Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Rose Bowl: Penn State at USC


January 1st 2009* 4:30pm EST * ABC

In this year’s New Years Day match-up, #5 USC welcomes #6 Penn State to Pasadena for the 2009 Rose Bowl. Penn State hasn’t been here since 1995 while USC has played in the "Granddaddy of Them All" five times in the last six years. Both teams had overall great seasons, but fell short due to a single disappointing loss on the road and the fact that neither the Pac-10 nor the Big Ten were perceived as top conferences.

Head Coach Joe Paterno, already brandishing a legendary post-season legacy, visits Pasadena for the second time in his 43rd season with his sights set on an unprecedented 24th bowl game victory. But Penn State’s (11-1) decorated regular season as Big Ten co-champions somehow feels tarnished after a heart-breaking loss at Iowa, which all but eliminated the Nittany Lions’ hopes for a National Championship. If a Rose Bowl bid could ever be considered a wounded season, USC’s camp is finding its way to bring a little salt to the table, citing their desires to face steeper competition in the bowl season (eg, not the Big Ten). So this bowl game pits the Nittany Lions against an 11-1 USC in a classic Big-Ten/Pac-10 showdown – with both teams steeped in the tradition of winning (especially the big game) and coached by two college greats. And for Penn State, a little additional pressure is slowly converting into the 800-pound elephant in the room, which the Trojans attempted to address already on their own – the Big Ten’s diminishing reputation.

When the Trojans Have the Ball

Led by junior quarterback Mark Sanchez, the USC passing offense was 32nd in the nation in passing yards. Rumors abound that Sanchez may throw his name into the ring for this April’s NFL Draft and a good performance on this nationally televised stage would make his decision to depart a bit easier, and a lot more lucrative. Sanchez has played well this year but will need to bring his ‘A’ game against the 22nd ranked Nittany Lions defense, which has 16 interceptions to date. The Trojan quarterback is 11th in the nation with 30 touchdowns. His leading target is sophomore Arkansas transfer Damian Williams, who has 48 receptions for 707 yards with eight touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Patrick Turner is not far behind him with 45 catches for 667 yards and ten touchdowns. When USC isn’t moving the ball through the air, they'll be just fine utilizing the 17th ranked rushing offense in the nation. Lacking one single stud back, USC rotates tailbacks, often rolling with the hot hand. Sophomores Joe McKnight, CJ Gable and junior Stafon Johnson-all of whom totaled over 600 yards—are a formidable trio of toters. Gable has made some remarks about leaving USC for the NFL (Gable is a red-shirt sophomore and can enter the draft as he has been out of high school for three years) and like Sanchez, his decision may hinge upon putting forth a solid performance on a national stage. But with so many backs, USC’s run game sometimes seems to slip out of rhythm since no single back gets the bulk of the carries. Still, they move the ball well enough on the ground that Penn State’s solid defense will be unable to focus solely on the pass game. Given enough time, Sanchez and the offense can cut an opposing secondary to pieces and have outscored their opponents 342-56. Penn State coach Joe Paterno will need to make sure he keeps the adjustments coming in order to slow this offense down.

This year’s lesson learned for Penn State can come from Ohio State’s early season devastating loss at the hands of the Trojans. It was evident that USC held a superior advantage in team speed, which seems to be concentrated in their backfield. To this end, Penn State boasts the 9th ranked rush defense (98 yards/game) in the FBS, coming out of the run-focused Big Ten conference. The Nittany Lions’ front seven is anchored by playmaking defensive end (and Chuck Bednarik Award finalist) Aaron Maybin. Maybin obviously terrorizes offenses with his pass-rushing abilities, but also notched 19 tackles-for-loss and three forced fumbles. The best depth certainly comes from the end position, as Maybin was backed up by Maurice Evans and complemented on the left side by senior Josh Gaines. But Penn State’s 4-3 style defense tactically funnels runners to their ball-hawking linebacking corps -- the top three tacklers are the starting linebackers. Linebacker Navorro Bowman held mop up duty well, leading Penn State in tackles with 98 while stopping runners in the backfield with 11.5 tackles-for-loss. The captain of the secondary is undoubtedly senior free safety Anthony Scirrotto, placing fourth in tackles, but senior Lydell Sargeant leads the defense with four interceptions. The Nittany Lions’ secondary plays second-fiddle to the line and linebackers, and in order for defense to take control of USCs balanced pro-style offense, the front seven must be successful bringing down the Trojans’ ball carriers close to the line of scrimmage and pressuring Mark Sanchez with their front four.

When the Nittany Lions have the Ball

Penn State’s perfect storm of player development and seniority has led to an offensive as explosive as their celebrated 1994 campaign. The Nittany Lions took home number one honors in the Big Ten in scoring (11th in FBS), rushing (13th in FBS) and total offense (14th in FBS). Any preseason quarterback uncertainty quickly converted into production and efficiency right from Daryll Clark’s week one start. Clark’s development from athlete to passer was timely, and he has more than proved his efficiency with 26 total touchdowns versus only four interceptions. His ally has certainly been the ability of Evan Royster and Stephon Green to churn out over 1,700 yards on the ground, keeping defenses off balance. Royster’s style is based on consistency and slippery running between the tackles whereas Green is the home-run, breakaway vertical speed back. When Clark is charged with passing, his targets are plenty: the senior receiving crew consists of all-time school leader in receptions Deon Butler, the dependable route-runner Jordan Norwood, and the do-it-all playmaker Derrick Williams. Williams lines up at every skill position on offense, and provides game-breaking ability returning kickoffs and punts. Notwithstanding the playmakers and passing ability, the offense is still founded on solid rushing – if they can win without making a pass, despite lining up in the spread, they probably would.

USC’s defense is no slouch however—they've had three shutouts and have allowed more than ten points only once in the last nine games. The linebacker corps is led by Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing who are both likely to be top picks in the NFL Draft this April, not to mention fellow senior Clay Matthews, one of the natino's most improved players. This trio will be a tough match-up for Royster and Clark. Not only does the USC defense smother the run, but they can also be tough on the pass game. However Clark’s ability to effectively run the ball as well as pass, might give USC some troubles and if they fail to adjust, could open things up for the Nittany Lions. Not many teams can throws safeties the ilk of junior free safety Taylor Mays, a Thorpe Award finalist and senior strong safety Kevin Ellison. Both check in at 230 pounds, can run and lay the lumber. Leading the line in the trenches is senior
Fili Moala, an immovable force who can also make plays with his ability to penetrate.

Final Analysis

These two teams will both come in with a chip on their shoulders as both feel they had a legitimate shot at the title game and have been hampered by the perception their conferences are nowhere near as good as the SEC and Big XII. In the end, though they are pretty evenly matched, USC has far more big game and major bowl experience and will likely find a way to stand up under pressure and come away with the win. Or... has USC is already pushing the snooze button before kickoff, the all-time winningest coach is ready to tally one more victory onto his already-brilliant legacy.

Penn State Nittany Lions (11-1, 7-1)
Pass: Daryll Clark – 2,319 yards, 17 TDs
Run: Evan Royster – 1,202 yards, 12 TDs
Catch: Deon Butler – 713 yards, 7 TDs

USC Trojans (11-1, 8-1)
Pass: Mark Sanchez – 2,794 yards, 30 TDs
Run: Joe McKnight – 646 yards, 2 TDs / Stafon Johnnson 642 yards, 9TDs
Catch: Damian Williams – 707 yards, 8 TDs

Photo Credit: College Press Box (Penn St. University, USC), Kirby Lee