It’s difficult to imagine Penn State and USC performing any worse than conference rivals Ohio State and Washington in the national championship semifinals. The Buckeyes were blown out by Clemson; the Huskies were dominated by Alabama.
But the fifth-ranked Nittany Lions (11-2), who, as the Big Ten champions, had more of a claim to a national playoff berth than USC (9-3), share a feeling of accomplishment with the 9th-ranked Trojans simply by making it Monday’s Rose Bowl (5 p.m.).
USC started the season 1-3. At the time, the Trojans would have been happy to be chosen for any bowl game, let alone the Rose Bowl. Penn State started the season 2-2, including an embarrassing 49-10 loss at Michigan. The most pertinent questions were about head coach James Franklin’s job security rather than which bowl would invite the Nittany Lions.
Since September, however, neither the Trojans nor Nittany Lions have lost a game. Penn State’s post-September resume includes a victory over Ohio State. USC’s post-September resume includes a victory over Washington.
But the time for debating playoff invitations is over. The focus is on the Rose Bowl, which features two of the hottest teams in the nation.
One similarity between the teams is the role their starting quarterbacks played in their turnaround.
USC’s rise corresponds to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold’s ascension to the role of starting quarterback. Although he saw action in the Trojans’ first three games, the first game in which he made a significant impact was a 31-27 loss to Utah on Sept. 23. Darnold completed 18 of 26 passes for 253 yards. With Darnold (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) under center, the Trojans won their next eight games, with seven of the wins being by double digits.
Darnold has completed 68.1 percent of his passes (213 for 313) for 2,633 yards. He has thrown 26 touchdowns and been intercepted eight times.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley’s numbers are not as impressive. He has completed 57.5 percent of his passes (206 for 358), but has thrown 25 touchdowns and only five interceptions this season. McSorley has also rushued 140 times for 563 yards and six touchdowns.
What stands out about McSorley is his leadership. No matter how bleak the situation looks, McSorley seems able to rally his team. Perhaps the best evidence of McSorley’s leadership was his outstanding effort in Penn State’s remarkable comeback victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. Penn State’s reversal of fortune this season coincided with the decision to open up the offense and give McSorley more freedom.
McSorley, of course, has the good fortune of playing alongside running back Saquon Barkley, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Barkley rushed for 1,302 yards, an average of 100.2 per game and 5.3 per carry. Some teams tried to take away Barkley, especially later in the season. Although this sometimes slowed Penn State’s offense, McSorley always found a way to win.
McSorley has an incredible knack for making the big play. On the receiving end of many of McSorley’s throws are Chris Godwin (50 catches for 795 yards, 9 TDs) and Mike Gesicki (47 receptions for 668 yards, 4 TDs).
Penn State’s turnaround is even more remarkable because of the numerous injuries the team has suffered. The Nittany Lions lost three starting offensive tackles. They endured a series of injuries to their linebackers. Barkley has been hindered by leg injuries during the latter part of the season.
One reason for the Nittany Lions’ reversal of fortune is that the defensive line has improved dramatically during the course of this season. They will be hard-pressed to sack Darnold, who has only been sacked five times this season. If they can get pressure on Darnold, though, it should reduce his effectiveness and will make covering game-breaking receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster easier for Penn State’s solid corps of defensive backs.
On the other side of the ball, Adoree Jackson was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back.
Neither team has lost since September. If the game follows the pattern of these two teams, USC should take a first-half lead behind Darnold, only to have Penn State rally behind McSorley during the second half, with several big plays leading to a Penn State victory. The Nittany Lions will be without linebacker Manny Bowen and wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, a hero during the win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, due to violations of team rules, but the Nittany Lons have survived the loss of players all season. An underappreciated asset for Penn State is consistent kicker Tyler Davis, who has made 22 of 24 field goal attempts. Davis and McSorley should come through again for the Nittany Lions. Penn State 31, USC 30