It’s convenient to define the 103rd Rose Bowl Game by what No. 5 Penn State and No. 7 Southern California have in common, namely impressive comebacks from early season struggles. The Nittany Lions rallied to win the Big Ten after September setbacks against Pittsburgh and Michigan while the Trojans won eight games in a row after dropping three of their first four.
Once the game kicks off, though, it’s likely the outcome will be decided more by the big differences in the teams’ offensive approaches. And it should be a heck of a lot of fun to watch that unfold.
As this space has covered in-depth this season, Penn State is all about the big play. Football Study Hall ranks the Nits’ offense as the fifth-most explosive in the country in large part because of coordinator Joe Moorhead’s emphasis on throwing down field. When this unit has been at its best, either quarterback Trace McSorley finds targets for big gains or running back Saquon Barkley rips off long runs as defenses have sat back to avoid being gashed deep.
The other side of that approach has been that the offense has not been efficient. FSH ranks the Nits No. 82 in staying on down-and-distance schedule and in creating a high percentage of third-down situations. When those deep shots land or Barkley finds a hole, it’s been backbreaking for opponents. But without those plays, Penn State has been otherwise fairly easy to contain.
USC is almost a perfect inverse. The Trojans rank No. 10 in efficiency and No. 84 in explosiveness, meaning they’ve been more of a slow burn to Penn State’s quick flash.
Freshman signal caller Sam Darnold’s 68 percent completion percentage has been a big part of this. While his 12.4 yards per completion pales in comparison to McSorley’s 16.3, he’s been able to keep the chains moving by completing many easier throws. And the entire USC offense has fed off that consistency.
With that contrast, this game will probably come down to which team is taken out of its game most.
USC will hope its approach chews clock while producing a steady stream of points, giving Penn State an imperative to pick up chunks of yardage with fewer snaps. This is something Wisconsin failed to do in the second half of the Big Ten championship, scoring three points after taking a 28-7 lead and giving Penn State just enough possession for a furious rally and 38-31 win.
The Nits, meanwhile, will look to make timely plays defensively that can limit damage even if USC is able to consistently pick up yards. Force a field goal here. Get a red zone turnover there. And, hopefully, the offense will score enough points on the other side that the Trojans are left little room to be deliberate as the game reaches its late stages.
Penn State executed that game plan to perfection in its regular-season finale against Michigan State, forcing the Spartans to settle for field goals in the first half then scoring at a pace they couldn’t match in the second. USC may be susceptible to the same results, as it ranks 71st nationally in finishing drives and 60th in fourth-quarter offense.
So, yes, the comeback component here is a nice narrative thread and sets this game up as an early look ahead to 2017, when both teams will have a chance to be in the College Football Playoff hunt again.
There’s also a lot to look for on the strategic level, though, even beyond what’s been outlined here. How will USC disrupt the good field position Penn State has thrived on this season? Can Penn State pressure Darnold the way it had Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, probably the only quarterback they’ve faced who’s had a better season? And will the crowd give USC the home-field atmosphere it’s probably hoping for?
Intrigue befitting the Grandaddy of Them All. See you in Pasadena, Calif.