13 min Read

IMHO Sunday: Final countdown

Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think.

Tick, tick, tick: Happy New Year, folks! The wait is nearly over as in 24 hours it’ll be the No. 9 Trojans and the No. 5 Penn State Nittany Lions in the 103rd Rose Bowl. For the Men of Troy, they need to put the victory cherry on top of a seasonal cake that started off in total disaster but could end in resounding triumph. At least that’s the way the Cardinal and Gold would like to view it, and a victory over Big Ten champion Penn State would certainly present compelling evidence of a final turnaround. It would also propel enthusiasm and optimism heading into the 2017 season – not to mention recruiting momentum as signing day nears.

Final forecast: The “final” pregame weather forecast for Monday’s Rose Bowl is cloudy with a high of 53, low of 44, 20 percent precipitation, and 73 percent humidity.

The return: The Trojans have already played in the Rose Bowl once this season, having played rival UCLA, but quarterback Sam Darnold (photo above) knows the environment will be dramatically different come Monday afternoon. Darnold said, “The stadium won’t change, but the atmosphere definitely will, I think. I think it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere. I think I’ve prepared myself my whole life for this. So, I’m just really excited for that.”

The measuring stick: Always a fascinating aspect of a Pac-12 and a Big Ten meeting is the perception that the Big Ten is the physical puncher and the Pac-12 is the skilled boxer. There has been questions this season just how physical the Trojans are. As of today, the perception is that the Trojans are now a physical team, but that will be validated against a typical physical Penn State team. Let’s get ready to rumble and find out.

Beware: The 2016 Penn State team is well known as a second half team. Addressing this Nittany Lions pattern of behavior, Trojans senior linebacker Michael Hutchings said, “I think it’s clear how strong they are in the second half. I mean, that just proves to us that we have to play a full game. Sometimes we start off fast and sometimes we plateau. Hopefully, we’ll have to have a full game. We’ve been stressing it in practice and finishing practice stronger because they do play such good football in the second half.”

CFP reality check: Is anybody shocked in the slightest at No. 1 Alabama’s 24-7 manhandling of No. 4 Washington in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semi-final? As if you need to be reminded, the Trojans beat the Huskies 26-13 in Seattle back in November. You can come to your own conclusions about how far the Trojans have improved, but let’s see what happens against Penn State before cardinal and gold fans start chanting “Bring back Alabama.”

CFP reality check – Part 2: As for the Ohio State-Clemson game, you think that Penn State fans aren’t fuming after watching the Buckeyes get humbled 31-0 by Clemson? Even more incentive for the Nittany Lions to prove a point on Monday to the CFP committee. Of course, the CFP committee should be more than a little embarrassed having sent non-champion Ohio State to the semi-finals and not Penn State, which beat OSU during the season and won the Big Ten title on the field.

CFP reality check – Part 3: We can all agree that the CFP committee got the Alabama and Clemson part right. We can also all agree that they couldn’t have been more wrong in selecting Washington and Ohio State. Frankly, it’s a joke. I can think of at least two deserving more teams…like USC and Penn State. All the more reason to go an eight-team tournament with the conference champs getting automatic invitations with three “at-large” additions.

The checkout stand: As for the rest of the Pac-12 bowl results this past week, it was a mixed bag. On Friday, Stanford held on to edge North Carolina, 25-23, in the Sun Bowl. On Thursday evening, Pac-12 South Division Champion Colorado was dominated by Oklahoma State, 38-8, in the Alamo Bowl. Tuesday was a spilt decision as Washington State took a powder against Minnesota, 17-12, in the Holiday Bowl while later in the evening Utah avoided a Pac-12 nosedive, surviving Indiana, 26-24, in the Foster Farms Bowl.

Perception is reality: So, at the moment, the Pac-12 is 2-3 and the Big Ten 2-5 in bowl games, not exactly positive conference football images. If the Trojans can take care of Penn State on Monday, you could easily make an argument that in the end, that Clay Helton’s team was the best team in the Pac-12 for 2016. BTW, ya think that the Rose Bowl folks and the CFP committee are glad they didn’t send Colorado to the Rose Bowl to face Penn State?

The matchups: I love the matchups between the Trojans and Penn State. From the two quarterbacks (Sam Darnold and Trace McSorley), the tailbacks (Ronald Jones ll and Saquan Barkley), outstanding receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chris Godwin), two physical offensive and defensive lines, and aggressive and talented secondary performers. What’s not to like?

The challenge: The Penn State defense has caught the attention of Trojans gifted quarterback Sam Darnold, and No. 14 says, “I think it’s honestly their (Penn State) coaching, their ability to not make mistakes. You look at everyone across the board, they really do a great job of filling their gaps, being in the right places in terms of their coverages. I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of blitzes they bring, what kind of coverages they play. I’m really looking forward to that.”

On the other hand: Asked if the Trojans defense is different from what he has seen this season, star Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, whose mother’s side of the family lives locally in Azusa and West Covina, says, “It’s a little bit different. Just the type of athlete they have got, they are real fast, and that’s really across the board: Defensive line, linebackers and especially in the back end. They are real athletic and very fast and they play with a lot of passion and a lot of energy and they are very physical. Similar to some things we’ve seen but just a little bit different being USC and Pac-12, just a little bit different.”

The Bush effect: Even though he’s long gone but not forgotten, former Trojans All-America running back Reggie Bush continues to evoke collegiate memories. Penn State’s Big Ten Offensive MVP tailback Saquan Barkley says, “Ever since we’ve been announced playing in the Rose Bowl Game, for some reason I could not stop watching Reggie Bush highlights. Obviously, one of the greatest college football players ever and one of the greatest running backs ever to play in college. Just exciting to watch him play and be able to play in the type of game he played in, the Rose Bowl Game, especially when they played Texas in the national championship game.”

More Barkley: Asked about the USC defensive front seven, Saquan Barkley said, “Their defensive line is impressive in general. But their one D-tackle (Stevie Tu’ikolovatu) is really good. We got to be aware where he lines up and where he’s at. Their one linebacker (Cameron Smith), I think he was a freshman All-American last year, he was really good too. The one D-end (Porter Gustin) is huge. I mean, looks like a door, like he’s huge, like he’s really massive. So, I mean, I’m excited to go against them and just excited to play against a USC defense. Their D coordinator (Clancy Pendergast) was a former NFL guy, so I’m interested to see how they attack us.”

Monday, Monday: The Trojans are 17-12 on Monday games, including 13-4 in bowl games. The Trojans last Monday game was the 21-7 shocker at the hands of Georgia Tech in the 2012 Sun Bowl. Now there’s a Lane Kiffin memory all Trojans fans would rather forget.

From the press box…

Getting emotional: Upon learning that his offensive tackle bookend teammate, Chad Wheeler, was recently named an All-American, Trojans All-American and two-time All- Pac-12 offensive tackle Zach Banner said, “I teared up when I found out Chad was going to be on the wall. He deserves it. He doesn’t get as much recognition as he deserves. He’s the only person in the world that kept me okay with staying on the right side because when you look at the situations and the pairs that we’ve had in the past, Matt Kalil and Tyron Smith, Tyron played right all three years starting here, and then he was able to go to the NFL, and now he’s one of the best if not the best left tackle in the league. Matt Kalil was over there on the right side the whole time. You talk about that duo, we’re always talking about trying to be better than them, and to find both of us on the All-American wall forever, I couldn’t be more proud of my guy.”

The white out: Although Penn State will be wearing their home blue uniforms, Trojans fans can expect that there will be many sections of the Rose Bowl occupied with Penn State fans wearing white tops, a tradition that goes back to the Joe Paterno era.

The tradition: The Trojans and Penn State have both maintained the tradition of not putting their players’ last names on the back of their jerseys. While the Trojans have tinkered from time to time with their uniform look, PSU has pretty much stayed with their conservative uniform look without much variation. Speaking of look, the Trojans will be wearing a Rose Bowl Game patch on the upper front left of their jersey and a Pac-12 logo lower right side of jersey top.

IMHO: I do believe this will be JuJu Smith-Schuster’s final game as a Trojan. His history of injury would indicate he is in a Catch 22. If he returns to Troy, the injury bug might be a factor in an NFL draft evaluation; however, the injury issue could still be a factor in the eyes of NFL scouts if he foregoes his senior season.

IMHO – Part 2: I’ll admit, I am still not sure what Adoree’ Jackson will do in terms of returning to SC for his senior season. I think that Jackson marches to his own beat and loves being a Trojan, but then so did former Trojans All-America defensive tackle Leonard Williams, but he was too good not to leave for the NFL after his junior season. Adoree’s performance on Monday might dictate which direction he ultimately selects. BTW, Leonard Williams was recently named the MVP of the New York Jets, the youngest MVP in team history. Now bad for a second-year performer.

The Muir flash: Former Trojans tailback and Pasadena (Calif.) John Muir tailback Ricky Ervins is part of the 2017 Rose Bowl Hall of Fame inductees, an induction ceremony that is taking place Sunday morning outside the Rose Bowl.

More inductees: Besides Ricky Ervins, other Rose Bowl Hall of Fame inductees include DL Bobby Bell (Minnesota), Tommy Prothro (former UCLA head coach), and Art Spander (journalist). All three inductees will be riding in Monday morning’s Rose Bowl Parade.

On the march: The Trojans Marching Band will start its Monday morning Rose Parade and Game schedule at 3:30 a.m. in preparation for the 128th Rose Parade. The parade begins at 8:00 a.m. at the corner of Green St. and Orange Grove Blvd. and winds 5 1/2 miles through Pasadena. Over the course of its 34 appearances at the Tournament of Roses, the band has marched 187 miles, but who’s counting?

On the march – Part 2: The 2017 Rose Bowl Game will also be the Trojan Marching Band’s 34th appearance at “The Grandaddy of Them All,” far more than any other college marching band. Dr. Arthur C. Bartner, in his 47th season as TMB director, has taken merry band of musicians to half of those with the Trojans winning 12 since his first Rose Bowl with the program in 1972.

On the march – Part 3: The Trojan Marching Band will perform before and at halftime of the 103rd Rose Bowl Game. The band will be located in the lettered rows of section 27-H. FYI, the USC team bench will be on the opposite side of the press box, which will also be opposite of where the band will be seating.

History lesson: Monday’s game marks the anniversaries of three USC Rose Bowl seasons. One of those seasons, 1976, marks the 40th anniversary of John Robinson’s Trojans, a team that went 11-1 and finished the season with a 14-6 victory over No. 2 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

What’s in a name: Penn State’s starting center Brian Gaia (6-3, 295) is from Pasadena…Pasadena, Maryland.

The post-game show…

The final strut: The Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game will be the final appearance of Traveler Vll, the great white steed and USC mascot who will retire after Jan. 2. Not to overplay a bad pun, his career was quite “a ride.”

The challenge: Is there anything more challenging after a Rose Bowl Game than trying to find your car out there in a dark and cold Brookside Golf Course?

The challenge – Part 2: No question that when the fourth quarter arrives, the weather at the Rose Bowl will turn into a deep freeze (sundown is scheduled for 4:55 p.m.). Make sure to bring plenty of warm clothing because this Rose Bowl could be one of the coldest in recent memory.

The excitement: To me, there is nothing like the tailgating and excitement around the Rose Bowl stadium in the hours prior to kickoff.

The excitement – Part 2:
If you have the time, do yourself a favor and watch both teams arrive into the Rose Bowl with their police escorts. It’s a real kick to feel the excitement of seeing the players’ faces and trying to determine which team looks relaxed and which team looks overwhelmed playing in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans and Penn State should arrive between 11:00 and 11:30 a.m. Trust me, if you can get a good spot for viewing, it will be well worth the effort.

The time: There are perks to being a working member of the media for a Rose Bowl Game. This year’s media gift upon check-in was a beautiful Remix Rose Bowl Game watch presented by Northwestern Mutual.

East-West Shrine: It has previously been announced that Trojans offensive tackle Zach Banner has accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl (Jan. 28) in Mobile, Alabama. Playing in the East-West Shrine Game on January 21 in St. Petersburg, Florida, will be running back Justin Davis, safety Leon McQuay III, tight end Taylor McNamara, and defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu.

The last word: Having worked a Super Bowl, a number of World Series games, NCAA Final Fours, and other high profile events, none is more superior than the excitement and spectacle of a Rose Bowl Game.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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