Penn State vs. Southern California. It is one of those matchups that would just sound big, even if the combatants were entering with a combined two wins, instead of 20. The programs are two of the country's most tradition filled, and successful. Monday's meeting in Pasadena marks the 10th time the two schools have met (the Trojans hold a 5-4 record), and the second time at the Granddaddy of them All. Get ready for the 103rd Rose Bowl Game with Chris, John, Mike, and Kevin.
If I had told you back in August that Penn State would have won the Big Ten East Division, the conference championship game in Indianapolis, and playing in the Rose Bowl, what would your reaction have been?
Kevin: I wouldn’t have believed you. I always thought this team had tremendous potential, I just didn’t think they would realize it this quickly. What a ride the past few months have been.
Mike: I’d say, “Well, regional clothing retailer Boscov’s agrees with you.” (I asked Boscov’s the Big Ten question way back in August)
@treblaw There's always a chance! Are you a Penn State fan?— Boscov's (@Boscovs) September 6, 2016
John: I would have kindly asked you to remove your blue and white shades and put down the red drink. If you were convincing enough though, I would have placed a bet and made lots of money.
Chris: I predicted an 8-4 season but held out hope for nine or ten wins based on a few contingencies…and you know what? They all happened. Trace McSorley proved over 12 games that he was the magician who sparked PSU during the second half of last year’s Georgia game. The offensive line turned out to be a non-liability, and even a strength at times. The defensive line grew up quickly, although not fast enough to slow down Pitt. Finally, special teams dramatically improved. Still, a conference championship in a year of endless Ohio State and Michigan hype? Unbelievable. I figured an Outback or Citrus Bowl was the ceiling.
There are certainly plenty of things that propelled the Lions to a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl berth. If you could only pick one main reason, what would that be?
Kevin: Chemistry. There is an inherent belief in each other and the system for the first time since James Franklin arrived. A lot of it probably has to do with James Franklin having guys he recruited on the team. The players believe in the coaches and the coaches believe in the players. Also, the team has fun! I have it on good authority that fun is fun.
Mike: A relentless ability to not give up. Outside of the Ann Arbor drubbing, Penn State showed opponents they just are not interested in yielding, no matter the situation. You couldn’t say that about prior teams.
John: Going off what Kevin and Mike have said, this was a complementary team that believed in themselves at all times. I also think there was a belief in what James Franklin and his staff preached and it seemed like to total buy-in for everyone.
Chris: I agree with the chemistry angle. There’s a reason why level-headed people know that a new coach should get three or four years to get their own players into the program, and it was fully on display this season. However, it was Penn State’s depth that kept it afloat during the toughest times. The amount of linebacker injuries was absurd, yet players like Brandon Smith, Manny Bowen, Koa Farmer, Cam Brown, and Jake Cooper were able to fortify the defense until Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda returned against Ohio State. Plenty of reserve defensive backs saw action, including Amani Oruwariye, Jordan Smith, and Troy Apke. Finally, the offensive line injuries would have crippled any of the preceding three Penn State teams.
Monday’s game features the two hottest teams in the country that are not Alabama. Do you see any similarities between the Nittany Lions and Trojans that got them to this game after rocky starts?
Kevin: Aside from the win streaks, not really. Their paths are different, but equally interesting. There was a time where I thought USC was in full implosion mode. They looked terrible, they were getting players ejected for pushing officials, they looked in complete free fall mode after getting embarrassed by Alabama on national television. A change in quarterback was the spark. Penn State’s journey was just different. They needed to get settled into a new offense and they needed confidence and to be able to believe in themselves. The Minnesota comeback started it, the Maryland domination picked up momentum, and then the Ohio State game started the avalanche and they have been on the wave ever since.
Mike: Both teams are clicking at the right time and playing with confidence. Solid, if at times spectacular, quarterback play also helps quite a bit.
John: These are teams that consistently improved as the season wore on and avoided a slip-up down the stretch. USC had the close win over Colorado and that seemed to propel them much like the Ohio State victory did for Penn State.
Chris: A lot of the big themes are similar. Two blueblood programs that were hit hard by NCAA sanctions. Both had awful Septembers, dealt with whispers about their head coaches’ job security, and turned around their seasons against bad-to-mediocre competition in early October. That schedule softness allowed young talent to gain experience and confidence, just in time to spring an upset against a top-5 team before coasting through the remainder of the regular season. Oh, and both will be preseason top-10 teams next year.
Kirby Lee-USA Today Sports
What is the one thing Penn State has to do on defense to win this game?
Kevin: USC is going to move the ball, they have too many playmakers on offense to be stopped for an entire half or game. You can’t really sell out to stop just the run or the pass because they are effective at both. The best way for me to describe it is a rhythm offense. If they are going to stop USC, they will need to have a disciplined pass rush and pressure Darnold. He has only been sacked five times this year. If Penn State wants to find some success, they will have to find a way to do something that teams haven’t been able to do much this year, get him on the ground.
Mike: Make Sam Darnold uncomfortable. Get in hits, hurries, bat down balls, alter passing lanes and make him shift his eyes.
John: The defense needs to apply pressure. With Manny Bowen out, Koa Farmer will likely get the start and he excels as a pass rusher so I would expect to see him used in that manner. The defensive line seems to improve as the game goes on with their rotation and that effort will be required to slow down the Trojans.
Chris: Do their best to confuse Sam Darnold, who has been sharp since taking over quarterback duties mid-season. He’s a high-percentage passer (68%) but has thrown six interceptions in his last five games. Penn State’s defense should perform adequately against USC’s running game, but will probably need to force two or three picks in what could end up being a shootout.
What is the one thing Penn State has to do on offense to win this game?
Kevin: Find success in the run game. Barkley finding success is the engine that makes this offense run. He opens up those deep passing lanes when safeties have to start creeping up to try and make a play in the box. If Penn State can find success running it early, that can lead to a very fun day.
Mike: Stay committed to the run no matter what. The threat of Trace McSorley-to-Saquon Barkley, even if it’s getting bottled up, has fueled the Nittany Lions all year.
John: It would be nice to see them start a little faster than they have over the course of the season, but getting Barkley space is always the key.
Chris: Everyone in the stadium will expect USC to sell out in order to stop Saquon Barkley, so it’ll likely be another case of using the passing game to open up the running game. PSU will have to do damage in the middle of the USC defense, which is otherwise very strong up front and in the secondary. That will hopefully open up something, anything for Barkley on the ground. Don’t rule out everyone’s new favorite route -- The Wheel -- for Barkley or Miles Sanders out of the backfield.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Can Penn State complete their storybook season with a 12th win, and Rose Bowl title? What is your prediction for this one?
Kevin: Can they? Sure. I still get the feeling that a lot of people don’t think Penn State deserves to be there. That is fine. USC is on a roll and has a ton of confidence, but Penn State will come in with a chip on its shoulder. I think the defense will play well enough, and the offense makes just enough plays to win a 38-35 game on a Tyler Davis field goal as time expires.
Mike: Everything this team has shown during a wildly successful season tells me they have a terrific chance at winning the Rose Bowl. Penn State’s explosive-play ability has set them apart from their opponents during the winning streak. They might sputter for stretches, and then they bite you and they bite you fast. And it’s not just on offense; defense and special teams have unleashed shock plays at a key points. The Nittany Lions continue the winning trend. Penn State 41, USC 33
John: I think Penn State has a great opportunity to win this game. It’s a great matchup between two traditional powers coming back from NCAA sanctions. I have been of the mindset that Penn State is playing with house money for some time, but now that you’re in the Rose Bowl, I’d prefer that they pull it out. Penn State will make enough plays and win the second half one more time. Penn State 34 USC 26
Chris: Both teams are entirely capable of winning this game by two scores, but do you really want to bet against Penn State after all you’ve seen? I’m skeptical of the national deference given to USC. They’re an extremely talented team, but their schedule since beating Colorado has been Washington and assorted heaps of trash. Let’s hope for a fun, close game showcasing two teams that will find themselves in many pundits’ playoff predictions next August. Penn State 34, USC 33.