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Rose Bowl Matchup Analysis - USC Trojans vs. Penn State Nittany Lions

NCAAF Rose Bowl Prediction

Only Alabama and Ohio State would be favored to knock off the USC Trojans right now. After starting the season 1-3, the Trojans rallied in Clay Helton’s first full season as head coach, winning eight straight to make a New Year’s Six Bowl, including a road victory over the Washington Huskies. Now USC gets to play a relative home game against the Penn State Nittany Lions and don’t be surprised if this line jumps by kickoff.

Trojans vs. Nittany Lions
Date and Time
: Monday, January 2, 2017, 5 p.m. ET
Location: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California
Rose Bowl Odds at USC -6.5, O/U 60
USC vs. Penn State TV Coverage: ESPN

When USC Has the Ball…

The Trojans season turned around when Helton sat Max Browne in favor of freshman Sam Darnold. Although Browne faced tougher defenses than Darnold, most notably Alabama and Stanford, Darnold’s advanced numbers were very impressive for a freshman. Whereas Browne threw for just 4.7 yards an attempt and completed just 62.4 percent of his passes, Darnold threw for 8.2 yards an attempt and completed 68.1 percent of his throws. Darnold was one of the best in the red zone this season, throwing 18 touchdowns without an interception.

Darnold can be a little too reliant on JuJu Smith-Schuster at times. Although there’s no doubt that Smith-Schuster is the most talented receiver on the team and a potential first rounder, he has been targeted 24 percent of the time. Defenses know that Smith-Schuster sees a large percent of Darnold’s throws and roll coverage his way accordingly, leading to him catching the ball just 68.5 percent of the time it is thrown his way.

Penn State has yet to see a quarterback of Darnold’s talent this season and it will be interesting to see what kind of game plan it has in store. The Nittany Lions had one of the best pass defenses in the country this year, allowing 6.17 yards an attempt, but the Big Ten doesn’t have a quarterback that can throw the ball like Darnold.

When Penn State Has the Ball…

The Nittany Lions must be ecstatic that OC Joe Moorhead decided to remain in Happy Valley instead of taking the job at UConn as he has this offense humming. Penn State has one of the most explosive offenses in the country under his watch, something that no one would have expected coming into the year.

Saquon Barkley gets a lot of love from members of the media after a 1300 yard, 16 touchdown season, but the advanced metrics aren’t nearly as rosy about Penn State’s running game. The rushing success rate for the Nittany Lions is rated No. 100 by S&P+, meaning that a lot of their carries went for just a handful of yards. His only 100-yard games this season were against Kent State, Maryland, Purdue, and Iowa.

The real credit for Penn State’s offensive revival goes to Trace McSorley and his ability to throw the deep ball. The Nittany Lions completed 36 passes of 30 or more yards this season and that led to success in the underneath passing game and the running game too as safeties had to stay back in coverage.

The X Factor

USC has the advantage on offense, while Penn State has the advantage on defense, but this one could come down to special teams.

Tyler Davis is 22-24 this season as Penn State’s kicker, but his range is extremely limited. The Nittany Lions haven’t had him an attempt longer than 40 yards on the season and his weak leg has been why we have seen Joey Julius blowing up kick returners on kickoffs. For Penn State to feel confident about its chances for three, it has to get in the red zone.

Helton has more faith in his kicker. Even though Matt Boermeester has only hit 75 percent of his attempts this season, his long on the season is 49 and he can hit from 50+ in practice.

The big weapon on special teams though is Adoree’ Jackson. Jackson has already tallied four return touchdowns this season and is a threat to take it the distance anytime he touches the ball. He is averaging 15.9 yards a punt return and 30.5 yards per kick return and can help USC win the field position battle.