Two of the nation’s hottest teams square off in the Granddaddy of Them All.

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual

Jan. 2 at 5:00 PM ET (ESPN)

No. 9 Southern Cal (9-3) vs. No. 5 Penn State (11-2)


How They Got Here

After a 1-3 start and a quarterback change, USC righted the ship to win its final eight games—including a double-digit win over Washington—of the season. The Trojans got the Rose Bowl nod after the Pac-12 champion Huskies were invited to the College Football Playoff.

Penn State, meanwhile, won its last nine in a row including come-from-behind wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions received the Rose Bowl bid after winning their first Big Ten title since 2008.

When Southern Cal Has the Ball

Notre Dame v USC
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

That could spell trouble for a Penn State defense that has allowed opposing quarterbacks—most far less-talented than Darnold—to complete 62 percent of their passes (105th best nationally). However, the Nittany Lions have proven tough in the red zone, with only 13 passing touchdowns allowed this year and none in their last three games. Darnold is going to get his numbers—the important thing for Penn State is to keep USC receivers in front of them and not give up the big play.

When Penn State Has the Ball

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

While we’re used to the Penn State of old pounding the ball between the tackles, these aren’t your grandpas Nittany Lions. Yes, they can run the ball when needed and running back Saquon Barkley (two 200+ yard games this season and 16 touchdowns) is certainly more than adequate to keep defenses honest. But this year’s Penn State offense is built around big plays in the passing game. Quarterback Trace McSorley has 61 passes of 20+ yards this season, good for fourth-best nationally. On throws of that distance, he has thrown 12 touchdowns and just one interception.

That could spell trouble for a USC secondary that ranks 64th nationally in pass defense and has allowed all but two opponents to throw for more than 200 yards. But since their 1-3 start, the Trojan defense has improved dramatically, allowing just 18.6 points per game and giving up only three long touchdown passes. Look for McSorley to test the Trojans downfield early and often to set the tone for the offense.

Keys to the Game

The key to this game will be who strikes early, both in game time and in each possession.

The Nittany Lions feature a boom/bust offense that takes plenty of shots downfield. When it works for big plays, great. But when it doesn’t, Penn State has found itself in plenty of third-and-long situations and only converts 32% of its third down tries (ranked 120th nationally). USC, meanwhile, ranks 27th in opponent third down conversions. If Penn State can hit some big plays on early downs and get the USC defense back on its heels, McSorley could be in for a big day.

However, the Nittany Lions have had a bad habit this year of starting slow and failing to put teams away until late. Penn State trailed in the fourth quarter of six games this year. USC, meanwhile, seems to be the opposite as a team that builds on momentum and can get on a roll. For example, the Trojans have had a run of 17-0 or better in six of their last eight games. Penn State needs to be able to hang with the Trojans early. USC is going to score some points and the Nittany Lions have certainly proven their comeback ability. But Penn State likely can’t afford to fall too far behind and expect to catch up against a potent Trojan offense.

The real wildcard is special teams play. Penn State boasts one of the nation’s most accurate kickers and an excellent kick coverage defense. But Trojan cornerback Adoree Jackson is a matchup nightmare in the return game, where he ranks third in punt return average, fifth in kickoff returns and has scored four touchdowns. If this game is close, it could come down to which team can make a big special teams play.

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