Penn State enters its biggest game of the year a seven point underdog to the USC Trojans. These battling Lions face a tough test in USC, but have overcome worse odds this year. Here’s what needs to happen for the Nittany Lions to take home the Rose Bowl trophy.
USC has found most of its offensive success on the ground this season with the No. 37 rushing offense in the nation. The Trojans average 207.3 rushing yards per game and have 17 rushing touchdowns to their name. This fierce rushing attack is led by sophomore running back Ronald Jones II, who has 1,027 yards and 11 touchdowns, with an average of 6.5 ypc (which is better than Saquon Barkley’s 5.3 ypc).
The Trojans sport a pretty balanced attack, thriving through the air as well. USC averages 261.7 passing yards per game (0.5 yards better than Penn State), and has thrown for 3,140 yards and 28 touchdowns. Freshman signal caller Sam Darnold took control of the offense after a poor start to the season and has excelled since, accounting for 26 of those touchdowns and 2,633 yards.
At first glance one might think this offense is too balanced to have any weaknesses, and that is somewhat correct. Darnold’s eight interceptions on the year don’t suggest a weak passing attack, and 207 rushing yards per game don’t suggest a bad rushing attack either. Penn State hasn’t been placed in this situation yet this year, and it will be a tough test for Brent Pry’s group. Ohio State and Wisconsin both relied on the rush heavily and when Penn State forced them to throw the ball, they shut them down. USC on the other hand can throw the ball and still find success.
Though USC has a balanced attack, Penn State doesn’t exactly have the most balanced defense. The Badgers ran all over the unit, accounting for 241 yards on the ground — 164 of which came from Corey Clement. The undisputed strength of the Penn State defense is against the pass. Penn State has the No. 24 passing defense in the nation, surrendering only 198.5 yards per game, and only 13 touchdowns all year. The defense has also recorded 39 sacks on the year, tied for No. 14 nationally.
Come Monday, the Lions are going to have to utilize the same game plan they’ve used all year: stop the run, and force the opponent to throw more than they’d like to. Grant Haley, John Reid, and Co. boast one of the best secondaries in the nation while Garrett Sickels, and Evan Schwan lead a strong pass rush. Brent Pry’s group has to force Darnold to pass often and let the secondary and pass rush do their jobs in order to stop the USC attack.
Penn State fairs a little better on the other side of the ball. It’s been been renown for its balanced offensive attack all year and USC will have trouble containing it. Pac-12 is notorious for bad defense but USC could be an exception.
The Trojans have the No. 29 rushing defense, allowing only 133.7 yards per game and 3.87 yards per rush. Penn State’s rushing attack has suffered lately with injuries to key linemen–Penn State ran for only 51 total yards in the Big Ten Title Game, and the running backs were consistently stuffed in the regular season finale against Michigan State. Despite recent troubles, everyone knows how explosive Saquon Barkley can be, so Joe Moorhead should feed him the ball often early on to see how much the defense is allowing him.
The approach should be the same as the Big Ten Title Game: If Barkley is getting stuffed, don’t panic and just throw the ball downfield. USC is in the middle of the pack in passing defense with 225.3 yards allowed good for No. 64 in the nation. While this isn’t exactly a huge weakness to the defense, it isn’t a strength either. Wisconsin has one of the best secondaries in the nation, and Trace McSorley lit it up. It looked like the defensive backs were letting the Penn State wide receivers make catch after catch. If McSorley did that to Wisconsin, he is capable of a whole lot more against the Trojans — but the tricky part will be mitigating Adoree Jackson’s presence.
Penn State’s offense averages 261.2 passing yards per game, has 25 touchdowns on the year, and features some of the most talented pass catchers in the nation in Mike Gesicki and Chris Godwin. The pass shouldn’t be priority early on, as Moorhead should see what Barkley can do, but he should also let McSorley throw a couple deep balls early in the first half to see how much separation the wide receivers are getting from their defenders. Gesicki and Barkley are the biggest keys in the passing attack. USC will focus on Godwin and Hamilton for the most part, which will leave the huge target Gesicki in single coverage, and Barkley wide open out of the backfield.
Penn State is capable of competing with any team it plays with its balanced team, and USC is no different. On Monday, if the Lions force Darnold to pass, and Trace McSorley throws it often, it should end up winning The Granddaddy Of Them All to cap off a fantastic season.