In their 33rd Rose Bowl, the Trojans face 11-1 Penn State – their opponent in the school's first Rose Bowl appearance 86 years ago.
The Pac-10 Champion USC Trojans (11-1, 8-1 in the Pac-10, No. 4 USA Today, No. 5 AP and BCS) close out the 2008 campaign Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009, against the Big Ten Champion Penn State Nittany Lions (11-1, 7-1 in the Big 10, No. 6 AP and USA Today, No. 8 BCS) at 2 p.m. (PDT) in the 95th Rose Bowl in Pasadena. This is USC's 33rd appearance in college football's most storied bowl game, dubbed "The Granddaddy of Them All." The Trojans boast a 23-9 mark in the Rose Bowl game. This is USC's seventh consecutive BCS bowl berth and fourth consecutive Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions are making just their third appearance in Pasadena – and first since the 1994 season. Penn State is 1-1 in Rose Bowl games, defeating Oregon, 38-20, in the 1995 game to cap off a perfect 12-0 season, but losing, 14-3, to USC in the Trojans' – and the Rose Bowl stadium's – first appearance in 1923. USC and Penn State have met eight times (this is the third bowl meeting, including a 26-10 Penn State win in the 1982 Fiesta Bowl) with the series tied 4-4. USC toppled Penn State, 29-5, in the schools' most recent meeting – the 2000 Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J.
In their previous game, the Trojans whipped crosstown-rival UCLA, 28-7, on Dec. 6 to solidify their unprecedented seventh consecutive Pac-10 championship and clinch the Rose Bowl bid. The Trojan defense held UCLA to just 157 yards – 47 rushing. Meanwhile, the USC offense was paced by 209 yards rushing and a solid performance by quarterback Mark Sanchez, whose two TD passes gave him a total of 30 for the season. The Nittany Lions have not played since downing then-No. 15 Michigan State, 49-18, in State College, Pa., on Nov. 22. Penn State posted 557 total yards – 419 passing – against an overmatched Spartan defense. It was the Lions' fourth 500-plus yard performance of the 2008 season. In fact, USC and Penn State are the only two teams ranked in the national top 15 in both offense and defense for the 2008 season.
Head coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season at USC (87-15, 57-10 Pac-10) having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, BCS bowl appearances and 11-win seasons (unprecedented in college football history). USC's seventh consecutive and top-4 national finish is riding on the outcome on New Year's Day. He's also led the Trojans to two national championships (2003, 2004). Meanwhile, legendary Penn State headman Joe Paterno (383-126-3 in his 43rd season as Lions' head coach and in his 59th season in the program) is college football's all-time winningest coach. He has guided Penn State to two national championships and is also 23-10-1 in bowl games. Following some struggles early in this decade, Paterno has seen the Penn State program bounce back, notching a 40-10 mark and two BCS bowl bids in the past four seasons. This edition of the Nittany Lions was not expected to challenge for the Big Ten crown in preseason polls, but led by junior quarterback Darryl Clark and senior receiver Derrick Williams, as well as the defensive exploits of sophomore end Aaron Maybin and senior free safety Anthony Scirrotto, Penn State was a last-second Iowa field goal on Nov. 8 away from an undefeated regular season and a likely BCS national championship game appearance.
Penn State Offense
Offensive coordinator Galen Hall oversees a Penn State offense that has been incredibly balanced – and productive. A core of six senior starters and experience nearly across the board has helped the Nittany Lions average more than 452 yards per game (No. 15 nationally), with 211.6 coming on the ground and just over 240 in the air. All of this yardage has led to more than 40 points per game, good enough to rank Penn State 11th nationally. Hall has incorporated a more wide open spread option attack in recent seasons, which may be news to those who assume Penn State is just another Big Ten offense. Still, Penn State will utilize a fullback from time to time and can throw to the tight end. For Trojan fans, the Nittany Lions' plan of attack will probably look most similar to that of Oregon, with a dash of Oregon State and Arizona elements thrown in for good measure. At quarterback, junior Clark has become a leader. His 341 yards passing against Michigan State were a career high. Overall, the All-Big-Ten QB has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,319 yards, with 17 TDs and just four interceptions. He's also a very capable and elusive runner, gaining 272 yards on the ground and averaging six carries per game. One question mark for the Lions entering the Rose Bowl is the loss of reserve quarterback Pat Devlin to transfer. It leaves inexperienced senior Paul Cianciolo and receiver Williams, who has had success running on direct snaps this season, as possible replacements should Clark be injured.
Williams has been the Lions' most impressive all-around receiver, using his open field skills not only from the QB spot, but also as a returner on special teams. He's averaged 11.3 yards on 40 catches, and has scored three touchdowns. Classmate Deon Butler has been the Lions biggest threat in the passing game, however. Penn State's career receiving leader has averaged 16.6 yards on his 43 catches, and has seven TDs (including three against Michigan State). Fellow senior Jordan Norwood was felled in the middle of the season for most of three games by an injury. He was slow to get back on track, but in the final two weeks looked much more like the receiver that opened the season by notching 17 catches for 303 yards and four scores in the Lions' first three games. Sophomores Brett Brackett and Graham Zug see spot time behind the trio. At tight end, juniors Mickey Shuler and Andrew Quarless each have nine catches and a touchdown, but are much more effective blockers.
In the backfield, sophomore Evan Royster has had a breakthrough season, notching 1,202 rushing yards and averaging 6.5 yards per carry. The 6'1, 211-pounder has scored 12 touchdowns and even became a bigger threat as a pass catcher as the year went on (he ended with 17 catches, 15 of which came in Big Ten play). Redshirt freshman Stephfon Green has carried some of the load behind Royster, earning 521 yards in 94 carries during 2008. The midseason loss of sophomore Brent Carter to a torn ACL has basically made the Nittany Lions' tailback rotation a two-man team.
Perhaps the most important reason for the Penn State offense's success in 2008 is a veteran offensive line, led by Rimington Award-winning center A.Q. Shipley. The senior has been a fantastic leader and is one of the best blocking interior linemen in America. He's joined by All-Big-Ten first-teamers Gerald Cadogan at left tackle and Rich Ohrnberger at left guard. The duo doesn't remind you of the giant offensive linemen routinely viewed in the Big Ten, but rather are in the more athletic mold that the USC front five has become known for in recent years. Junior Dennis Landolt looks to be in line for similar honors in 2009 from his right tackle spot, while sophomore right guard Stefen Wisniewski has started 11 of 12. Experienced depth is an issue here should an injury arise.
Penn State Defense
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has overseen one of the few groups in America that could compare its success with the USC defense. The Penn State defense ranks fifth nationally in total defense (263.9 yards per game), sixth in pass efficiency defense and eighth in rush defense, allowing just less than 96 yards per game on the ground. The Nittany Lions allowed 12.4 points per game, good for fourth nationally. Penn State has enjoyed good health most of the season and has benefited from the emergence of a pair of sophomore superstars in its front seven, while leaning heavily on a solid, experienced secondary.
Up front, sophomore defensive end Maybin became an All-American with 12 sacks among his 45 total tackles. The 6'4", 245-pounder is one of the top speed rushers in America. On the other end, senior Josh Gaines is a gamer. He has four sacks (Penn State has 32 sacks overall, good for No. 18 nationally) and 7.5 tackles for loss. Junior Maurice Evans is also a playmaker who appears often in passing situations. Inside, junior Jared Odrick and sophomore Ollie Ogbu are the leaders in a tackle rotation that also features sophomore Abe Koroma. Odrick has 39 stops, including 4.5 sacks, while Ogbu and Koroma have combined for 40 more tackles.
Maybin's classmate, outside linebacker Navorro Bowman, has become a leader after not starting the Lions' first three games. The rangy and fast sophomore leads Penn State with 98 stops and is second on the team with 11.5 tackles for loss. He's a big-time playmaker, as witnessed by his three sacks, five pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, one interception and one fumble recovery. Junior Josh Hull is second on the team with 66 stops from his middle linebacker spot, while senior Tyrell Sales has been solid on the other side, with 64 tackles.
Four seniors have made 46 of 48 possible starts in 2008 for the Penn State secondary. Only right cornerback Lydell Sargeant missed two starts in midseason (junior A.J. Wallace, who sees the field fairly often in nickel and dime situations, started in his place). Still, Sargeant leads the team with four interceptions. At left corner, Tony Davis is a solid tackler, with 38 stops. The stars of the group, however are free safety Scirrotto and strong safety Mark Rubin. Scirrotto is the emotional leader of the group and has 57 tackles and two interceptions. The big-hitting Rubin also has 57 stops. Reserve free safety Drew Astorino, a redshirt freshman who is like a mini-Scirrotto, sees plenty of time in nickel situations, and has 37 tackles.
Penn State Special Teams
As usual, Paterno has fielded an impressive group of special teamers, led by senior placekicker Kevin Kelly. The All-Big-Ten selection needs eight points in the Rose Bowl to become the conference's all-time scoring leader. He is 19-of-23 on field goal attempts and is perfect on 57 PATs. He had a 31-game FG streak broken in the final regular season game when he did not attempt a 3-pointer. has had an excellent season, making 15-of-16 field goal attempts (and 42-of-43 PATs). Junior punter Jeremy Boone has been solid (36.9 net average, second in the Big Ten), as the Lions rank No. 24 nationally in punt return coverage. Williams has been an outstanding kickoff returner, averaging 27 yards to rank in the national top 15. He also handles punt return duties, along with the fearless Scirrotto.
USC Offensive Gameplan
While the USC offense sputtered at times due to untimely strategic decisions and shot itself in the foot at others with penalties and poor execution, the Trojans ended the regular season ranked No. 14 nationally in total (453.1 yards per game) and scoring (37.5) offense. The Trojans' balance mirrors that of the Nittany Lions, with USC averaging 206 yards on the ground and 247 yards in the air. Against Penn State's vaunted defense, will seeking such a balanced attack be the choice made by outgoing offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian (who heads to Seattle following the game to take over full-time duties as the head coach at Washington), or will the Trojans look to exploit the Lions with the pass or the run.
From the looks of things, Penn State has been awful tough to run against. However, both Illinois and Michigan had some success on the ground against the Lions. Illinois was able to balance that success with positive works in the air. On the other hand, Ohio State had relative success in the air against Penn State, without the benefit of an effective rushing attack. What does Penn State's only loss – to Iowa – tell us about its defense? Not a lot, as Iowa only managed 272 total yards but was able to move the ball with patience through the air to pull off the late upset. Still, having watched that game (and now looking at the statistics), it's very hard to figure out how the Lions lost that afternoon.
While Maybin, Bowman and the Lions' secondary are formidable, expect an offensive gameplan that looks to take advantage of Penn State's interior line and other linebackers. USC can find success in the passing game with underneath routes that put Penn State's linebackers into pass coverage, and should focus more on running between the tackles than trying to get to the edge, especially on Bowman's side. The Nittany Lions will test the patience of Sarkisian's play calling, as well as Sanchez's decision making. The apparent loss of Stanley Havili to injury/grades will hurt in this game, but the speed of Joe McKnight and Ronald Johnson could play a big role in opening up the Penn State defense. If those two play well, it will only create more opportunities for Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable out of the backfield, as well as Patrick Turner and Damian Williams at receiver.
USC Defensive Gameplan
While Oregon State's loss to Oregon on Nov. 29 set up this USC-Penn State showdown, it also shone a light on something else perhaps more important to this game – the 2008 Beaver defense was simply unable to contain different versions of the "spread-option" and "zone-read" offense. Both Penn State and Oregon destroyed the OSU defense by running the ball effectively out of their sets and then laid it on thick with passing success.
This factors heavily into what to expect from USC's defense in the Rose Bowl. While Clark is a much more effective passer than Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli, and Penn State's receivers are likely better than Oregon's crew, the Trojan defense completely shut down the Ducks' attack after the first quarter on Oct. 4. Perhaps more importantly, one can look back at the USC defense's performance against the 2007 Oregon offense, helmed by Dennis Dixon. That offense featured just as many playmakers (if not more) than this Nittany Lion offense and was averaging more than 600 yards per game. USC held the Ducks to less than 330 yards and only a Trojan fumble inside their own 10-yard line allowed the Ducks to reach 24 points.
This game is all about assignment football. While USC's playmakers are all well known, from linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing to safety Taylor Mays, the key against Penn State's attack is for every player to avoid getting out of position in order to "make a play." The good news for USC is that, with Maualuga's maturation this season, the Trojan defense has become a near perfect combination of teamwork and star power. Each player seems to always know where his closest teammate will be, allowing him the opportunity to make a big hit or force a turnover at the right time, while still knowing someone has his back. USC must continue that in the Rose Bowl in an effort to slow Royster and contain Clark on the ground. USC would much rather see Clark try to beat them with his arm than his legs. If the Nittany Lions struggle to run effectively, then Carroll is likely to turn up the heat on Clark with his renowned variety of blitz packages.
Suffice it to say, the questions about USC's excitement and preparation for its fourth consecutive Rose Bowl appearance have grown tiresome. The same questions were floated a season ago when the Trojans faced an underwhelming Illinois team, but USC came out of the Rose Bowl tunnel on fire, never looking back in a 49-17 win. If there's anything that one can usually expect from a Carroll-coached team, it's that a well-prepared and mentally peaking Trojan team will show up for a BCS bowl game.
The Nittany Lions are also working themselves into a lather, riding the "underdog" role for all it's worth. They (and their fans) will be a lively presence in the Rose Bowl come 2 p.m. Thursday. At the same time, Paterno's knack for bowl preparation should help Penn State's cause, minimizing the effects of a near six-week layoff since its last game. Make no mistake, the Nittany Lions are a fine football team. Penn State is neck-and-neck with the talented 2003 Michigan team (Chris Perry, Braylon Edwards, etc.) that USC faced in Pasadena five years ago. Those Wolverines, it says here, were the best Big Ten foe USC has faced during the Carroll Era. Can Penn State top them?
Both teams tend to take care of the ball (Penn State is +0.75 in turnover margin, USC +0.41), so turnovers could become a factor if one team has some jitters. In the end, thought, this game will come down to which team's offensive line stands up to the challenges presented by the opposing defenses. USC offensive tackles Charles Brown, Nick Howell and Butch Lewis must contain Penn State's defensive ends – especially Maybin – for the Trojans to succeed consistently on offense. On the other side, it will be up to Shipley and his cohorts to get a strong push against USC's front four and negate the playmaking capabilities of the Trojan linebackers. Expect a big performance from senior defensive tackle Fili Moala in his last game as a Trojan to disrupt the Nittany Lion offense. On the other side, another memorable Rose Bowl performance by McKnight will open things up enough for Sanchez to string together some solid drives and help USC become the first team ever to win three consecutive Rose Bowls.
USC 24, Penn State 10
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.