The Nittany Lions were 2-2 after four games. The Trojans were 1-3. Neither has lost since, and both head into the Rose Bowl firing well on any number of cylinders. Penn State got healthier, started playing defense, and rode a combination of thrilling upsets, smooth wins, and comeback triumphs to get here. USC’s season turned around after redshirt freshman Sam Darnold took over at quarterback.What: Rose Bowl 2017
When: 5:00 Pm Et on Monday January 2 2017
Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Ca
1. USC’s run defense is a huge advantage. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is great, but the Nittany Lions haven’t threaded together a strong overall running game throughout the season. PSU is 74th in Rushing S&P+, while USC ranks 10th against the run on defense. The Trojans’ front more or less completely shut down the ground games of Washington, Oregon, and Arizona State during their winning streak, and nobody’s gotten to 5 yards per carry against them since September.
2. So Penn State’s going to have to throw a lot. And that’s been fine for most of the year. Trace McSorley has been a revelation as a dual threat, and he’s got some good receivers in DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, Saeed Blacknall, and Mike Gesicki. The USC defense defends the pass well, too, with a secondary keyed by the electrifying Adoree’ Jackson. The chess match here will be interesting, especially as it relates to how USC coordinator Clancy Pendergast deploys Jackson.
3. If USC goes up big, don’t count out Penn State. The Lions might be the best fourth-quarter team in the country. They needed a multi-touchdown comeback to beat Wisconsin (though much of that came in the third), and they rank first nationally in S&P+ during the final 15 minutes. PSU has outscored opponents 166-55 in fourth quarters — a stunning 8.5-point margin per game. USC’s better than the majority of the teams Penn State’s faced, but the broader point here is simple: If Darnold throws up a couple of touchdowns early, James Franklin’s bunch will probably keep playing.