Two programs who have been “on the rocks” in recent years have re-surged in USC and Penn State, and now they meet in the “Granddaddy of Them All”. USC suffered through rough losses to Alabama and Stanford, but have won nine of their last ten games. Penn State has won nine straight games as well en route to a Big Ten Championship. Something has to give as these two hot games go at it in Pasadena. Here are three things to watch.
1. Saquan Barkley. Quarterback Trace McSorley has played really well as of late, but let’s not kid ourselves, Barkley makes this offense go. He is a 1,300-yard rusher with 16 touchdowns rushing. Penn State would do well to try to get him back in the fold offensively as he has not ran for 100 yards since the Iowa game in early November. His production sets up the passing game.
2. Sam Darnold’s continued hot play. When Darnold became the starter at quarterback in the Utah game, it became evident that he was the missing link for USC’s offense. He has been fantastic with 26 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. He has thrown at least two touchdown passes in the last eight games. Darnold is two-dimensional with the ability to beat you with his arm and legs. Penn State will have a tough task stopping him.
3. The Passing Game. Both teams possess weapons in the pass game. Penn State has had success with the vertical passing game as of late with Trace McSorley connecting with Chris Godwin and DeSean Hamilton. Hamilton had 118 yards against Wisconsin and Godwin has 135 yards and two touchdowns in their regular season finale against Michigan State. Tight end Mike Gesicki has had 65+ yards receiving in three of his last four games as well. If McSorley gets time to throw, the Nittany Lions can do some damage. USC also has two main weapons in the passing game with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, but Darnold likes to spread it around as six receivers have multiple touchdown catches this season. I would like to see Schuster get back to the dominance he showed in a three-game stretch this year he had 110+ yards receiving, he has that type of ability.
Penn State- Pass Rush. The Nittany Lions are one of the better teams at sacking the quarterback with 39 on the season. They have to be able to apply constant pressure on Darnold and make him hold on to the ball longer than he wants. Darnold is completing 68 percent of his passes, so you can’t him get into a rhythm. Their front seven is part of the reason why Penn State only allows 191 yards passing per game.
USC- Ronald Jones. Jones got off to a slow start as he did not register 80 rushing yards through the first seven games of the season. In his last five games, however, he came alive as he failed to gain 100 yards only once in that time frame. Penn State’s run defense is not great, 50th in the country, and they have allowed 21 touchdowns on the ground as well. Corey Clement ran for 164 on Penn State in the Big 10 title game, so the capability for a big game from Jones is there.
Prediction: I like what both teams bring to the table on offense, and both teams are about even on defense. I have a sneaky suspicion that Smith-Schuster is due for a big game, and if USC gets the run game in gear it will open up opportunities for Smith to possibly get single coverage. Again, close game I believe but I see USC through Smith-Schuster and an underrated defense prevailing 31-24.