PSU vs. USC Preview and Thoughts
Time for my final preview and prediction for the 2016-7 Penn State football season! As you undoubtedly know, the #5 Nittany Lions (10-2) meet the #9 USC Trojans (9-3) in the Grandaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl presented by some damn insurance company that paid dearly for the recognition.
What you’ve been reading here all year suggests that Penn State has created an enjoyable and eminently watchable season for us in order to give us our vicarious thrills, but they’re flawed and they’ve been lucky. True enough, but we’ve sure had some fun and some heart attacks due to their Second-Half Teamedness. Will I ever shut up about their flaws? Hell, no, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want them to win.
One thing I misunderestimated (thanks, George Bush) is the groundswell of confidence that had built within the Nittany Lions of 2016. They truly believe they can do anything. And for the past eight games, they sure as hell have put their money where their brains have been.
Bad Boy Blacknall and Bad Boy Bowen
There’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness, the latter of which can be deleterious to the team. This week, PSU head coach James Franklin announced that junior wide receiver Saeed Blacknall and sophomore linebacker Manny Bowen were both suspended for violation of team rules and would not play in the Rose Bowl. These two guys made big plays in the Big Ten Championship game. Their loss for the Rose Bowl will hurt.
We might never know what they did unless we choose to believe rumors and innuendo, but the significant thing is that the two Jersey Boys selfishly did whatever they did, to the detriment of their team’s chances to win on a major stage. This turkey can only hope that the lads have learned a big lesson and will think of the team first in the future. Franklin did exactly what he should have done.
USC: Flawed, But on the Rise
Yeah, they sucked at the outset, but they came on strong once head coach Clay Helton got a few things straightened out — in particular, the quarterback morass. So, on paper, USC doesn’t look great, but they’re about as solid a #9 team as any team could be. And yes, they’re “for real”, whatever the hell that means.
They look a lot better on paper, though, than does Penn State. I’m just sayin’. Paper ain’t everything. In third-down conversions for example, USC is 15th in the nation to Penn State’s 120th (out of 128). (You knew I’d pick on that statistical category, didn’t you!) They’re 36th in passing offense and 37th in rushing offense, versus Penn State’s 37th in both. Purdy even! However, defensively, Southern Cal ranks 29th in rushing defense and 63rd in passing yards allowed, to Penn State’s 49th and 24th. Not much to make sense of there, and I’m sure as hell not asking you to.
The problem is that until Helton made his offensive changes in the fourth week, USC was a much crappier team than the one that finished the season. By that time they were 1-3, with lopsided losses to Alabama and Stanford, and a close loss to Utah. Alabama basically kicked their asses up and down the field in the Tide’s 52-6 victory. In that game, Alabama gained 465 yards to the Trojans’ 194.
The makeover worked. Starting with a victory over Arizona State, USC won eight straight games, including wins over ranked opponents #21 Colorado and #4 Washington.
USC’s Offense Rounded the Bend
Freshman quarterback Sam Darnold completes 68% of his passes, which is pretty phenomenal. In the Huskies game, he was 23-33 for 287 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He spreads the ball around to a veritable plethora of talented receivers, among whom the leader (but not by much) is our first funny name of the day, JUnior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. This JuJuBee has 781 yards on 63 receptions this year, with nine touchdown to boot. Darnold operates behind one of the best offensive lines in the country, having allowed only 11 sacks in 12 games, good for 6th in the FBS.
When you think of USC, you think of stud running backs like Frank Gifford, Mike Garrett, OJ Simpson, Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush, Silas Redd (just kidding about Redd) — the list goes on and on and on. This year’s Trojan offense is not particularly run oriented. In fact, they’re averaging 207.2 yards on the ground versus 261.7 passing.
They have lots of depth at running back, though, which implies that rotated-in freshness can be punishing for a defense, especially as the clock winds down at the end of the game. The leading runner is the sophomoric Ronald Jones II (a distant cousin of Reginald van Gleason III) with 1,027 yards on 157 carries, with 11 touchdowns. Senior Justin Davis has 564 yards and two touchdowns, while our second funny name of the day, sophomorical Aca’Cedric Ware scampered for 397 yards and two touchdowns.
Darnold can run, too, with 230 rushing yards and two TDs on the ground.
Jackson Leads da Defense
Trace McSorley and the Penn State big-play offense be warned. A potential Pro Bowl cornerback is waiting to get you in the personage of funny name number three, junior Adoree’ Jackson. Whether Penn State has enough big plays left in its depleted receiving corps is a big question. Watching Jackson, it seems as if he can cover three guys all by himself. (Just kidding. But he’s good.)
Nevertheless, Southern Cal ranks 64th in passing yards allowed. They really got torched by Alabama in the first game of 2016, though, so that rank might be a bit deceptive. Still, it seems as if Penn State certainly has a chance to put points on the board with its highly vertical passing game. (Enough big passes and the Nittany Lions don’t have to worry about being the suckasses they are in third-down conversions).
USC ranks 29th in rushing defense and 29th in total defense. It is not a great defense, but a solid one. It can give up some points. Discounting the Alabama game, this defense allowed 31 points to #24 Utah, 24 to Cal, and 27 to Notre Dame. They wound up #24 in scoring defense.
Jackson Special on Special Teams
The Trojans are #5 in the country in punt returns, averaging 16.46 yards per return, better than Alabama. They are #14 in kickoff returns. A big reason for that is the aforementioned Adoree’ Jackson. He is himself #5 in the country in kickoff returns, averaging over 30 yards, and #3 in the country in punt returns, averaging almost 16 yards. Penn State’s coverage units blow, ranking 56th and 28th in punt and kickoff defense, respectively. This could be a way for USC to set up some quick-ass points if the Nittany Lions aren’t careful.
History is on the side of the Trojans, who have been to this Grandaddistic venue more times than any other team — 33 in all, of which they’ve won 24. Penn State accounted for one of those wins, back on New Year’s Day 2009, when USC licked them 38-24. Penn State’s record in the Rose Bowl is a meager 1-2, with the one win being over Oregon in 1995, which fortunately, I attended. As a young tyke at PSU, I remember regularly passing the cartoonish poster on the way to the chow line in the East Dining Hall that showed a sad lion having lost to USC in the Rose Bowl sometime back in the Gilded Age. That was the other loss, and that’s the extent of Penn State’s Rose Bowl experience.
Will the Second-Half Team Play Four Quarters?
I guess the big question is whether Penn State can be present and effective for a complete game. This is not Wisconsin or Rutgers — USC could be the best team the Lions have seen since Ohio State. I don’t think the come-from-behind strategy (or more appropriately labeled, happenstance) will work with the Trojans. They’re hungry. Hungry to assuage their doubters and hungry because they haven’t been to the Rose Bowl for seven years. I think they’ll play their asses off.
The Bottom Line
Now, we get down to the nitty-gritty, and I’m still ambivalent. Damn, this is tough. I’ve been wrong about these guys for half a season. I keep doubting them, and they keep proving me wrong.
Southern Cal is a good team. Beating them would be a wonderful way to put the proverbial capstone on this Cinderella season. We all had our doubts at the beginning of the season and some continue to linger, particularly in my little bird brain. Nobody in his or her right mind would have predicted a #5 finish this season, but now the giddiness of the lofty position the Nittany Lions have found themselves in is further clouding good judgment.
In my mind, Penn State is not as good as its record or ranking. Moorheadball is fun and entertaining, but it is flawed football. The failures of the improved, but still deficient offensive line give me pause. Even a great running back like Saquon Barkley needs a serviceable offensive line in front of him. If he is well defended, with the fact of the putrid third-down conversion rate in mind, the vertical passing game is all that is left. Sooner or later, if the deficiencies aren’t corrected, defensive coordinators around the country will figure out how to defend against the Moorheadball bomb.
Going on the record for sure, maybe, perhaps, I think…
I think it will be sooner. The great second half of the football season by a great second half team was fun, but the fun has to end sometime and I believe that it will end with USC. Don’t worry, though. I’ve been wrong every time I’ve opined suchly this season. I think PSU will have to come out and win the first half in order to not dig a hole for themselves, but I’ve said that before. I still happen to believe it.
In my heart of hearts, I want Penn State to win this thing. I wanted them to beat Wisconsin, but I said they couldn’t. I didn’t think they would beat Iowa, either. I believe in these guys. I really do. The line on the Rose Bowl is as it has been from the start, a seven-point edge for USC. See, the gamblers don’t believe. I dunno. I’m waffling here. Maybe Moorhead is truly an offensive magician who can pull rabbits out of a hat every week with this cast of support characters. It’s not all smoke and mirrors, though. There truly is some talent there, albeit somewhat less without Blacknall.
Get on with it, man!
In my post-mortem of the last encounter between these two combatants, I wrote the following on January 2, 2009:
I’m too old and cynical to subscribe to the philosophies engendered by younger generations in this country, which is to say that I believe it is quite fine to admit that one has deficits. Recognizing them is the only way to fix them. Come on, you folks who sat there in stunned disbelief watching the Nittany Lions be taken apart! The evidence was out there all laid out for you, yet you clung to the straws given to you by those Penn State/Big Ten apologist writers in the same way as you did when you actually believed your teachers in our screwed up version of an educational system when they gave you an A you didn’t really deserve. You better shape up and start learning to recognize your weaknesses, folks. You can’t do anything about them by denying them. If you hide behind stupid statistical comparisons that have absolutely no validity, you’ll continually be disappointed.
So, stop watching Dora the Explora, and start reading War and Peace.
(I note that my vituperative writing has not improved very much in the past eight years, but I’m pretty consistent in my bitching about Penn State’s deficiencies.)
I hope the Nittany Lions win and prove me wrong. I’d hate to see them go into next season with the black cloud of a bowl loss hanging over them. I’m rambling again, talking out of both sides of my mouth.
He shoots, he scorrrrrrrrrrrrrrres!
OK, so let’s wrap this thing up by making a prediction that I hope isn’t borne out in reality on Monday. Hell, anything is possible — Washington scored first on Alabama, giving the Huskies momentary hope. The line is seven points with an over/under of 60. That seems pretty plausible to me. But I think it will resemble prior carnage. I’m avoiding eye contact as I predict USC 38, PSU 24. Take the over.
I’ll be back after the game to give you my insouciant comments. In the meanwhile, I want to wish all of you — all SIX of you — a very healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year!