LOS ANGELES — When Southern Cal and Penn State met in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2008 season, it was a normal thing, just two proud, historically successful programs finishing another season near the top of college football.
It was Penn State’s second BCS game in four seasons. The Nittany Lions had won 40 games in that span, re-establishing the program among the nation’s elite after a brief tumble in the early part of the decade.
The Trojans were the sport’s gold standard, the Alabama of that era. That season was USC’s seventh straight with at least 11 wins. It played in seven straight BCS games, including two national-title game appearances.
No one in the Rose Bowl that day would have thought it would be eight years before either program would be back.
“It’s been a while for us,” USC coach Clay Helton said Saturday. “We all dreamed as coaches, as players, we dream about playing in this game as USC Trojans. These kids were 10, 12 years old the last time USC has been in the Rose Bowl. So I’m so proud for them for bringing us back to what we feel is truly, truly special for our university.”
These two programs have been hit with the two largest penalties from the NCAA since Southern Methodist was given the “death penalty” and had to cancel its entire 1987 season. Penn State became the epicenter for the worst scandal in the history of college sports when details of Jerry Sandusky’s serial sexual abuse of children were first reported in 2011.
The Nittany Lions were banned from postseason play for four seasons — which was later reduced to two — the school was fined $60 million and there were severe scholarship restrictions.
Southern Cal was also banned from bowl participation for two years because of impermissible benefits during that successful run from 2002-08, and also dealt with seven scholarship limitations.
The Trojans’ path back to this level of football success was actually bumpier than Penn State’s. Bill O’Brien was lauded for his work keeping the Nittany Lions competitive for two seasons before leaving for the NFL, and James Franklin was a national coach of the year candidate this season after helping the Nittany Lions win the Big Ten in his third year in Happy Valley.
Lane Kiffin replaced Pete Carroll after the 2009 season and before the NCAA sanctions were levied. His tenure was tenuous, often filled with controversy that he tends to court. His firing, on the tarmac at the airport after a game in 2013, was one of several embarrassing moments for the program. Steve Sarkisian was the next Carroll disciple in charge, and he was fired in 2015 amidst problems with alcoholism and unacceptable public behavior.
Even this season has been far from smooth for USC. But that’s a distinction both programs share.
Both Franklin and USC coach Clay Helton were named on various “hot seat” lists before the season, and when the two teams combined to lose five of their first eight games, that talk intensified. After Penn State began the season 2-2 with a loss at rival Pittsburgh and a rout at Michigan, athletic director Sandy Barbour actually felt compelled to give Franklin a vote of confidence because she had heard enough about his job security.
“The success of this team was in these young men and them believing in themselves and James and his staff,” Barbour said. “I think, after the fact, it’s pretty clear James didn’t need it.
“There was a lot of chatter, that I felt was really counter-productive to conditions of success for this team, for the community. Frankly, those decisions are going to be made by our athletic director and our president and I wanted people to know how we felt.”
Southern Cal began the season by getting drubbed in Dallas by Alabama, and fell to 1-3 after losses at Stanford and Utah. At that point, no one thought the Rose Bowl drought would end at eight years for either of these programs.
Neither team has lost since.
Penn State has won nine straight contests, toppling then-No. 2 Ohio State in October, claiming the Big Ten East division in November, and beating Wisconsin in a dramatic comeback to earn a conference championship on the first Saturday in December. Southern Cal has won eight straight, including victories against both Pac-12 Championship Game participants, Washington and Colorado.
“I’m happy for (Helton),” Franklin said. “This is obviously one of the more storied and historic programs in college football, very similar to a Penn State, just on a different coast. You could make an argument that their program and our program may be two of the hotter teams in college football at the end of the season, and both had similar stories.
“So I don’t know if you could have written a better script for the Rose Bowl with USC and Penn State coming together, how our seasons went, how we kind of both took off at the end of the season and our fan bases and all those types of things. So it should be pretty exciting.”
Both teams have exciting, young quarterbacks. Southern Cal switched to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold for the Utah game, and he’s now 8-1 as a starter.
Darnold has 24 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions since USC during the Trojans’ winning streak; Trace McSorley has 20 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the Nittany Lions’ run. He’s also thrown for 376 and 384 yards in the past two games, with four scoring strikes in each.
Both teams have young, dynamic running backs. Saquon Barkley and Ronald Jones could be Heisman Trophy contenders in 2017. So, too, could Darnold and McSorley. Given the way they finished this season and the talent coming back, expect both of these programs to be among the preseason national-title contenders.
When these two schools met on January 1, 2009, that sort of thing was expected. When they meet on Jan. 2, 2017, it will be a mixture of celebration, validation and relief that both schools are back at this level in college football.
“The game is iconic. It’s bigger than both teams,” Helton said. “You just are humbled as a coach and a player to step in that arena at that moment. You’ve got to think about it. Most of our coaches have coached 20 years or more and have never been in this game. It’s so hard to get to this game. So when you step on that field, you’re humbled. I grew up wanting to be a part of this game, and at some point in time I am going to look up and I’m going to go back to being a 12-year-old kid for a second and just let the goose bumps happen and just enjoy the moment. Because it’s hard to get here. It’s a fight to get here, and I’m going to enjoy every second of it, especially with this team.
“These are members of my family, and it’s the last time you get to play a game with them. So to do that last game in the Rose Bowl, that’s a story and a fairy tale in itself.