We continue to whet your palate for the postseason by looking at the bowl match-ups involving Big Ten teams. Today our previews head into the big bowls with The Granddaddy of Them All in Pasadena, where the Nittany Lions will take on the Trojans.
This game pairs two of the hottest teams in the country and possibly two of the best teams left out of the playoff…will it live up to the hype?
Even in the BCS and Playoff era, this game still often matches one of the best teams from the Big Ten against one of the best from the Pac-12 conference. Unfortunately, the long trip to Pasadena has not tended to end well for the team from the Midwest, as Big Ten teams are 2-6 in the eight traditional games held between these conferences in the last 10 Rose Bowl games.
That includes the 45-16 beating Iowa took last year from Stanford in a similar situation as this year, with the Rose Bowl hosting two hot teams that just missed the playoff. However, while the Hawkeyes were seemingly just happy to make the trip for the first time in 25 years, USC and Penn State have both gone an equal 8 years since playing in this game. The Trojans won that game and are 2-0 against the Lions in Rose Bowl game history.
Here are five reasons to tune in and see if Penn State can break that streak and win its first Rose Bowl title since the 1994 season:
— It’s the last B1G bowl game and possibly the last Big Ten game until August 31, 2017
As mentioned in my Quick Lane Bowl preview last week, Big Ten football fans often want to watch all of the B1G postseason football, and this would be the last of 10 games in 8 days during the most wonderful time of the year. Unless the Big Ten also makes the Playoff Championship on January 9, this is the final fix before a dreadfully-long 8 month time period known as the college football offseason.
Plus, there’s no prettier setting to watch a football game than Pasadena in the late afternoon of an early January day.
Add to that the two traditional college football power programs with their iconic uniforms and great history, and this is exactly the type of top-level bowl game we wait all bowl season to see. Indeed, this is widely considered to be the best bowl game outside the playoff for this season, so why wouldn’t a Big Ten fan (or any college football fan, for that matter) not want to tune in?
Savor every drop of this season before it’s gone. However, that’s far from the only reason to see the Rose Bowl.
— A battle of two teams who haven’t lost since September
On the last weekend of September, both of these teams looked to have lost seasons following incredibly tough opening months. USC lost at Utah to fall to 1-3 (following earlier blowout losses against Alabama and Stanford), but in that game found a new leader in freshman QB Sam Darnold. The Trojans have ripped off 8 straight victories since then, narrowly missing an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship thanks to two early conference losses.
Meanwhile at another tough road venue in Ann Arbor, Penn State was busy shuffling in any bodies available to play linebacker while getting run over by 39 points by the Wolverines (following an earlier loss to Pittsburgh). The Nittany Lions had all kinds of holes thanks to injuries and looked to be headed for another mediocre season of about 7 wins following the 2-2 start. Just like USC, Penn State did not lose again, with 9 straight victories including a Big Ten Championship game win.
These are the two hottest teams in college football not named Alabama and Western Michigan. During these hot streaks, these teams have given playoff competitors Washington and Ohio State their only losses on the season. Is there any doubt nobody (including Alabama) wants to play these teams with how the season ended for both?
The long win streaks add up to a chance for huge momentum with a Rose Bowl win perhaps making an early top-level contender for next season’s playoff. The stakes are high and so is the level of play from both these squads.
— Two future QB stars duel in the national spotlight of a January 2 bowl game
Although both of these programs turned to new leaders on offense this season, the results have to have fans optimistic considering that both quarterbacks are still underclassmen. Sam Darnold (USC) is a freshman, while Trace McSorely (PSU) is at the end of his sophomore season. You wouldn’t know it from the numbers.
Darnold played sparingly in three of the 12 Trojan games this season, but he still had sufficient time to rack up 2633 passing yards with 26 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions on the season. He’s also good with his feet, eluding pressure and only succumbing to 5 sacks on the season while adding about 250 rushing yards on the ground during the season.
Similarly, McSorley has also taken advantage of teams with his feet as well as his arm this season. The Penn State quarterback has about 350 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns to go with his 3360 passing yards and 25 touchdowns (only 5 interceptions) in 13 games. His talents were on full display against Wisconsin in his last game in the national spotlight, although he was also impressive on a couple of drives that made the difference in the important win over OSU as well.
Both these guys are difference makers who have not made many critical mistakes, even when faced with great opposing defenses. That’s a battle worth watching, to be sure, as both try to become one of the top quarterbacks in the country heading into 2017.
— See if Saquon Barkley can find his October groove to take over this game
One area where Penn State should have an advantage is at running back, where Saquon Barkley comes in leading the Big Ten in 2016. His 1650 yards from scrimmage (1300 rushing) and contributions in special teams make him a constant threat to score and/or take over a game. Once Penn State’s offensive line became healthy in October and beyond, Barkley exploded in effectiveness.
To this end, during the month of October and the first week of November, Barkley had four games of 99 or more rushing yards, including two games over 200 yards. While his November numbers after that were not as dazzling, he still was the best running back in the conference known for tough running games.
Now he has a chance to really have a big game in front of a national audience.
As much as the quarterbacks look to cement their star status, the Lions could dominate time of possession if the offensive line opens big holes for Barkley to grind out many first downs. That may end up being more of an X-factor with two teams that appear to be equally balanced otherwise (including both still recovering somewhat from NCAA scholarship reductions).
— Young head coaches seeking their first major bowl victory
Just like with the teams that were struggling, there were open questions about whether Clay Helton (USC) or James Franklin (PSU) would actually survive to coach their teams another season at the end of September. How quickly things change, as both these young 44-year-old head coaches now seem on solid ground for years to come following the respective strong finishes to get to Pasadena.
James Franklin has led Vanderbilt and Penn State to bowl games in each of the last 6 seasons, but this is by far the best postseason game he has faced. It appears Franklin loves to play the underdog card, even relishing in the doubters heading into and out of the Big Ten Championship a couple weeks ago (which was also was arguably his biggest postseason game to date). Perhaps the most important thing for Franklin was revamping his coordinators and coaching staff, which appears to have paid big dividends in 2016.
Before this season, Clay Helton had only led a college football team on an interim basis thanks to flame-outs by former USC coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. In those 2013 and 2015 seasons, Helton did not reach a major bowl game and lost his only conference championship appearance last year. Nevertheless, making and potentially winning a Rose Bowl in your first full season as a head coach is an opportunity not many coaches will ever have.
One of these coaches is about to secure even more job security, which is a welcome change from just three months ago. It will be fascinating to see which one of them raises their game of schemes and play calling to meet the big moment.
Enjoy this great Rose Bowl match up, as I’m sure I did not have to actually convince you to tune in. It will be a great finish to the regular bowl season and hopefully a successful one for the Big Ten conference.
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