by Garry Paskwietz
USC pass offense vs Penn State pass defense
One of the biggest keys here will be the ability of the Trojan offensive line to keep pressure off Sam Darnold. The Nittany Lions rank #10 in the nation in sacks with 39, while the Trojans only gave up 11 sacks (good for the #6 mark in the country). In a victory over Ohio State, the Nittany Lions were able to put pressure on Buckeyes QB J.T. Barrett on 44% of his dropbacks. Something has to give in that area, and the Trojans are feeling pretty good heading the game with a pair of senior offensive tackles who both received All-American recognition this year in Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler. Keep an eye on DE Garrett Sickels (#90), he leads Penn State in sacks and tackles for loss.
As for the USC receivers against the Nittany Lions secondary, this could be a real chance for the Trojans to shine. Marcus Allen (#2) has been a consistent player at safety for Penn State and leads the team in tackles, and the corners have been solid. But if Darnold is able to find the rhythm (look for lots of play action) that was present from the time he stepped into the starting line-up he will have a wide array of weapons to put pressure on a defense that gives up close to 200 yards per game in the air, and that was against receivers that weren’t named JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, Deontay Burnett, etc.
USC run offense vs Penn State run defense
The Penn State defense had a four-game conference stretch where they held 3 of the 4 opponents to under 50 yards rushing, including holding Iowa (who had been averaging 167 per game on the ground) to just 30 yards in the game. On the year, the Nittany Lions gave up less than 4 yards per rush, and they were especially strong after the return from injuries of stalwart linebackers Jason Cabina (#40) and Brandon Bell (#11). In the 7 games since the pair returned, Bell has 70 tackles and Cabina has 59, and the duo combined for 31 tackles in the victory over Ohio State.
The Lions will be without starting linebacker Manny Bowen (4th on the team in tackles) who has been suspended for the game. The unit has also been hit hard by other injuries that have impacted their depth. The Trojans, on the other hand, will welcome the healthy return of Justin Davis, who missed time during the season with an ankle injury but is back and ready to re-form the 1-2 combination with 1,000-yard rusher Ronald Jones.
USC pass defense vs Penn State pass offense
The Nittany Lions are in the first year of running a similar type of RPO system that the Trojans are used to seeing in the Pac-12 Conference, and it starts with quarterback Trace McSorley, who isn’t physically big (6-0, 205) but plays with a lot of savvy. McSorley (#9) lead the nation in average yards per pass completion (16.5) and that mark is the 4th best in the history of college football. McSorley has a 66-7 career record as a starting quarterback going back to high school, where he appeared in 4 state title games (winning three of them) and now he is in the Rose Bowl in his first year as a college starter.
They boast a deep wide receiver group (although their top deep threat has been suspended for the game) and they get good production out of the backfield from Saquon Barkley, but the main weapon to watch could be tight end Mike Gesicki, who stands 6-6 and set a school record for catches by a tight end this year with 47. For the receivers, Chris Godwin has good ball skills and DeAndre Thompkins is the speed guy. The passing game has been working well lately, including the Big Ten title game where McSorley was named game MVP and the pass game led the 2nd half comeback. For the Trojans, Clancy Pendergast is well versed in going up against this type of system, and USC boasts the Thorpe Award winner in the secondary.
USC run defense vs Penn State run offense
Barkley (5-11, 225) rushed for over 1,300 yards this year and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, so it will be interesting to see how he fares in this game because the Trojans defense has slowed some other pretty good backs this year. Of course, it isn’t just Barkley (#26) who can carry the ball as McSorley has 6 touchdowns on the ground as is also known as an effective ball carrier. In recent weeks, however, as the passing game has flourished, there has not been as much production on the ground (and the OL has been hit by injuries).
The USC defensive players talked a lot coming into the game about the need to maintain assignments and gap coverages in order to be effective against Penn State. You can expect Cameron Smith and Michael Hutchings to be two of the leading tacklers, and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu will need to avoid the traps as the Lions look to find seams in the middle of the defense. The good news for the Trojans is that the USC defense simply has faster and more explosive athletes than Penn State is used to seeing, and a more complex scheme too.