Rose Bowl Report Card: Grading the USC Offense and Defense

January 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans wide receiver Deontay Burnett (80) celebrates with quarterback Sam Darnold (14) his touchdown scored against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the first half of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

USC won the 2017 Rose Bowl over Penn State with a potent offense and critical plays at the right moments on defense. Here’s how each Trojan unit graded out.

The 103rd edition of the Rose Bowl Game was the literal embodiment of a roller coaster, with high-highs and low-lows for just about every unit.

The Trojans started fast, but fell away during the middle quarters, only to surge back with 17 points in the fourth quarter while holding Penn State scoreless in the final period.

Here’s how each unit graded out against the Nittany Lions:


Standout, Sam Darnold


The scary thing about Darnold’s epic performance in the Rose Bow, setting records for touchdown passes, points and total yards? He wasn’t perfect.

The redshirt freshman missed his first couple of passes, underthrew JuJu Smith-Schuster on several long completions which could have gone for touchdowns and came out in the third quarter off the mark while Penn State surged ahead.

With that out of the way, Darnold proved what a special talent he has been all season, leading the Trojans to an improbable come back victory.

Darnold hit 10-of-11 passes in the fourth quarter, improvising with Deontay Burnett for the game-tying score on an inch-perfect pass between three Nittany Lion defenders over the middle.

As always, Darnold used his legs to negate the pass rush, finding Burnett for the first touchdown on the night thanks to his exceptional pocket movement.

Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Brandon Bell (11) tackles USC Trojans running back Justin Davis (22) during the first quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Running Back

Standout, Justin Davis


It was a bit of a rough night for the Trojan running backs, finding little joy against a stout Penn State defensive front.

Ronald Jones II wore No. 4 to honor Joe McKnight, but he was not able to replicate McKnight’s performance in the Rose Bowl, managing just 55 yards on 20 carries, though he did score. The slick turf seemed to affect Jones’ explosive ability more than most. Having said that, he did what he could without many holes opening in front of him.

Justin Davis was in a similar boat, but appeared to handle the field better than his teammate. The senior offered a couple of brighter moments in his final appearance for the Trojans, converting a third and long on a screen to set up Matt Boermeester’s first field goal then cutting lose for a 24-yard gain on the ground to set up the USC’s second touchdown.

Both backs converted tough third-and-one plays which ultimately led to touchdowns during the comeback in the second half.

Meanwhile, Aca’Cedric Ware only had one touch on the night, but it was a big one, gaining 20 yards on a screen on third-and-10.

January 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans wide receiver Deontay Burnett (80) catches a touchdown pass against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the second half of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports


Standout, Deontay Burnett


On a night when Darnold threw for nearly 500 yards, the Trojan receivers had plenty of yards to go around. Even so, USC relied on two specifically to pull off the victory — Deontay Burnett and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Burnett’s performance was spectacular from start to finish. While just about every other Trojan seemed to go through ups and downs throughout the game, Burnett was a constant. He caught touchdown passes in the first, second and third quarter, amassing an outstanding stat line of 13 receptions for 164 yards and three scores — including the game-tying effort with 80 seconds remaining.

In what might have been his last game at USC, Smith-Schuster also came up big. The junior finished with seven catches for 133 yards and a touchdown — which started the 24-7 run that secured victory for the Trojans. Most impressively, Smith-Schuster tapped a toe in for a 27-yard reception in the fourth quarter, caught a tipped pass for a third down conversion and was involved on the final touchdown drive.

Not to be forgotten, Darreus Rogers put in a performance reminiscent of his play all year. He came up with a big third down catch to extend a Trojan drive and used his long arms and exceptional hands to haul in a touchdown.

Notably, both Burnett and Rogers drew pass interference penalties on USC’s game-tying touchdown drive.

Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; USC Trojans guard Damien Mama (51) jumps for the ball against Penn State Nittany Lions defensive end Evan Schwan (94) and defensive tackle Robert Windsor (54) during the third quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Line

Standout, Damien Mama


As always with offensive line play, there are two sides to the story — run blocking and pass blocking. And even then, there are even more dimensions to each of those when it comes to USC’s offensive line performance against Penn State.

The Trojans managed just 3.6 yards per carry, with primary running backs Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis combining for 98 yards on the ground. The line was not able to create holes for either of USC’s rushers consistently, leading to the low rushing total.

Having said that, USC allowed just two tackles for loss on the day, the lowest total for Penn State on the season. Facing an impressive defensive front, the Trojan line kept the negative plays to a minimum.

That was true in the passing game as well. The Nittany Lions had averaged three sacks per game in 2016, but managed just one against USC.

Of course, Sam Darnold had a lot to do with that, with his ability to escape pressure. Even so, the ferocious PSU pass rush were rarely given the chance to trouble the quarterback.

January 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive tackle Stevie Tu

Defensive Line

Standout, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu


Penn State racked up 211 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, but the majority of those yards can’t be attributed to the interior of the defensive line.

The big men up front had a strong outing, especially Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who earned Rose Bowl Defensive MVP honors by leading the team with eight tackles on the day.

He also emerged from the pile with the ball after a Trace McSorley fumble. Even though the refs inexplicably overturned the call and gave the ball to Penn Sate, Tu’ikolovatu deserves credit for his effort.

Rasheem Green forced that fumble in the first place, logging the only sack of the day for USC early in the fourth quarter.

While Green and Tu’ikolovatu were active up front throughout the game, forcing Saquon Barkley to bounce it outside, the linebackers on the edge of USC’s defense front had a more up-and-down outing.

January 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans linebacker Michael Hutchings (19) reacts after defensive back Leon McQuay III (22) intercepts a pass against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the second half of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports


Standout, Michael Hutchings


USC’s linebackers made critical plays when it mattered most, but the middle quarters were characterized by poor play which helped dig the Trojans into a hole.

Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu struggled to keep contain on the edge, allowing Saquon Barkley to do damage on the outside, breaking off several long runs.

In fact, the linebackers unit in general was particularly at fault for several of Barkley’s longer runs. The running back’s first touchdown came straight up the gut as Cameron Smith failed to plug his gap. Later, Barkley made a mockery of just about everyone on USC’s defense, weaving his way for a 79-yard score, first beating Nwosu on the edge, then slipping past Smith on multiple levels before Gustin missed a diving tackle attempt.

Smith’s night was ultimately ended when he was flagged for targeting on a Penn State second-and-18 pass attempt.

Despite the struggles, the linebackers did have bright moments. Michael Hutchings finished his career in style, with two tackles for loss on the day, including the key stop on third-and-4 when he dropped Barkley for a loss of seven yards with just over two minutes to go. Earlier in the game, he made his presence known by surging through the middle on a blitz and batting down a McSorley pass attempt.

Nwosu was also involved in the final defensive sequences which helped the Trojans win the game. Before Hutchings’ TFL, Nwosu was sure-handed, wrapping Barkley up for a six yard gain which could have gone much longer.

January 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive back Leon McQuay III (22) intercepts a pass intended for Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) during the second half of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports


Standout, Leon McQuay III


First things first, the Trojan secondary gave up 187 yards receiving to Penn State’s Chris Godwin in a collectively poor effort against the formidable receiver.

Godwin caught everything thrown his way, including a three passes of more than 20 yards. He beat Adoree’ Jackson, who slipped, on a bobbled 30-yard touchdown in the second quarter. And he beat Iman Marshall on a 72-yard miracle play after the cornerback tipped the ball up and the receiver reached out to make the completion. Godwin converted first downs on six of his seven other receptions on the day.

And he wasn’t the only player to do damage. Tight end Mike Gesiki beat safety Leon McQuay III for an 11-yard touchdown.

Safety Chris Hawkins said after the game that he felt the Trojans maintained good coverage for most of the game, but Penn State’s receivers seemed to win every ball anyways.

That’s the curse of being a defensive back, but it doesn’t excuse the success McSorley, Godwin and company were allowed to enjoy. Nor does it explain missed tackles and poor angles by Marvell Tell, Jackson, Jack Jones, Ajene Harris and Chris Hawkins during Saquon Barkley’s long TD run.

In the end though, the defensive backs recovered for a passing grade because of big plays early and late, specifically from McQuay.

Marshall and Jackson each started the game with an interception, but it was McQuay who took on the hero role with both cornerbacks slowed by injury — Jackson out with an ankle sprain and Marshall suffering from vertigo.

In the fourth quarter, McQuay stopped Barkley for no gain as the Nittany Lions attempted to run out the clock. On Penn State’s final drive with the game tied, he jumped a pass intended for Gesicki then finished the job on the very next play, high-pointing the ball for interception. Adding to the effort, McQuay returned that interception to field goal range, giving kicker Matt Boermeester the chance to win the game.

This article originally appeared on