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Rose Bowl Preview: #5 Penn State vs. #9 USC

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Two of the nation’s hottest teams are ready for a showdown in the grandaddy of them all. What more could you ask for?

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Wisconsin vs Penn State Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State looks to cap off a remarkable season by defeating the red-hot USC Trojans in Pasadena.

(5) Penn State (11-2, 9-1) vs. (9) USC (9-3, 7-2)

Kickoff: 5 p.m., Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, CA

The Betting Line: Penn State +7

TV: ESPN- Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst), Sam Ponder and Tom Rinaldi (sideline)

Weather: An overcast day, with temps in the low 50s/upper 40s and little chance of precipitation.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 25-14, 3rd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 49-29, 6th Year

VS. USC: First Meeting

Clay Helton:

USC RECORD: 15-7, 2nd Year

OVERALL RECORD: Same

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

...NOW THE FUN PART

USC OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE

Like Penn State, USC has a balanced attack on offense that can gain yardage in any number of ways. The offense is led by freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, a star-in-the-making who took the reins in week four and proved to be the difference needed for the Trojans. On the season, he has completed 213 of 313 pass attempts (68.1 percent) for 2,633 yards. Darnold has uncanny ability to evade the rush and protect the football for a freshman, tossing 26 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. More impressively, he’s only been sacked five times this year behind an experienced and talented offensive line.

Darnold has several talented receivers at his disposal, starting with JuJu Smith-Schuster. The junior, who could be playing his final game in a USC uniform, is a physical receiver who knows how to get open. At 6-2 and 220 lbs., he is the type of pass catcher who has given the Nittany Lions secondary trouble at times in 2016. Senior Darreus Rogers is another dangerous target, and has contributed 51 receptions for 654 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore speedster Deontay Burnett has helped open up the Trojans offense with his big-play ability. USC doesn’t employ the tight end position terribly often, but freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe has the size at 6-4, 240 lbs. to cause mismatches and can be a threat in the red zone. Defensive back Adoree’ Jackson could also get in on the action. The Jim Thorpe Award recipient had a 52-yard touchdown catch in the season finale against Notre Dame, which could be a sign of things to come.

The Trojans have a very talented running back in Ronald Jones II, who proved to be the real deal once given the opportunity to become the team’s feature back around midseason. The sophomore really came on late in the season, running for 742 yards and nine touchdowns in the final five games. Jones has the speed to rip off a long run when given a lane.

Penn State likely won’t sell out to stop either the run or the pass. Instead, they’ll probably do what they do best- play disciplined, hard-nosed defense for four quarters. It will be absolutely crucial for Penn State’s defense to stay in position to help negate the Trojans big-play ability. While they will continue to dial up blitzes to try to keep Darnold on his toes, they likely won’t be able to completely unleash the hounds on a regular basis without giving up some big runs by the USC’s speedy backs.

The Nittany Lions will be without starting outside linebacker Manny Bowen, who has been suspended for the Rose Bowl. In his place will be California-native Koa Farmer. The athletic former safety has shown ability as a pass-rusher and is certainly not afraid of a little contact.

USC DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE

Like its offense, USC’s defense is well-stocked with talent and have little areas of weakness. If there’s one specific area for Penn State to attack, it seems to be the secondary. While the Trojans have the nation’s best defensive back in corner Adoree’ Jackson, the rest of the secondary have given up big plays throughout the season. Jackson will likely work to shut down Chris Godwin, but Penn State has the horses to go downfield even if he succeeds in taking him out of the game. The Nittany Lions will, however, be without Saeed Blacknall, who is also suspended along with Bowen. The timing is poor for Blacknall, who finally seemed to breakthrough in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, catching six passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns in an electrifying performance. In his place, redshirt freshmen Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson could receive more attention. Both are large and fast targets who have shown promise in limited playing time. DeAndre Thompkins and DaeSean Hamilton have both proven to be downfield threats, while Mike Gesicki continues to develop into one of the best Penn State tight ends in recent memory.

Penn State’s young offensive line came into its own against a fantastic Wisconsin front seven, and will again face a challenge with the Trojans athletic defensive front. Defensive end/linebacker hybrid Porter Gustin is especially disruptive, leading the team with 5.5 sacks and 12 negative tackles. Defensive tackle Rasheem Green is a load in the middle and can easily cause problems on Monday. Green has an excellent first step, and often finds his way into the backfield. Inside linebacker Michael Hutchings is a smart player who not only plays well from sideline-to-sideline, but is also an effective blitzer when called upon.

As always, Penn State will do whatever it can to get the ball in Saquon Barkley’s hands, who has proven to be one of the nation’s most electric performers. Backup Andre Robinson’s punishing running style has proven to be an excellent complement to Barkley’s big-play ability, and should get involved early and often against the Trojans.

SPECIAL TEAMS

USC has a solid kicker in junior Matt “Meester Meester” Boermeester (I have no idea if anyone actually calls him that, but I sure hope they do). Boermeester is 15 of 20 on field goal attempts on the year with a long of 49 yards, and has missed both attempts of 50-plus yards. Penn State does have an advantage in the punting game, which could be a huge benefit in a game between two teams that appear to be so even in all three facets of the game. Australian punter Chris Tilbey is averaging just 37.8 yards per punt, and has five games where his long was less than 40 yards.

Adoree’ Jackson isn’t just the nation’s best defensive back- he is also the most dangerous return man in college football. Jackson has taken four returns to the house this season (two punt returns, two kickoff returns). His return numbers are truly eye-popping, averaging 30.5 yards per kickoff return and 15.9 per punt return. It will be especially important for Joey Julius to be on his game on Monday and routinely put kickoffs out of the end zone. While punter Blake Gillkin has been a major asset with his booming leg and excellent hang time, he may focus on punting away from Jackson to keep the ball out of his hands.

Miles Sanders seems to be due to go the distance on a kickoff return, and Monday would be the perfect time to break one after coming close on several occasions throughout the season.

PREDICTION

Penn State-34 , USC-28

This should be an especially entertaining Rose Bowl between two very evenly-matched teams who are both entering the game playing at an extremely high level. When you look at the way the teams match up and the trajectory of both seasons, it’s hard to imagine anything but an incredibly hard-fought game that goes down to the wire.

If I’ve learned one thing about the 2016 Penn State squad, it’s not to doubt them. Each week throughout the season, pundits would predict the Nittany Lions were due for a loss, and each week they would go out and take care of business. Despite their youth, they are one focused bunch. A victory against USC won’t be easy, but I’m not going to start betting against them now.

Trace McSorley continues his incredible hot streak by tossing for 313 yards, and Mike Gesicki comes down with two touchdowns, while Saquon Barkley scores once on the ground and once through the air. Brandon Bell closes out a brilliant career as a Nittany Lion with another epic performance, collecting 16 tackles and two forced fumbles. Garrett Sickels contributes two sacks, and Evan Schwan comes up with another late in the game to help close out the victory.