5:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: USC -7, Over/Under: 60
With the National Semifinals behind them, today’s combatants can put 2016 squarely in the rearview mirror, for this particular Rose Bowl Game is all about the future as the ninth-ranked Southern California Trojans battle the fifth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions in a matchup of very promising teams. For a team finishing in the Top-Ten for the first time in five years, USC (9-3, 7-2 in Pac-12) couldn’t have gotten off to a worst start to the 2016 campaign, losing three of their first four contests; Alabama pummeled them in the Season Opener (52-6), before road trips to Stanford (27-10) and Utah (31-27) placed them in the cellar of the conference. Criticism ran amok as the Trojans were unsettled at Quarterback, while many in Los Angeles wondered if elevating Clay Helton to Head Coach on a permanent basis was indeed the right decision. Surely, there season was over as quickly as it started, right? Well, as is so often the case in sports, something funny happened: they started winning games. That’s right, folks, after a dreadful start to the season, Helton’s charges have run the table, winners of eight straight games, sending them to their first Rose Bowl since 2008. So what’s changed for the Trojans, you ask? Well, finding an answer at the game’s most crucial position certainly helps a great deal, with Sam Darnold cementing his hold as the team’s starting Quarterback. After supplanting Max Browne in the loss to Utah, the Redshirt Freshman has played with an efficiency that betrays his youth, leading all Freshman Quarterbacks in Completion Percentage (68.1%), Touchdown Passes (26), Yards per Attempt (8.4), and Passer Rating (161.0). Furthermore, during the Trojans’ eight-game winning streak he has thrown multiple touchdowns in each affair, the longest such streak since Matt Leinart back in 2004. Darnold has done a tremendous job running the Offense and keeping plays alive with his feet long enough to utilize the litany of weapons at his disposal; Junior Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (63 REC, 781 YDS, 9 TD) has been a handful for Defensive Backs all year, while Tailback Ronald Jones (157 CAR, 1,027 YDS, 11 TD) has anchored a stout rushing attack averaging 206.5 yards on a healthy 5.3 yards per carry. Defensively, Helton has watched this unit get better as the season as progressed; USC allowed 29.3 points during their poor start, but during their current run they’ve improved substantially, permitting just 18.6 points. If anyone needs more convincing of their credentials, just look what they did to Fourth-Ranked Washington, whom they thrashed 26-13 at Husky Stadium in Seattle. Indeed, that affair wasn’t as close as the score would indicate, as a team that had averaged north of forty points per game, was relegated to a scant 276 Total Yards of Offense. Defensive Backs Adoree Jackson (51 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 4 INT, 11 PD, 1 FF), and Iman Marshall (50 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 2 INT, 8 PD) are among the best in the nation, while Edge Rusher Porter Gustin (64 TKL, 12.- TFL, 5.5 SK, 4 PD) has wrecked havoc in opposing Backfields throughout the term. As we mentioned before, today’s game represents the first time that the Trojans have competed in the Rose Bowl since 2008, which was coincidentally Pete Carroll’s penultimate term in Office. This is a story that was told many times under his administration, as Southern Cal took part in this venue five times, four of which came under the circumstances of being left out of the National Championship Game, and on all four occasions they won rather comfortably. In fact, their last trip to the Rose Bowl Game was a 38-24 romp over Penn State, as everything has come full circle.
Meanwhile, it’s been a similar story for Penn State (11-2, 8-1 in Big Ten), who overcame some early struggles to catch fire over the second half of the season. After all, it wasn’t sixth-ranked Michigan or third-ranked Ohio State that won the Big Ten. It was the Nittany Lions, who put forth a remarkable comeback against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game (38-31), in which they rallied back from a 28-7 deficit to score thirty-one of the final thirty-four points of the night en route to their first Conference Title in, well, it’s been quite a while. After a poor 2-2 start, James Franklin’s charges had their Come to Jesus Moment in the form of a 49-10 shellacking in Ann Arbor on September 24th. Questions regarding his job security began to permeate through the media, as the Football Program appeared to still be searching for an identity in the Post-Joe Paterno Era. Back-to-back 7-6 campaigns didn’t help his cause at all, even if he had to drag the Then (as it happened in Southern California) they started winning, and they haven’t looked back; Penn State has strung together nine consecutive victories, on the strength of an explosive Offense led by Sophomore Quarterback Trace McSorley, who has been averaging an FBS-best 16.3 Yards per Completion. Simply put, this kid has been a revelation in Happy Valley, throwing for 3,360 yards (most in the Big Ten), twenty-five touchdowns and just five interceptions. The Offense has absolutely thrived under his care, scoring 36.7 points (22nd Overall) on 433.4 Total Yards, including 261.2 yards through the air and another 172.2 yards on the ground. He’s done a superb job of spreading the wealth, as six different players have totaled at least 300 receiving yards, led by Chris Godwin (50 REC, 795 YDS, 9 TD). Unfortunately, he’ll be without the services of Saeed Blacknall (15 REC, 347 YDS, 3 TD) who while emerging as the team’s resident big-play machine, averaging a staggering 23.1 Yards per Reception, has also been suspended for the Rose Bowl for violating team rules. With that said, Saquon Barkley will be in the Backfield, and healthy at that, bringing balance to the Lions’ high-flying aerial assault. The Sophomore Tailback played through a bulky ankle in the Big Ten Title Game, but is 100% heading into today’s clash, looking to add to his considerable totals of 1,306 Rushing Yards and sixteen Rushing Touchdowns. However, he also factors heavily into the passing attack, reeling in twenty-three receptions for 347 yards and three more scores. Defensively, Penn State has improved as well, allowing 19.2 points during their nine-game winning streak, developing a penchant for making big plays when they’ve needed it most. Junior Edge Rusher Garrett Sickels (46 TKL, 13.0 TFL, 6.5 SK) has taken residence in opposing Backfields, while Safety Marcus Allen (101 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 3 PD, 1 FF) has been a tackling machine in the Secondary. But hey, let’s not forget about Special Teams either, where they’ve developed a flair for the dramatic. Look no further than their season-defining 24-21 upset of then Second-Ranked Ohio State back on October 22nd; trailing 21-7 midway through the Third Quarter, Franklin’s charges went on to score the final seventeen points of the night, blocking a Buckeyes’ Field Goal, returning it sixty yards for the go-ahead touchdown effectively securing the Program’s biggest win in years.