And our staff doesn’t have as much consensus as you’d think—which speaks to the depth of talent that James Franklin has put on the field in 2016.
The obvious answer is Trace McSorley, since lately everything has been on his shoulders. At the beginning of the season, the common belief was that the offense would go as Saquon Barkley went, but by the time Penn State played Wisconsin, the tables had turned completely around, and it was Trace who shouldered the weight of maintaining consistency on offense. That's, of course, not to say Barkley isn't an integral part of this offense --he is, but rather, it's a testament to how much progress McSorley has made in his time as the full-time starter. Barkley can have a pedestrian day on offense, and Penn State can still win the game.
Penn State's defense will slow down USC some, but they won't be able to completely stop the Trojans. This game will likely be a similar shootout to what we saw a few weeks ago, and hopefully this time around Penn State isn't coming back from 21 points. It'll be up to McSorley and the gang to make sure that doesn't happen.
Saquon Barkley has been held under 100 rushing yards in Penn State's last four games, so it will probably be up to Trace McSorley to carry the offense again. He's thrown for at least 300 yards in three of Penn State's last four, so he's the most important player. Certainly it will be important to pressure Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold and contain the great halfback/receiver combo of Ronald Jones II and JuJu Smith-Schuster, but no single player on Penn State's defense will have the same kind of impact that McSorley will have on offense.
Since the change to quarterback Sam Darnold, the USC offense has been every bit as explosive as Penn State's. A large part of that has been Darnold's ability to get comfortable in the pocket and find his wide receivers downfield for chunk plays. In order to offset this, Penn State will need to move Darnold off the spot. That task come downs, largely, to defensive end Garrett Sickels. Sickels is the most refined pass rush on Penn State's roster and showed as much in a monster second half against Ohio State. If Sickles can have success against USC, Penn State will be in a good position to pull out a victory.
With star cornerback Adoree Jackson mostly likely matched up with either Chris Godwin or Saeed Blacknall, Hamilton's performance in the slot will be even more important. After a tough end to the Pitt game, and a few dropped passes earlier in the season, Hamilton has come up large for Penn State in the win over Indiana, and of course, against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship. Hamilton's ability to get open and make plays could also open up the passing game for Mike Gesicki, and be the difference against the Trojans.
I'm not overly concerned about our offense's ability to score points - the Wisconsin defense is better than the USC defense, and we managed to score 38 points on them. What worries me is our defense vs. their offense. Over the course of their 8-game win streak, the Trojans have averaged 38.4 points per game. I like our defensive line's ability to rotate players, and our linebackers are effective at containing the run when needed. I also believe John Reid is one of the premier cornerbacks in the country, and will do a good job covering whomever lines up opposite him. On the opposite side of the field, Grant Haley has had an effective season, but is not quite as good as Reid. If the potent USC aerial attack is going to key on one player, I think it will be Haley. If he plays well, like he did against Wisconsin, the Trojans could struggle to put up points - and if they struggle to score, our offense will walk away with the win.
It has to be McSorely. When the rest of our offense and our run game were shut down in games earlier this season, we still had McSorely and his consistency to forge ahead for a win. He's been the difference maker in so many of our games. I think about it this way: if we (heaven forbid) DIDN'T have him for the Rose Bowl, would it make an impact? Yes. It would be bad.
While defenses will continue to key on Barkley, I think Trace McSorley and the wide receivers have proven enough in the past couple games that the passing attack will keep opposing defenses honest. This should allow Barkley a little more room to operate, and as we all know, No. 26 only needs a second of daylight to cap off a big play. With the month off to heal bumps and bruises, I think we see a fresh Barkley, and one that has the extra juice to turn nothing into magic.
Like Penn State, USC is a pretty solid all-around team, so it will be interesting to see what James Franklin and co. come up with in terms of a gameplan to top the Trojans. If you were forced to pick a weakness for USC, it would likely be its secondary. Yes, the Trojans do have the nation's best defensive back in Adoree' Jackson, but outside of him there seems to be areas to attack. Mike Gesicki could be the biggest X-factor in the Rose Bowl, although that could also go to Chris Godwin or Saaed Blacknall, who are also capable of becoming gamebreaking deep threats on Jan 2. Ultimately, my gut feeling is Gesicki will be the biggest component of the Nittany Lions passing game in Pasadena. The junior has become a huge part of the offensive gameplan, especially in the latter part of the season, and a 6-6 tight end with incredible athleticism is always a threat to create mismatches and carve up the back seven. Gesicki could be the guy who makes a few big plays to be the difference for Penn State in what should be a hardly-fought battle for four quarters.
During the current nine-game win streak, as McSorley goes, so goes the Penn State offense. If he’s able to hit the wide receivers, and nightmare mismatch Mike Gesicki, then it’s a rough day for whatever opposing defense lines up against them - and USC will be no different. If Trace can’t get the ball to the wideouts (or to future NFL star Saquon Barkley), then Penn State will lose. Without McSorley being such a threat - both in passing and running - then the Nittany Lion offense becomes one-dimensional, operating through Barkley alone, and as 2015 showed, that isn’t very effective, as any decent defensive coordinator will sell out to stop Barkley to likely great effect.
I’m not super worried about our defense; yes, they gave up tons of yards against Wisconsin, but as they showed when they had more than less than a week to prepare (like against the Buckeyes), the coaching staff will put the defense in a position to win - and rest and health are more key on that side of the ball. This may turn into a shootout anyway, and with a winner like McSorley in the blue, that bodes well for Franklin’s squad.