By now you’ve probably heard of the players who will try to beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl this Monday in Pasadena. Sam Darnold is the pro-style quarterback that had led Southern California in its return to glory, while JuJu Smith-Schuster headlines a group of wide receivers that might be even more impressive than the one that Trace McSorley gets to throw to. There’s also emerging halfback Ronald Jones II and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, whose versatility would make Jabril Peppers jealous.
Together with the rest of their teammates, these athletes were able to make USC great again while winning eight straight games, including a road upset of Washington that might be the most impressive win that any team has this year.
For more in-depth coverage of USC Football, we went over to Conquest Chronicles and asked blog editor Nick Dempsey some questions about his beloved Trojans.
Black Shoe Diaries: Southern California's story is a lot like that of Penn State this year. The Trojans lost three games in September, sunk below the national radar, and then rolled off eight straight wins en route to a Rose Bowl berth. How is this team different from the one that went 1-3 in the first four games? Is the improvement just due to the quarterback change or is it deeper than that?
Conquest Chronicles: Darnold’s contributions to this offense cannot be understated, but many people seem to forget that he also saw action in USC’s first three games before making his first start in a losing effort against Utah. One of the major factors in the turnaround has been the Trojans’ coaching staff finally getting it together. Against Alabama the team was wildly unprepared and the offensive line was shoddy at best. Clay Helton made some highly questionable in-game decisions, offensive coordinator Tee Martin had no real identity on offense which resulted in what appeared to be a slapdash game plan, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was not rotating players and would routinely make poor choices in his use of defensive formations. Once Darnold was named the starter and the coaching staff began to clean up their mistakes, the team took off.
BSD: Sam Darnold has been hot fire as SC's signal caller since he took over the full-time job against Utah. During the Trojans' current winning streak he's thrown for multiple touchdown passes with at least 62 percent completions in every game. Was he supposed to be this good? What does his emergence mean for SC's future?
CC: Darnold’s emergence has USC fans feeling optimistic about the future. Darnold was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school according to 247 Sports, but he did not receive many offers from elite programs. After choosing USC over Duke he spent a year on the scout team, where he began to impress coaches and teammates. At the beginning of the offseason most though Max Browne would cruise to the starting job, but Darnold performed his way into consideration and Clay Helton did not name a starter until two weeks before the start of the season. Outplaying expectations in practice, however, is a much different than leading a team to the Rose Bowl. In other words, we knew Darnold could be good, but I’m not sure many folks saw him being as elite as he has been this season.
BSD: Despite the great quarterback play, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has been disappointing compared to his incredible 2015 campaign. Last year, he went for 1,454 yards on 89 catches with 10 touchdowns, but this year he's down to just 781 yards on 63 catches with nine scores. What's changed for the future NFL pass catcher?
CC: The biggest change is targets. Last year, Cody Kessler threw to JuJu and almost only to JuJu sometimes even if other targets were wide open. This season with Browne as the starter and the offense a mess, defenses had more freedom to lock down JuJu. Once Darnold took, however, the ball really began to spread around to everyone. USC went from one to three receivers getting the ball thrown to them to eight to 10 guys with catches every game. For a while, JuJu was the Trojans’ only weapon in the passing game but now that field is quite crowded. He did not get any worse; other players just started seeing the ball more.
BSD: Halfback Ronald Jones II has gotten stronger as the season has gone on. After only registering more than 10 carries once in the first five games, he's turned into a workhorse with at least 15 and a touchdown in his last six games. Can you describe the sophomore's running style and what makes him so effective?
CC: Rojo is patient and explosive. He did not see as much action early on because he was not the best pass blocker and senior running back Justin Davis was a more complete back. Once Davis sprained his ankle and the coaching staff realized Darnold could move the pocket and make plays under pressure, Jones took over as the lead runner and has not looked back. Jones can wait for his blocks to set up but once he finds his lane he can take off. He has big-play potential and has busted out several long runs because if you give him even just a crease he can explode through the lane and right past most linebackers, leaving defensive backs to try and catch up to him.
BSD: Adoree' Jackson made a name for himself during his career by making plays on defense, offense, and special teams. This season was especially fruitful with one offensive touchdown, four special teams touchdowns, and four interceptions. Which side of the ball is the junior best at and what are the chances that he makes an impact in the NFL in 2017?
CC: Adoree’ is still best as a defensive back. His play on defense against the Washington Huskies was particularly impressive and a huge reason why USC won that game in Seattle. Adoree’ makes it very difficult to pass on USC. Given Penn State’s ability to successfully throw the deep ball I would imagine his biggest impact on the Rose Bowl will also be as a defensive back. Having said that, his returning abilities force teams to drastically alter their special teams game plans as well. He usually sees no more than eight to 10 plays on offense, but when he does get in the game on that side of the ball, he makes them count. With all of the skills he has, it seems likely that Adoree’ will make some sort of impact in the NFL, but he has yet to announce that he is going in the Draft this year.
BSD: SC is favored by a touchdown on Monday. How do you see the Rose Bowl going for the Trojans?
CC: Penn State seems to struggle in the first half of their games but are elite in the second half, particularly the fourth quarter. I can see USC racing out to an early lead before Penn State comes surging back, leading to an exciting fourth quarter finish. I can see USC winning the Rose Bowl by one score, but both USC and Penn State are teams you would be insane to bet against. This game should be a wild ride or at the very least a lot more entertaining than last year’s Rose Bowl blowout.
Thanks so much to Nick for answering our questions. For more on USC athletics, check out Conquest Chronicles!