Rose Bowl preview: Penn State, USC headed for classic clash

Rose Bowl preview: Penn State, USC headed for classic clash

This is the “Redemption Bowl,” as both Penn State and USC rebounded from bad starts to finish with flurries. Few teams in America are hotter than this tandem, making this perhaps the best non-playoff bowl on the holiday menu. The Nittany Lions began the year 2-2—including a 49-10 evisceration at Michigan–before ripping off nine wins in a row to take home the Big Ten title.

The Trojans dug out of a 1-3 start—including a season-opening 52-6 blowout loss to Alabama–to finish the season with eight victories in succession and get picked over Pac-12 South champ Colorado for the Rose Bowl. Yes, this should be a whale of a Rose Bowl between iconic programs.

USC turned around its season by switching QBs in September, handing the reins to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. And, he has been a sensation. Penn State has its own sensation at quarterback in sophomore Trace McSorley, who has been a magician when it comes to operating the Nittany Lions’ spread attack installed by new coordinator Joe Moorhead. McSorley was at his best in the 38-31 Big Ten title game win vs. Wisconsin, throwing for 384 yards and four TDs.

But the victory that showed the prowess of Penn State was its stunning 24-21 win vs. No. 2 Ohio State in October. Despite a shimmering resume, the Nittany Lions just missed out on a playoff bid, finishing No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff poll.

It’s not all about offense for these programs. The USC defense has become a force, holding five opponents to less than 100-yards rushing during the season-ending winning streak. In fact, the Trojans dominated their last eight games, winning by an average margin of nearly 20 points. The highlight: a 26-13 triumph at No. 4 Washington, which went on to win the Pac-12 and earn a playoff berth. It was the Huskies lone loss, as the SC defense excelled.

Penn State’s defense also has developed nicely, especially upfront with ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan becoming forces. They have to get after Darnold, who is protected by good blockers in Zach Banner, Damien Mama and Chad Wheeler. And USC has some good skill in wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back Ronald Jones. Nittany Lions LB Brandon Bell and S Marcus Allen need to be stars.

USC has a 24-9 record in the Rose Bowl. Penn State is 1-2. The teams first met in the Rose Bowl in 1923, a 14-3 victory for USC. They didn’t meet there again until 2009, a 38-24 USC victory. Neither team has been to the Rose Bowl since—and neither looked destined for Pasadena two months ago. Bottom line: This should be a great game.

Also, here’s the full 2016-17 bowl schedule.

Penn State (11-2, 8-1) vs. USC (9-3, 7-2): 5 p.m. ET, Jan. 2, Pasadena, California

Player to watch: Penn State QB Trace McSorley. He has been a super sophomore under center, ranking No. 1 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. He has hit 57 percent of his attempts for 3,360 yards with 25 touchdowns and just five picks. He also is No. 1 in total offense, averaging 285.5 yards per game. Best of all: He’s a tough, spirited leader.

Best individual matchup: Penn State RB Saquon Barkley vs. USC DL Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. Barkley has rushed 247 times for 1,302 yards with 16 TDs. He is one of the nation’s top back, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Tu’ikolovatu must keep him contained with help from fellow linemen Rasheem Green and Porter Gustin. The PSU offensive line is far from dominating. If it can’t make room for Barkley, the Nittany Lion offense may bog down.

Best unit matchup: Penn State receivers vs. USC secondary. The Nittany Lions showed how deadly they are on the perimeter in the Big Ten title game. Saeed Blacknall had six grabs for 155 yards and two TDs. DaeSean Hamilton made eight catches for 118 yards. And Chris Godwin is the best of the bunch, pacing the team with 50 receptions for 795 yards and nine TDs. Don’t forget about Mike Gesicki, one of the most underrated tight ends in the nation. He made a spectacular 33-yard TD grab in the Big Ten title game and has 47 catches on the year for 668 yards. Star USC DB Adoree’ Jackson, also a dynamite return man, must play well if the Trojans want to contain this deadly corps of pass catchers.

Number: 17, combined wins in a row for Penn State (nine) and USC (eight) as they enter the Rose Bowl.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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