USC took an untraditional route to arrive at its most traditional postseason landing spot historically: the Rose Bowl game, or the “Granddaddy of Them All.”
Despite concluding the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, USC failed even receive a berth to the conference title game. But after Washington won the Pac-12 Championship, it also punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff as the No. 4 seed. As a result, No. 9 USC, as the next-highest ranked team in the conference behind Washington, was granted the opportunity to play against Big Ten champion No. 5 Penn State (11-2) in the 103rd annual Rose Bowl game.
The Rose Bowl, which will be played on Jan. 2 in Pasadena, California, pits two very similar programs against one another.
Looking back, both USC and Penn State have overcome severe NCAA sanctions for committing off-the-field infractions in recent years before undergoing resurrection-type seasons in 2016. Both teams are also riding long winning streaks into Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, as Penn State has won its last nine contests after opening the season up at 2-2; USC started 2016 with a 1-3 record.
It is also debatable that both of these teams were worthy of a berth to the College Football Playoff. Both USC and Penn State had wins over a team which was selected to the four-team playoff bracket for the national championship (USC defeated No. 4 Washington; Penn State defeated No. 2 Ohio State).
This year’s game is a rematch of the 2009 Rose Bowl in which USC defeated the Nittany Lions, 38-24, behind a 400-yard, four-touchdown passing performance from Mark Sanchez.
Personnel-wise, this year’s USC and Penn State teams were both sparked and driven by youthful talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Penn State sophomore quarterback Trace McSorely threw for 3,360 yards and 25 touchdowns this season, while only surrendering five interceptions. In the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, McSorely went 22-of-31 passing for 384 yards and four touchdowns.
The Trojans had a young signal-caller of their own emerge in 2016 in redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. Since being named the starter in Week 4, Darnold led the Trojans to an 8-1 record to cap off the regular season; he finished the season with 2633 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and was named the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year.
Sharing the backfield with Darnold and McSorely are talented tailbacks for both USC and Penn State.
Nittany Lions’ running back Saquon Barkley, a sophomore, rushed for 1302 yards and scored 16 TDs this season. Barkley was named the Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year this season.
USC has its own standout sophomore running back in Ronald Jones II (who rushed for 1,027 yards this season and scored 11 touchdowns). Jones’ backfield-mate is senior tailback Justin Davis, who got off to a fast start this season before a high-ankle sprain slowed down his production.
On the edges, USC boasts dynamic junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (63 receptions, 781 yards, 9 touchdowns this season) and senior Darreus Rogers. The Penn State receiving corps is highlighted by junior receiver Chris Godwin (50 receptions, 795 yards, 9 touchdowns) and junior tight end Mike Gesicki (47 receptions, 668 yards, 4 touchdowns).
Some weather forecasts have projected possible rain in Pasadena during the game next Monday, so both the Trojan and Nittany Lion offenses may have to deal with inclement weather.
Rain or shine, the USC offensive line will be called to anchor the Trojans’ offensive efforts against Penn State. The Trojans’ offensive line, which boasts two All-Americans in senior tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, ranked first in the Pac-12 this season in sacks allowed (0.9 per game).
On the defensive side of the ball, the Trojans will be called to handle a Penn State offense which has scored 38 or more points in six of its last seven games. Over its current eight-game winning streak, USC’s defense has not allowed more than 27 points in a game (opponents have been held to 18.6 points per game over the streak). Overall, USC has had an average margin of victory of 19.8 PPG over the last eight games.
USC’s resurrection of its 2016 season was jumpstarted by a potent defense that became more effective as the season carried on. The Trojans’ defense has developed an identity at every level — upfront, linebackers, and in the secondary.
Redshirt senior nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu has anchored the defensive line for USC and has developed into a leader on the team. Sophomore linebackers Porter Gustin (team-high 12 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks this season) and Uchenna Nwosu have consistently established an edge-rush for the Trojans. The USC secondary is led by All-American sophomore defensive back and Jim Thorpe Award winner Adoree’ Jackson (four interceptions this season).
The Nittany Lions’ defense has allowed 352 yards per game this season (24th in FBS); it has held the opposition to 23.4 PPG (33rd in FBS). Penn State junior safety Marcus Allen leads the Nittany Lion defense in total tackles (101) and fumble recoveries (2). Junior defensive end Garrett Sickels has been the main spark plug behind Penn State’s defensive rush this season, he leads the team in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (6).
If the two teams weren’t similar enough in player personnel, they are both led by young head coaches in Clay Helton (USC) and James Franklin (Penn State); coincidentally, both coaches are 44 years of age. After leading Penn State to a conference championship, Franklin was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year this season. In 2015, Franklin led the Nittany Lions to a 7-6 record and a berth in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Helton has the Trojans in the Rose Bowl in what has been his first full season as a head coach. Many consider Helton’s decision to name Darnold the official starting quarterback prior to Week 4’s game against Utah the turnaround point of this season for the Trojans. Helton steered a USC team, which opened the season at 1-3, to a Rose Bowl berth.
“It’s history. It’s tradition,” Helton said on the Rose Bowl. “Imagine if we win this … To be a Rose Bowl champion, that’s something that lives with you forever … It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”
When the ball is kicked off on next Monday, USC will be making its 33rd appearance in the Rose Bowl, an NCAA record. The Trojans have won 11 of their last 13 Rose Bowl appearances.
Along with playing in the historic game, USC players and coaches will be treated to the pageantry and the media frenzy that follows the Rose Bowl game. All players involved, from both USC and Penn State, remain conscious of the stature of the game they are preparing for.
“Everybody knows that second to winning a national championship is winning the Rose Bowl,” Banner said. “I can remember growing up, and around the holidays we would always be watching the Rose Bowl … [Playing in it now] is an amazing experience.”