Penn State travels well and will no doubt have a strong contingent at the Rose Bowl. But whereas Nittany Lions fans face a 2,500-mile trek from Happy Valley to Southern California, the Trojans only have to go 15 miles up the 110 to get to Pasadena, and you can’t ask for better than that when it comes to crowd support.
Overall, USC is 33-20 in 53 games played in the Rose Bowl, including a 22-point win over UCLA earlier this season. And while there’s no guarantee the crowd impacts the game, there’s something to be said for the fact that USC has won 13 of its last 17 bowl games in the stadium -- including a win over Penn State in both teams’ most recent Rose Bowl appearance in 2009.
USC is riding a hot streak of its own
For all the talk about Penn State’s transformation over the past three months, there’s an argument to be made that USC’s turnaround has been at least as impressive, if not more so.
After losing their opener by 46 and dropping three of their first four games, the Trojans have rattled off eight straight victories, including wins over both Pac-12 division champions. They’ve averaged 523 yards of offense during that span and have held three of their last four opponents under 300 yards.
And if playoff spots were awarded to the teams that are playing the best football right this second, USC would have as much of a case to be in as anyone.
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The Trojans don't allow sacks
Penn State is among the best teams in the country at hassling opposing quarterbacks, and ranks 14th nationally with three sacks per game. However, Southern Cal is one of the nation’s leaders at protecting its signal-caller and has allowed just 11 total sacks in 12 contests, a 0.92 sacks-per-game average that ranks sixth-best in the country.
Penn State’s two losses came in the only two games where it did not register a sack on defense. If USC can win the battle in the trenches and keep redshirt freshman standout Sam Darnold on his feet, it’ll go a long, long way toward securing the W.
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Penn State isn't a great third-down team
Southern Cal could also do itself a world of good by putting Penn State in as many third-down situations as possible, because the money down has been a bit of an Achilles’ heel for the Nittany Lions all season.
In five games against teams currently ranked in the CFP Top 25, Penn State converted just 11 of its 54 third-down chances. And for the year, the Nittany Lions rank 121st nationally at 32.1 percent overall. USC, meanwhile, has held opponents to a 35.2 percent success rate on third down — including a 32.2 percent mark during its eight-game win streak.
Those numbers may not hold in the Rose Bowl, of course, but you’ve got to like the Trojans’ chances if they keep putting Penn State’s offense on the ropes.
Adoree Jackson is a game-changer
When Michigan routed Penn State in September, the Wolverines’ first touchdown was set up by a 53-yard punt return by Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers. And in Adoree Jackson, USC has the closest thing to Peppers that the Nittany Lions have seen since.
The Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back, Jackson was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year and made the All-Pac-12 first team at both defensive back and return specialist. And while he’ll no doubt be looking to wreak havoc on Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, it’s on special teams where Jackson may have the best chance to make a game-changing play.
On the season, Jackson has two kick return touchdowns and two punt return touchdowns, and he ranks fourth nationally with a 15.9-yard average on punt returns and sixth nationally at 30.5 yards per kick return. If he can break one open on Monday, it may be enough to swing the whole game in USC’s favor.
(Also read: Here's five reasons why the Rose Bowl will go Penn State's way.)
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.