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Rose Bowl Preview: Southern California vs. Penn State

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This one’s for all the roses.

Rose Bowl - Penn State v USC Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It finally happened, guys. These glorified exhibition contests we call “bowl games” became so meaningless that even the athletes scheduled to play in them stopped caring. I get not wanting to hurt your professional career over a trophy that’s not as cool as the one two mediocre midwestern teams fight over every year, but at least think of something better than “preparing for the draft.” What does that even mean, anyway? Getting better at combine drills? Studying for the Wonderlic Test? There’s plenty of time for that after the bowl game. For now, it’s best to slap that uniform on one more time so that the rest of us can sit at home and ‘member how good it was when these things were a big deal.

Seriously, though. If you want to play in a bowl game, that’s great. If you don’t, that’s great too, but not for me because I want to watch good football players play in good football games.

The Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual is one of the only bowl games left that’s important just because it’s important. If Southern California and Penn State were scheduled to play in Miami, or Dallas, or anywhere else, it’d be the same, but it just wouldn’t be the same. There’s still something special about playing in a game that’s named after the stadium it’s currently played in. A game so special that the sponsor’s name gets kicked to the bottom of the line.

On September 24, Penn State was crushed by Michigan and looked nothing like a team worthy of winning the Big Ten championship that it would eventually bring home to State College. The night before, Southern California blew a two-touchdown lead to Utah in what would be the Trojans’ third loss in just four games. The solid play of freshman quarterback Sam Darnold in that game was one of the only clues we had that USC would rise up and defeat Playoff-bound Washington in Seattle two months later.

Standing tall at 6’4” and delivering the ball with lethal accuracy, Darnold is just a freshman, but he’s the type of prospect that NFL coaches dream of landing every spring. Since taking over the starting job during the Utah loss, Darnold has completed more than 60 percent of his passes in every game he’s played. The lowest such figure was 62 percent in a blowout win at Arizona... and Darnold finished that one with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

Those are the kind of numbers that Christian Hackenberg was supposed to put up at Penn State. Instead, it’s been scrappy underdog Trace McSorley who has led the Nittany Lions in their surprisingly early return to glory. Lacking the precision of Darnold but not the poise, the sophomore signal caller is content to just let the ball fly out of his hand as long as there’s a receiver somewhere downfield. It doesn’t matter how many passes you complete when the ones you hit on go for big chunks of yardage.

At least that was the story for the first 11 games of the season. In the last two against Michigan State and Wisconsin, McSorley completed more than 70 percent of his throws despite often targeting receivers more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. It was the same boom-or-bust passing game from before, but with more time to step up in the pocket and deliver with authority, the booms seemed to come at will and the busts felt like the outliers.

So it’s going to be a fun time when these two very different quarterbacks duel each other on the day after New Year’s Day. Penn State’s defense hasn’t seen anyone as skilled as Darnold this season, while the Southern California defense is tasked with stopping a guy who looks like he is still figuring out the extent of his own abilities.

McSorley has been so good lately that he’s pushed Heisman Trophy hopeful Saquon Barkley off to the side. The sophomore tailback is so fun to watch in the open field and spins such a spectacular highlight reel that it’s easy to forget he only has four 100-yard rushing games all season. And three of those games were against Kent State, Maryland, and Purdue. Penn State will no doubt need Barkley to be at his best in order to win this game (he still runs a heck of a wheel route), but success against Southern California will be about consistently moving the ball forward and staying out of the third-and-longs that derail scoring drives. The passing game has become so effective that the Lions no longer need Barkley to swing for the fences with every carry if the downside is a two-yard loss.

He might even be able to learn something from Ronald Jones II, USC’s own sophomore tailback who has more consistent yards-per-carry averages this season. He hasn’t been the bell cow all season long, but Jones has earned the lead back role recently with four 100-yard rushing performances in his last fives games.

The Trojans might also hold an edge in the receiving game, even if JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t performed this year like he did in his breakout 2015 campaign. The junior from Long Beach leads a talented pass-catching corps that will spread out Penn State’s secondary unlike any offense has been able to do all season. It’s this part of the game that makes me think that the 2016-17 Rose Bowl could end up a lot like the 2008-09 version that saw the Nittany Lion defense overwhelmed by an SC attack that was way more advanced than those the Big Ten had to offer.

On the other hand, this Penn State team has plenty of weapons of its own. Even though Saeed Blacknall was a hero in the Big Ten Championship Game with two touchdowns to help the comeback effort, his suspension doesn’t do much to weaken the Lions’ passing offense. In fact, it could mean more opportunities for Chris Godwin, who is Penn State’s leading receiver and has three multiple-touchdown performances in his last six games. With one more game left to impress NFL scouts before he has to decide whether or not to enter the Draft, Godwin should be targeted often, especially if Penn State falls behind early.

When compared side-by-side, the offenses are pretty equal, but I have to give the edge to SC because of the more efficient quarterback play throughout the season and their advantage in experience on the offensive line. The defenses are tight as well, with Southern California ranked 13th in S&P+ and Penn State ranked 16th. With both offenses playing so well right now, the game might come down to which defense is able to create a big turnover or get a big stop on third down. For that play to fall in Penn State’s favor, defensive end Garrett Sickels and the rest of the line have to get as much pressure as possible on Darnold without defensive coordinator Brent Pry needing to leave the back end exposed with blitzes.

The Trojans also know how to pressure the quarterback, with the sophomore tandem of linebacker Porter Gustin and defensive end Rasheem Green combining for 10.5 sacks this year. However, with Trace McSorley having the instincts and quickness necessary to neutralize a good pass rush, the most important player for Penn State to watch out for is All-Pac-12 cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. The junior out of Illinois has been everything that Michigan fans wanted Jabril Peppers to be this year with four interceptions on defense, as well as one receiving touchdown, two punt return touchdowns, and two kickoff return touchdowns.

McSorley tends to leave a lot of air under his passes, and while that didn’t turn out to be a concern against Wisconsin, Jackson is someone with the athleticism and awareness necessary to outduel Penn State’s receivers for a 50/50 ball.

The Nittany Lion defense is solid enough to keep the team in this game when those first-half offensive struggles rear their ugly head. However, no one on that defense is capable of making plays all over the field the way Jackson can. With a slight edge on offense and the biggest playmaker on defense it would make sense for me to pick Southern California to win this game.

But it also made sense to pick against Penn State against Wisconsin. That win was amazing, but I was still kind of bugged by the fact that I can’t figure these Nittany Lions out. So I’m going with Penn State 34, USC 27. This time when James Franklin’s team surprises me, I’ll be able to say that I saw it coming.