Penn State did everything a two-loss team could possibly do to earn a trip to the College Football Playoff, knocking off both Ohio State and Wisconsin, and claiming the Big Ten championship.
However, a September blowout loss to Michigan ultimately kept the Nittany Lions out of the final four, and while the Rose Bowl is a pretty decent consolation prize, one has to figure James Franklin and his guys are eager to prove, one last time, that they were deserving of a shot at a title.
Add to that the fact that Penn State hasn’t won a Rose Bowl in 22 years -- and has lost to USC in the Rose Bowl since -- and there’s plenty of motivation to bring a win back to State College.
They’ve got the Big Ten championship as a blueprint
Heading into the Big Ten championship game earlier this month, we highlighted several reasons Penn State had an advantage over Wisconsin, and lo and behold, many of those predictions came true. The defense, finally back at full strength, stepped up in the second half after falling behind early.
Quarterback Trace McSorley showed great control of an up-and-coming offense that has thrived under new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. The Nittany Lions showed, once again, that they’re as good as anyone at playing from behind.
And all of those attributes should serve them well in their season finale against yet another elite opponent.
USC is penalty-prone
There aren’t many knocks on the Trojans, who are good, but arguably not great, at most every facet of the game. However, one place USC could definitely stand to improve is its discipline.
Through 12 games, Southern Cal has been flagged for 89 penalties, and the Trojans’ 7.4 penalties and 65.7 penalty yards per game rank 109th and 111th out of 128 teams in the bowl subdivision. And if you think those numbers are skewed by the team’s early season struggles, think again: USC has actually seen that penalties per game figure rise each month since the start of the season.
If there’s any consolation for the Trojans, it’s that they’ve been much more disciplined against ranked teams (5.5 penalties for 41 yards per game) than unranked teams (8.4 for 78 yards), but in a game this competitive, a couple flags could easily be the difference between winning and losing.
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The Trojans also aren’t great inside the 20
USC has gotten into the opponent’s red zone 52 times this season and came away with points on 42 of those chances. And while that might sound OK, the Trojans’ 80.8 percent conversion rate actually puts them 91st in the country. (By comparison, Florida State, the No. 1 team in the category, scored on 96.3 percent of its red-zone trips.)
Break it down further, and you’ll find that USC has scored on 61.5 percent of red-zone trips against ranked teams. And while the Nittany Lions are not exactly a world-beater on the defensive side of the ball in the red zone, Penn State got better as the season played out, and after allowing 18 scores in 19 red zone chances in September, the Nittany Lions have allowed 20 red-zone scores in the last nine games combined.
Saquon Barkley is healthy
Heading into the Wisconsin game, Penn State had questions about the health of star running back Saquon Barkley, who left the team’s regular-season finale with an ankle injury. Barkley then hobbled off the field early in the Big Ten championship game after appearing to aggravate the ankle, raising more concerns.
Barkley eventually returned and finished with 83 rushing yards and a score, and after several weeks to recover, he should be back at 100 percent for USC, whose coach, Clay Helton called the sophomore “the most complete back we’ve seen.”
Overall, the Trojans boast a stout defense, allowing 133.7 yards per game on the ground, but if Barkley can be effective with a bad wheel against Wisconsin’s No. 2-ranked run D, then he’s certainly a threat here.
(Also read: Here's five reasons why the Rose Bowl will go USC's way.)