The Granddaddy of Them All
Let’s pick up where we last left off. The Trojans playing like kids in the schoolyard on a wet and rainy afternoon at the Coliseum, taking back the Jeweled Shillelagh from Notre Dame, and extending their winning streak to eight games. USC football had finally become fun again. Afterwards, in the post-game press conference, Coach Clay Helton stated, “It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you recover from it.” And that’s the story of USC’s season as we head into Monday’s Rose Bowl.
The Trojans ended up watching the Pac-12 Championship game from their living rooms, but Colorado’s loss to Washington opened the door for a final twist in an unpredictable 2016. Somehow, after a 1-3 start, they had done it. USC was headed to Pasadena.
Meanwhile, two thousand miles away, Penn State was completing their own miraculous turnaround, defeating Wisconsin 38-31 in the Big Ten Championship game. Led by QB Trace McSorley, the Nittany Lions outscored the Badgers 24-3 in the second half. Like USC, they ended the season on a roll, and made an emphatic statement in doing so. Penn State was back.
So here we are, with a Rose Bowl that is delightfully unexpected. These teams have not only reinvented themselves during the course of a season, but both programs appear to have recovered from the pains brought on by crippling NCAA sanctions. For players and fans on both sides, there is a feeling of relief, and hope that those days are finally behind us.
There is also a bit of nostalgia here. Monday’s game is a rematch of the 2009 Rose Bowl, in which Mark Sanchez led the Trojans to a 38-24 victory. As an annual showdown between the Pac-12 and Big Ten, the Rose Bowl tends to breed great rivalries. Perhaps we are on the brink of another one here. Whatever the case, there’s no doubt that people can’t wait for this game. It’s been the toughest ticket of any bowl game this year, including the holier-than-thou College Football Playoff.
But this is more than the return of two blue-blood programs. This is a contest between two incredibly exciting opponents, described recently by Sports Illustrated as ‘the two hottest teams in the nation.’ Both have plenty of offensive weapons, with each team averaging close to 40 points a game. Both feature defenses that have improved as the season progressed, and are now holding opponents to under 20 points a game. With those numbers, you can start to understand how both have gone undefeated since October 1st. That’s just one more reason this match-up is so compelling.
Again, for both teams, the excitement starts at the quarterback position. Trojan fans are by now in tune with the dynamic skills of Sam Darnold and the boost he provides. The Rose Bowl presents an opportunity to put all of this on display for a national audience. With JuJu Smith -Schuster on the receiving end, the stage is set.
Penn State QB Trace McSorely caught everyone’s attention in the Big Ten title game when he threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns. His threat as a passer is strengthened by Saquon Barkley and the running game. The sophomore standout ran for 1,302 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, on his way to earning the honor of Big Ten offensive player of the year.
As good as Penn State is on the ground, it’s still a toss up as to who has the edge. For USC, Ronald Jones II has been a difference-maker, rising to challenge after Justin Davis was slowed by an ankle injury. He went on to run for 1,027 yards, and score 11 touchdowns. Whether it’s Jones or Davis with the ball, Penn State’s front seven will have its hands full.
As closely matched as the two teams are, there is one thing the Trojans have that the Nittany Lions do not - and that is Adoree Jackson. His defensive play has been solid all year, but as we all know, it’s Jackson’s skill on special teams that makes him the x-factor. If he’s waiting underneath the ball, the game can change in a flash.
Clearly, there’s no shortage of playmakers on either side. The potential for highlight-reel material is a huge part of what makes Monday’s game so enticing. For USC fans, there’s also joy in the simple fact that we get to see this group on the field one more time. Who thought we’d be saying that in September?
Many have suggested that this year’s Rose Bowl features the two best teams outside of the top four. Regardless of what you think about the rankings, there’s a strong argument that USC and Penn State are the two most fun teams to watch. As they prepare to go head-to-head, suddenly the playoffs don’t seem quite as important. Perhaps this really is, ‘The Granddaddy of Them All.’