By: David Abruzzese and Ethan Kasales
This was supposed to be Max Browne’s year to take over the Trojan offense and blaze his own trail, but freshman Sam Darnold had other plans. After replacing Browne early in the year, Darnold went on to win Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors while saving USC’s season and steering the Trojans to the Rose Bowl. He’s a true gunslinger with 2,633 yards to his name this season along with 26 touchdowns to eight picks. He throws his ball with serious heat, and he’ll be ready to test Penn State’s talented secondary — especially if the Lions are able to shut down running back Ronald Jones II.
Jones II had himself quite the year with 1,027 yards and 11 touchdowns. His perfect blend of size and speed makes him dangerous, and it’s a sure bet USC will unleash him in the Rose Bowl. The key to keeping him contained will be getting to him in the backfield — placing the onus on the Nittany Lion front four to penetrate USC’s stout line.
On the outside, star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be the man to watch. USC’s receiving corps is a balanced unit — Smith-Schuster leads with 63 grabs, but fellow receivers Darreus Rogers and Deontay Burnett have 51 and 43 receptions, respectively. Locking down on one man doesn’t necessarily mean the unit can be easily contained. Stopping the Trojans through the air — especially considering the fact that Smith-Schuster has nine touchdowns on the year — will require a full team effort, meaning fans likely won’t see too much in terms of double coverage on any Trojan receiving threats.
Penn State and USC boast nearly identical stats in terms of total defense, as the Nittany Lions check in at No. 24 in the nation, giving up an average of 352 yards per game. The Trojans are 29th in the FBS, allowing 359 per contest under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who rejoined the program for the third time last January after spending a season on the San Francisco 49ers’ staff.
While Penn State is perhaps the most dangerous second-half team in all of college football this season, the Trojans have given up 66 more points after halftime than they have in the first half (166-100). USC’s defense is led by sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith, who’s recorded a team-high 79 tackles during the regular season. Fellow ‘backer Michael Hutchings and star sophomore defensive end Porter Gustin posted 64 tackles apiece. Gustin is by far the cardinal and gold’s top pass-rusher, registering 12 tackles for loss after making the move from linebacker this offseason.
Redshirt senior defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu is a road-paver in every sense of the word, and should give Penn State center Brian Gaia quite a challenge up the middle. USC’s secondary is anchored by do-it-all Jim Thorpe Award winner Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall, who have combined for 100 tackles this season. Jackson leads the defense with four interceptions, while Marshall, a ballhawk in his own right, has two thus far as a sophomore. Both make a habit of knocking down passes, posting 11 and eight breakups, respectively.
Joe Moorhead has had plenty of time to gameplan for the Rose Bowl, but the Trojans will undoubtedly give Penn State one of the toughest tests it’s seen all year.