It’s been eight years since Penn State played in a major bowl game, and this one is going to have a familiar feel.
The Nittany Lions, ranked No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, will play No. 9 Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 in Pasadena, Calif. Penn State and USC met in the 2009 Rose Bowl, and the Trojans prevailed, 38-24.
Penn State just missed the College Football Playoff after rallying from a 21-point deficit to topple Wisconsin, 38-31, in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night. Southern Cal rebounded from a bad start to the season to climb into the top-10 of the rankings.
Here are five things for Penn State fans to know about Southern Cal:
1. USC is also one of the hottest teams in America
While Penn State has won nine straight games since a 2-2 start, Southern Cal has collected eight consecutive victories after losing three of four to start the season. The Trojans opened the season with a 52-6 loss to Alabama in Arlington, Texas, then dropped games to Stanford and Utah before September was over.
At that point, there was even more chatter about the future of coach Clay Helton at Southern Cal than James Franklin at Penn State. The Trojans switched quarterbacks for the Utah game, and then ran through the rest of their schedule.
Southern Cal has scored at least 40 points five times in the past eight games and 38 in another. Sounds pretty familiar to Penn State fans.
2. Saquon Barkley will not be the only 2017 Heisman Trophy candidate on the field
This game will feature two of the top sophomore running backs in the country, and two of the most improved quarterbacks. USC tailback Ronald Jones II has 1,027 rushing yards on 157 carries. Much of the production has come in the second half of the season, as Jones has earned a greater share of the workload.
Jones has 10 touchdowns in the past six games, and has rushed for at least 121 yards in four of the past five. He had 223 against Cal, and followed that up with 171 and four touchdowns the following week against Oregon.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold began the season on the bench, but he has thrown for 2,497 yards and 24 touchdowns in his nine starts. Both Jones and Darnold will likely join Barkley on the short list of favorites for the Heisman Trophy next season.
3. Penn State is going to face another Jabrill Peppers
Jabrill Peppers is a pretty unique player in college football. Southern Cal’s Adoree Jackson might be the most similar guy in the country.
Jackson is a do-it-all mega-athlete. His primary position is in the defensive backfield, but the Trojans will use him on offense. They hadn’t done so much early on, but he has a carry in each of the past three games and a 52-yard touchdown catch in the Trojans’ most recent game, against Notre Dame.
He’s also one of the most dynamic special teams players in the nation. Jackson has returned two kicks and two punts for touchdowns this season, and he had two return scores last season.
4. USC is really good at everything
That might seem like an obvious thing to say for a team ranked in the top 10, but it’s not true for all the elite teams. According to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ advanced statistics rankings, Southern Cal is No. 17 in the country on offense, No. 13 on defense and No. 16 on special teams.
There are only two other teams in the top 30 of the S&P+ rankings in all three phases. One is Ohio State, which is No. 3 on offense, No. 12 on defense and No. 6 on special teams.
The other is Penn State, which is 29th on offense, 16th on defense and 10th on special teams. Alabama, Michigan and Clemson are all outside the top 50 in special teams. Stanford is a top-20 team in defense and special teams, but is outside the top 50 on offense.
5. Penn State’s improved pass rush will be tested
The Nittany Lions are up to 39 sacks this season, which is second in the Big Ten and tied for 10th in the nation. They have 29 since the start of October, which is tops in the conference.
Penn State has at least three sacks in six of the past seven contests. Even though the Nittany Lions only registered two sacks against Wisconsin, they got to Bart Houston in the second half and forced him to run or make bad throws on a couple of other occasions.
Southern Cal has yielded 11 sacks in 12 games, which is the best in the Pac-12 and tied for sixth nationally. Darnold is a great athlete and can help out any mistakes by the offensive line. Given the athletes USC has on the perimeter, Penn State is going to need to help the secondary with some pressure, or it will be a long afternoon.
- Penn State didn’t make the final four, but the Nittany Lions would have been a nightmare matchup for somebody if it was a final eight
- Trace McSorley’s rise to college football stardom is not a surprise to those who know him best
- Penn State, Wisconsin followed different recruiting trails
- What James Franklin and his players said after winning the Big Ten championship