Or: Why Everyone Who's Entirely Sure That USC Will Win By Double Digits Is Lying.
(Note: I know some of this was covered by Paragon in the post below, but it's worth expounding on the defensive showdown coming on both sides.)
Per stats stolen from Yahoo, here are the top five teams in defense so far in the 2008 season:
USC (7.8 ppg, 206.1 yds per game, 17 INT)
- TCU (10.9, 215.1, 15)
- Boise State (12.3, 294.5, 22)
Penn State (12.4, 263.9, 16)
- Florida (12.8, 279.3, 24)
No matter what you may think of the Big Televen's schedule or its relative downslide in the wake of the past two national championship games (never mind last year's defenestration of Illinois), it does not apply here, because giving up fewer than two touchdowns a game in a BCS conference is a mark of a very, very good team.
Where We Stand
When you break it down by individual category, USC's #1 overall ranking is due to topping the ranks in passing D (122.8) and finishing 4th in rush D (a stingy 83.3 yards per game, 7 rushing TDs allowed).
The most points allowed? 27 in the loss to Oregon State, much the result of one very sloppy first half. Stanford was the only other opponent to break 20 points, and that again came in a game with a large point differential at the end (45-23.)
Strength: the linebacking corps led by Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga, teaming up with Fili Moala on the D line. A solid secondary led by Taylor Mays ties together a pass rush with good coverage downfield to break up plays or to keep receivers in front of them after the catch. With Daryll Clark and Evan Royster putting much of the LCD power into the Spread HD, the standouts need to get past the Nittany Lions' offensive line. This can be done: the Lions have given up a sack a game, on average -- but that still isn't a ton in the scheme of things. It's on Mays and the rest of the secondary to keep Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood, and the rest of the Lions' receivers covered so that the front seven can get to Clark and disrupt his timing.
Obvious concern? Clark's mobility. One of the linebackers is going to have to play the "spy" role to catch him while rolling out or when he decides to take it himself. Secondary possibility? Derrick Williams taking direct snaps, although since you are already defending for 11 with Clark under center, that shouldn't throw the defense off guard.
The Formidable Opponent
Penn State gets to #4 overall with a 7th in rushing (93.9 ypg), despite being 12th in passing defense (168 per game, still stingy.) They allowed 24 points twice: first in an Illinois game that was not as close as the score indicated, then in their sole loss to Iowa on the road in Kinnick Stadium, mostly thanks to tough yards dug out by Shonn Greene. No one else got more than 18 points against them, and this was mostly done with a four-man line both holding feature backs of the likes of OSU's Chris Wells, Michigan State's Javon Ringer, and Wisconsin's P.J. Hill under 100 yards and putting the hurt on opposing QBs.
Aaron Maybin has been a beast, racking up 12 sacks while Jared Odrick's 300 lbs. helps stuff the run. LB Navorro Bowman is the latest star to emerge at "Linebacker U"; he recovered the crucial fumble leading to the game-winning score over Ohio State.
The only spot to exploit: possible weaknesses in the secondary. Anthony Scirotto is a fierce, hard hitting safety, but the team's #12 ranking in passing D suggests that a medium-range passing game, with the occasional bomb to take advantage of possible man coverage could yield benefits for Mark Sanchez, Patrick Turner, and Damian Williams -- and an opening for Joe McKnight to work for yards after the catch. Whether Steve Sarkisian will be creative enough to use those wrinkles in his last game as OC and QB coach is another question.
The thing is, the Trojans are going to need to establish that run first. It's to PSU's advantage to make USC lean on Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, and Joe McKnight. The benefit for the Lions is that the Trojans' offensive line is young -- and with that in mind, the offense has had moments alternating between utter domination and intense confusion on timing. Sanchez can throw on the run well, so the Penn State defense faces a similar challenge to USC's: disrupt his timing and have Bowman or someone else in the front seven catch up with him when he leaves the pocket.
Punching Each Other In The Mouth
Do not, I repeat, do not be surprised if this game ends in any of these scores: 17-10, 14-10, 13-7, etc., no matter how much crap you might hear about the talent gap. This reads like the best and most competitive of the BCS bowls on paper for a reason, and I expect a close, low-scoring game based on the defensive numbers alone.