No. 5 Penn State, No. 9 USC smell roses after turmoil (Jan 02, 2017)
The participants in the Rose Bowl might as well be looking into a mirror.
No. 5 Penn State and No. 9 USC are the "comeback kids" of college football -- two programs that reclaimed the high ground after NCAA sanctions and surged into the postseason after sputtering Septembers.
The Trojans (9-3) have won eight in a row, including a victory at playoff-bound Washington. Big Ten champion Penn State (11-2) has won nine straight, including a home victory over playoff-bound Ohio State.
These two hot teams will meet Monday in Pasadena, Calif., beginning at 5 p.m. ET.
"It's really great, I guess you could say, to be back on the map," USC redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold said. "We want to be the team that turns it around for the whole program. I think we have the potential to do that. But Penn State is a really great team."
Each team has a quarterback who will be mentioned in early watch lists for the 2017 Heisman Trophy -- Darnold and Penn State sophomore Trace McSorley. For that matter, each has a potential Heisman candidate at running back -- USC's Ronald Jones II and Penn State's Saquon Barkley.
Another similarity: While the Nittany Lions carry the old reputation of a stodgy, cloud-of-dust offense, this year's version is an up-tempo spread offense that loves to take deep shots down the field and is explosive, just like USC.
McSorley has been an absolute revelation this season, evolving into one of the nation's top quarterbacks. His 16.3 yards per completion ranks No. 1 nationally and his 3,360 yards passing led the Big Ten heading into the bowl season.
He utilizes four primary receivers, as well as tight end Mike Gesicki, although big-play threat Saeed Blacknall (347 yards on 15 catches) is suspended for a violation of team rules. So, too, is linebacker Manny Bowen.
McSorley -- like Darnold, a crafty scrambler who can extend plays -- shredded Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 384 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Penn State roared back to win its game 38-31 after trailing 28-7. The Nittany Lions are relentless, posting a plus-193 scoring average in the second half.
"Just how hard our guys play; that's something that is really, really important to me," Penn State third-year coach James Franklin said. "There's no better compliment than when you go around recruiting and you see high school coaches and they say, 'Coach, your guys play so hard.'
"That's what it starts with. You get guys playing hard and playing for each other, you have a chance. That is what I'm most proud of. ... And they're having fun. God forbid, you have fun while playing major college football."
Barkley can be a one-man wrecking crew in the backfield, entering the game with 1,320 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns en route to Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors. Meanwhile, Penn State's passing game will be an interesting test against a speedy USC secondary that features Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Adoree' Jackson and cornerback Iman Marshall.
Marshall said he is wary of "a lot of double moves" from Penn State's receivers.
"If your eyes are not right, you can get caught in the trickery of their offense," Marshall said.
USC likely has the most talented wideout in the game, though, in JuJu Smith-Schuster. Neither he or Jackson, both juniors with first-round potential, have announced their plans for next season.
Jones ran for 1,027 yards in the regular season, with 742 yards coming in the final five games as tag-team running back Justin Davis was limited with an ankle injury.
Darnold leads the nation's freshmen in passing efficiency (161.0 rating), completion percentage (68.1), touchdown passes (26) and yards per attempt (8.4). He threw multiple scoring passes in each of the team's eight consecutive wins, the longest streak by a USC quarterback since Matt Leinart did so 15 times in a row between 2003 and 2004.
USC's season turned after coach Clay Helton inserted Darnold into the starting lineup for Max Browne, who transferred to Pitt after the regular season.
And, suddenly, football was fun again at USC -- just like at Penn State.
Franklin went 7-6 in each of his first two seasons as he finished cleaning up from NCAA sanctions, including scholarship limitations, from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal. Penn State is back with a full 85 scholarships, as is USC following its punishment over illegal benefits to former running back Reggie Bush.
Now, it's all Roses again.
"Credit to our players and credit to what they've accomplished," Helton said. "These are the things that you dream about as a little kid."