1. Why does Penn State struggle in the first half but appear to be capable of beating anyone in the second half?
This is a question that we're still looking for an answer to, but Penn State fans are happy to let the trend continue as long as the Lions end up on top. No matter how high the odds have been stacked against Penn State this season, James Franklin has pushed the right buttons at halftime and given his team a chance at victory. Even against the likes of Rutgers and Michigan State, the Lions struggled to score in the first half only to come out like gangbusters in the second. Penn State will probably have to play two great halves at football to overcome Southern California, but if the game is close in the fourth quarter, quarterback Trace McSorley and company have every right to feel confident that the odds are in their favor.
2. How do the suspensions of Bowen and Blacknall impact this game?
Bowen is Penn State's fifth-leading tackler while Blacknall is sixth on the team with 15 receptions. What those numbers don't tell you is that Blacknall was one of the most valuable players in the Big Ten Championship Game with 155 receiving yards and two touchdowns that narrowed a 21-point deficit to just seven points. It's a bummer to lose a guy who is coming off of a career performance, but McSorley should still have plenty of weapons at his disposal with Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, and DeAndre Thompkins on the field. On the other side of the ball, it should be Koa Farmer getting most of the playing time in relief of Bowen. The former safety loves to be aggressive in the run game, so the Trojans may try to take advantage with some play-action passes.
3. How was Michigan able to soundly defeat Penn State but other elite teams like Ohio State Wisconsin were not?
There are three big reasons why Penn State failed to compete with Michigan back in September. First of all, injuries to starting linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell weakened the rush defense and allowed Jim Harbaugh's team to run all over the Lions. Second, Trace McSorley was making his fourth career start and was not supplying the poise and accuracy that were so key to the comeback against Wisconsin earlier this month. Third, Penn State is still a young team and on that day it was physically dominated by the bigger, badder Wolverines. The Nittany Lion wide receivers failed to get separation from Jourdan Lewis and the rest of the Michigan secondary, while the offensive line was pushed back into McSorley's lap far too often. The offense didn't fare too much better in the win over Ohio State, but the second half of the Wisconsin game showed the growth that Penn State has gone through since September. McSorley was able to step into his throws thanks to improved pass protection, and his more experienced receivers made adjustments with the ball in the air to turn big plays into even bigger ones.
4. How well do the Nittany Lions perform on the Road?
One of the reasons I was worried about Penn State heading into the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis was the team's mediocre performances away from Beaver Stadium in 2016. Not only were the Lions' only two losses of the season on the road, but they also struggled in the first half at Purdue and in the first three quarters at Indiana. Against Rutgers, Penn State didn't score a touchdown until two minutes into the third quarter. Given that the Wisconsin game was more of a neutral-site contest than a true road game, there is still reason to be concerned with the Lions playing on the other side of the country, but this team is so good at exceeding my expectations that you might as well throw all this analysis out the window.
5. If the USC defense can confuse and/or contain Trace McSorley can Saquon Barkley carry the team on his own without the deep ball or option help?
Many fans still think of Barkley is a superstar tailback, but he's now on a streak of four straight games without a 100-yard performance. Barkley is still capable of ripping off a big run any time he gets to the second level, but too often we see the sophomore swing for the fences instead of take the yards that are there. His running style is one of the reasons why Penn State had such a hard time on third down this year, because too many runs end with him on the ground behind the line of scrimmage. I don't think he's consistent enough with his gains to carry the offense against a solid defense like SC's if the passing game isn't functioning.
6. How do you see this game playing out?
Both passing games have been very efficient as of late, so there will probably be lots of points. Since the Penn State defense hasn't seen a passing attack like this one led by Sam Darnold, there's a chance the Lions are overwhelmed on defense like they were the last time this two squads met in Pasadena. However, I'm sick of picking Penn State to underwhelm when it looks like this spunky team is getting better every week. If the last two games against Michigan State and Wisconsin are any indication, Penn State's passing attack is ready for primetime. I'm picking Penn State to win 34-27.