It’s not the College Football Playoff, but Penn State is back in the Rose Bowl. Here are some storylines and predictions ahead of the Nittany Lions’ matchup with USC.
Nine-game winning streak. Champion of the best conference. No College Football Playoff.
That’s life for Penn State, which dealt Ohio State its only loss as part of that streak but will watch the Buckeyes compete for a national championship instead. Beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game wasn’t enough either, as the committee placed the Nittany Lions at No. 5 in the final CFP rankings.
Coach James Franklin’s campaigning after beating the Badgers didn’t work, but he’s still proud of bringing Penn State football back into the national spotlight for reasons other than the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Here are some storylines and predictions for the Nittany Lions heading into their Rose Bowl matchup with USC.
Franklin ignored the critics
Franklin knew the situation awaiting him at Penn State after he left Vanderbilt to take over in Happy Valley. He also knew that, despite those circumstances, the fan base wasn’t going to wait around much longer to have a competitive football team. Going 7-6 again wasn’t going to cut it after doing that in his first two seasons.
A loss to rival Pittsburgh and a 39-point thumping at the hands of Michigan left Penn State at 2-2 heading into October. Penn State hasn’t lost since. Now Franklin is being lauded instead of having outsiders clamoring for him to be let go.
The Rose Bowl is more than a consolation prize
No one blames the Nittany Lions for feeling snubbed. They’ve won nine in a row since that loss to Michigan, including a 24-21 over Ohio State on Oct. 22 and a 38-31 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Yet the Buckeyes, who didn’t even win their own division in their own conference, received a bid to the College Football Playoff ahead of Penn State, which won the best conference in America.
It’s likely true that had the Nittany Lions not lost to Pitt, they’d be playing for a shot at a national title right now. But it happened, and Penn State isn’t looking back. It is making its first trip to the Rose Bowl since 2008, something that’s an accomplishment in itself.
Trace McSorley vs. Adoree’ Jackson
McSorley has been on fire. He threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan State before tearing up Wisconsin for 384 yards and four more scores in the Big Ten title game. Those were two of the season’s finer games for McSorely, who has 25 TD passes against only five interceptions in the sophomore’s first full season as a starter.
Jackson likely isn’t impressed. The junior cornerback tied for second in the Pac-12 with four interceptions while breaking up 11 passes and getting credited with defending 15. That led to Jackson winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, and the Rose Bowl likely will be his last game before heads to the NFL.
McSorley has done a great job of spreading the ball around to different receivers, and he’ll be wise to throw it where Jackson isn’t throughout the game.
Saquon Barkley needs a big performance
Barkley’s 1,302 yards are the second-most in the Big Ten, but he’s been battling an ankle injury suffered in the regular-season finale against Michigan State. He had 83 yards in the conference title game and has averaged only 3.1 yards per carry over his last four.
Penn State’s chances to win the Rose Bowl could hinge on Barkley getting through a USC defense that has been solid against the run lately. Forty of Notre Dame’s 154 rushing yards came on one play in the Trojans’ regular-season finale, and they held their previous three opponents to a combined 157 yards on the ground.
USC is known to ruin Big Ten feel-good stories
The Nittany Lions’ unexpected rise has caught the nation’s attention and turned some fans into rooting for the underdog to reach the College Football Playoff. They’ll likely be cheering them on in the Rose Bowl, too.
USC won’t care, and never has. Northwestern’s storybook 1995 run to the Rose Bowl ended with a 41-32 loss to the Trojans as a skinny wide receiver named Keyshawn Johnson had an incredible game. Illinois had an unexpectedly solid season in 2007, then ran into USC in the Rose Bowl and was crushed, 49-17.
And don’t forget – USC ruined Penn State’s last Rose Bowl appearance with a 38-24 win.
The Trojans overcame a 1-3 start and have won eight in a row to reach this year’s Rose Bowl. They’re not going to lay down for a Penn State team that will have plenty of outsiders on its side.