By Thomas Frank Carr
- Home Cooking
No program has been to as many, or won as many Rose Bowls as USC. It’s not a surprise given the fact that they’re historically a great program. It’s also not a surprise of their record in the game given the game is literally in their back yard. Penn State Head Coach James Franklin knows that this will be a challenge his team has to overcome,
“Obviously where they have a huge advantage is it’s a home game for them. We have to travel out there. We have to deal with the time changes and all those types of things, and that’s a factor. All those things factor into our planning and how we approach.”
The Nittany Lions have struggled on the road in big games vs top 25 teams, losing to Pitt and Michigan early in the season. Admittedly the team changed along the way and this is a very different team than they were in September. That doesn’t change the fact that Penn State didn’t play a ranked opponent on the road until the Big 10 Championship game in December. They will have to prove that winning on the road is the rule, not the exception for this season.
- Meeting Their Match
No team in the Big 10 is as explosive as Penn State. They also have the most balanced offense, being able to win matchups on the ground and through the air. Trace McSorley has four games in which he threw for over 300 yards and Saquon Barkley has under 100 yards rushing. They won all of those games.
Conversely, Penn State has won three games in which Saquon Barkley had over 200 combined yards from scrimmage and one game where the team rushed for 340 yards as a team. They can win in multiple ways.
I said no team in the Big 10 is as explosive as Penn State. The Pac 12 is a different story. Franklin thinks USC is similar in their ability to score and put up yards,
“It’s one thing when you’re playing a pro-style offense and they’re going to try and grind you up like Wisconsin and they get a lead on you. That’s a little bit different than playing a team like USC who is as explosive as anything and can score a bunch of points in a short period of time.”
Will that put any extra pressure on the offense? Not according to quarterback Trace McSorley,
“No. Every time we step on the field, it’s to get a touchdown. We’re not trying to go kick a field goal or something…Our job on offense is to score one more point than they do. If we need to score 70 points we need to score 70, if we need to score 3 point we’ve got to score three, whatever it is, we’ve got to get the job done.”
They may have to versus a team that is as talented offensively as USC.
- QB’s on Display
Two of the nation’s hottest quarterbacks will be on display January 2nd. Trace McSorley has guided his team to nine straight wins and has thrown for nearly 800 yards and eight touchdowns in the last two games.
For USC, the redshirt freshman Sam Darnold is the reason that USC has turned the corner this year, winning eight straight according to Franklin,
“The thing that’s changed them the most is the change at the quarterback position with Sam Darnold, 6-4, 225-pound kid who’s completing 70 percent of his passes, 26 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. I think he’s only been sacked 11 times all year long. They do a great job protecting him.”
As with most big games, it will be billed as a battle of quarterbacks. For once, the billing is deserved. Both of them are fantastic players who are cool customers under pressure and deliver the ball with decisiveness and accuracy. McSorley doesn’t have the measurables that Darnold does, but Darnold doesn’t have nearly the production that McSorley does, nor does he have as many weapons (though he has quite a few).
- Strong up the Middle
While Sam Darnold gets the headlines and the credit for the turnaround for USC this year, the USC defense has been a huge part of that as well. For them, it starts in the center of the defense according to Franklin,
“They’ve got a nose tackle that is a graduate transfer from Utah, and he is a grown man. He’s a concern for us right now. Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. Six-One 320 pound nose guard who is very, very active and is very, very disruptive, reminds us a lot of (former PSU DT Austin Johnson). Maybe not as tall as AJ but very, very disruptive.”
Stevie (because his last name is a burden to type) is the type of player who can wreck game plans. As a graduate senior, he will be a top draft pick in the NFL Draft this spring. Right now he’s concern no. 1 for the Penn State offense. While he has performed admirably this season while switching positions, center Brian Gaia is not the biggest or most physical center that has suited up for Penn State. That, plus the fact that he’s flanked by two freshman, should give Nittany Lions fans some pause. This will be one of the toughest tests for the Penn State interior linemen of the season.
Franklin also mentioned USC linebacker Cameron Smith as another disruptive force in the middle of their defense. Smith is 6’2” 245 and runs well sideline to sideline. Overall USC has a big, physical front that has stymied teams ability to run the ball.
They’re a solid defense, but they don’t generat pressure the way other teams that Penn State has faced do. If this game does the way that the past two have, it will be another game that Trace McSorley will need to carry the offense.
- Teams of Two Halves
Penn State is the most dominant team in the 2nd half in the country, but you already know this. Let’s just put some numbers to it to put it into perspective.
Penn State has outscored opponents 298 to 105 in the 3rd and 4th quarter (they’ve won 6-3 in overtime as well). It’s been well documented how good Penn State has been at halftime adjustments and how mystified they’ve been themselves at the transformation after going into the locker room for 15 minutes.
USC on the other hand is a very dangerous first half team. They’ve outscored opponents 235 to 100 in the first and second quarters, which leads back to Franklin’s point about not getting down early to a team that is as explosive and dangerous as USC.
(For the record Penn State has scored 477 points on the season to USC’s 395.)
Just looking at this from a logical standpoint, I want the team that is better at the end of the game. Penn State is never out of a game anymore because they simply refuse to believe that they are. They have earned the benefit of the doubt in my mind and with a month to prepare, I wouldn’t want to bet against the Nittany Lions. It should be a fantastic game and I think the Nittany Lions come away Rose Bowl winners.