USC and Penn State are undefeated since the start of October, which sets the stage for a possible classic matchup in the grandest of bowl games, the Rose Bowl. The USC Trojans are facing their third power conference champion of the season, with the season opening against SEC champion Alabama, facing off with Pac-12 champion Washington in Seattle and now a bowl bash with Big Ten champion Penn State.
Few would have predicted both USC and Penn State to reach the Rose Bowl, especially just by taking the temperature of the season in September. USC limped out to a demoralizing 1-3 start, while Penn State started the year at 2-2. Along the way, both teams hit their stride and gained confidence along the way with big wins against College Football Playoff-bound opponents (Penn State stunned Ohio State in addition to USC’s upset at Washington).
Buckle up for this one, because USC and Penn State could go down to the wire in Pasadena.
Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual: USC vs. Penn State (Pasadena, Calif.)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 2 at 5 p.m. ET
Where: Rose Bowl (Pasadena, Calif.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: USC -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. QB showdown: Trace McSorley vs. Sam Darnold
Take a close look at the Rose Bowl, because you could very well be seeing a couple of quarterbacks that will becoming more and more nationally known in the next year. Penn State’s McSorley may not be the most accurate of passers, but he is unnerved and impossible to rattle no matter how rough things can get. McSorley has a knack of going deep and trusts his wide receivers and tight ends to come down with the ball when he does. The Big Ten’s leading passer with 3,360 yards and 25 touchdowns with just five interceptions can get on a hot streak and when he does, it is hard to slow him down.
USC’s turnaround this season started when a change at quarterback was made. Darnold took the reigns of the Trojans’ offense in the fourth game of the season, and the whole outlook of the season was changed almost immediately. The true freshman finished the regular season with the second-highest passer rating in the Pac-12, trailing only Washington’s Jake Browning. Darnold had a breakout game on Oct. 1 against Arizona State with 352 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-20 victory, and USC has not lost a game since.
Of the two, McSorley has been better at protecting the football. Darnold may make some mistakes, but it will be up to Penn State to seize those moments when they present themselves.
2. How many big plays will Adoree’ Jackson make?
Few players are as versatile and leave the impact on a game the way USC’s Jackson has this season. Jackson leads the Pac-12 in punt return average and has returned two for touchdowns. He also leads the way in average kickoff return yardage, and is the only player in the conference with multiple kickoff return touchdowns. Not only will Jackson be a key player on special teams, he also can also make plays on defense. Jackson has four interceptions, but has yet to collect any return yards on them.
McSorley is not one to make too many mistakes through the air, but Jackson could still play a role on special teams that should concern Penn State. Conceding some plays but avoiding the home run will be the key for Penn State.
3. Penn State should try moving Saquon Barkley around
If there is one player on the Penn State roster that should give USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast problems, it just may be Barkley. That should go without saying, considering the running back is one of the top offensive players in the Big Ten, if not the nation. So look for offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to find as many ways to use Barkley in the offense as possible.
Barkley has not rushed for 100 or more yards in any of the last four games, but that does not mean he has not been involved. Barkley has caught two passes in each of those games, including a critical touchdown on a wheel route against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
This one should be a good one. USC has developed a trend of jumping on opponents in the first half, but Penn State is no stranger to digging out of a first-half hole and overcoming a sluggish start. USC taking a lead into halftime would not be at all surprising, but if Penn State can stay within striking distance (or own a lead), then the Nittany Lions should feel comfortable about the situation in the second half. Few teams have hit a light switch at halftime the way Penn State has during the run it has been on since losing at Michigan in the Big Ten opener in September.
If Penn State can convert some big plays to its receivers and keep the ball away from Jackson, the Nittany Lions could return home from Pasadena with a victory in the Rose Bowl, avenging a loss the last time these two programs met in the Granddaddy of Them All.
Prediction: Penn State 34, USC 32
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.