks in the national top 10 in limiting both; and Darnold’s struggles, at times, with ball security against Penn State’s knack for forcing (and recovering) fumbles. Both Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin have remarked – repeatedly – about the Lions’ exotic rush packages, comparing them most closely to the type of pressure Utah looks to bring. How the Trojans handle this pressure will answer a lot of questions about this matchup.
Don’t be surprised if Jones and Justin Davis play a bigger role in this game than many seem to mention. Penn State’s rush defense has struggled against its better opponents, with four teams rushing for more than 200 yards (and three others topping 150). Lost in the buzz around Darnold’s rise is a Trojan ground attack that’s averaged more than 236 yards per game since the redshirt freshman took over as starting quarterback. Establishing a ground game – even sticking with the run if it struggles early (see the Washington game) – hasn’t only opened up room for USC’s tailbacks. It’s also made Darnold an even more effective pass/run threat. And it’s what’s helped USC become such an efficient third-down offense (tops in the Pac-12, 15th nationally). So while Darnold and USC’s talented group of receivers will test the Penn State back seven in ways it hasn’t seen in 2016, the Trojans’ success (or struggle) on the ground could be its bellwether for the day.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Though Notre Dame’s 408 total yards on Nov. 26 marked the Trojan defense’s worst statistical performance of the season’s final month, there was plenty to like about how USC faced early adversity. After allowing a two-play, 75-yard drive on ND’s first possession, the Trojans held the Irish scoreless for the rest of the first half, capping that suffocating performance with an Ajene Harris pick-six to build a 24-7 halftime lead. USC posted a season-high six sacks, forced eight Irish punts, and was a late Irish touchdown (against USC reserves) away from holding its fourth consecutive opponent (and sixth in seven) to 20 points or less.
The Lions, though, come into Pasadena on a major roll. Penn State is averaging 45 points in its past six contests, and McSorley has thrown for 332 yards or better in three of the past four games. Big plays have been the Lions’ bread and butter – Penn State is one of the worst third-down offenses in America (No. 120), but it boasts 86 offensive plays of 20 yards or more. That fact likely led to this rather esoteric stat found in the Lions’ game notes: 107 of Penn State’s 262 first downs (40.8 percent) have been earned on second-down plays. That ranks ninth nationally. And while an offense predicated on big plays can often be high-risk, high-reward, Penn State has been turnover-free in six of its past nine.
How do the Trojans attack this group? Expect USC to, once again, focus on slowing Barkley. While McSorley has shown a lot of big-game – and late-game – magic, Barkley is the engine that keeps Penn State running when those big plays fail to connect. Limiting Barkley’s effectiveness – and not just as a rusher, but also as a pass catcher – will put the game in McSorley’s hands. That’s been a losing gamble for a number of Penn State opponents, but USC likely believes it can get enough pressure against the Lions’ front five to limit his game-breaking abilities. McSorley has thrown just five interceptions, and he – like Darnold – has been an effective runner. But he’s also one who’s shown a tendency to fumble. Can the Trojans force him into more mistakes than big plays?
After an eight-year absence from the Granddaddy of Them All, the feeling around the USC program, the school’s alumni, and it’s wide-ranging fan base couldn’t be – pardon the pun – much rosier. After a brutal 1-3 start that followed on the heels of so much disruption in the program in recent seasons, many believed the Trojans would struggle to notch the six wins necessary for a bowl bid – let alone run off an eight-game winning streak that would include a decisive road win at College Football Playoff participant Washington and twin hammerings of UCLA and Notre Dame. It’s been the most unexpected and magical run for any USC team since the Trojans’ beloved 2002 squad that kick-started the massive success of the Pete Carroll Era.
However, across the country in State College, Pa., the feeling is almost exactly the same. After a self-inflicted upheaval earlier this decade, many around the Penn State program were likely despondent following those ugly September losses to Pitt and Michigan. When the Lions trailed by 10 at halftime of their Oct. 1 game against Minnesota, Pasadena looked awful far away. But that’s when Penn State forged its never-say-die identity, coming back to beat the Gophers in overtime. The Lions are 3-2 in games they’ve trailed entering the fourth quarter, and they’ve outscored opponents 304-108 in the second half (and overtime).
Both teams have forged their own places in the grand histories of their respective schools. Both have shown a belief that may have faded from even their staunchest supporters in September. And neither is going to go down easy Monday afternoon. So what will be the difference? I’m going with USC’s steadiness on both sides of the ball over Penn State’s reliance on big plays. The Trojan offense has become an efficiency machine under Darnold’s steady hand, while USC’s defense has become a unit that takes away opponents’ best options as each game unfolds. If USC avoids turnovers, expect the Trojans to have early success against the Lion defense. It’s likely McSorley will connect on a few big plays – the Trojans’ biggest defensive weakness according to advanced stats – but can he connect on enough to keep Penn State in striking distance? If USC sticks to its plan and doesn’t let up – an absolute must against a Penn State team that will not give up, no matter the margin – the Trojans are likely to celebrate the school’s 25th Rose Bowl win.
USC 34, Penn State 24
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)