If your team does not make it to the College Football Playoffs, then the Rose Bowl is always going to be the next best thing. No offense to other bowl games and their conference tie-ins with the SEC or ACC or anyone else, but the Rose Bowl is usually the only non-playoff games to sell out every year. With the San Gabriel Mountains looming over the stadium, usually with the sun shining, and 92,000 people locked in, there is a reason it gets its own network TV time slot with no other games playing at the same time. The teams get their trips to Disneyland and Universal Studios, and more importantly, they get the “Beef Bowl” at Lawry’s where the two teams compete to see who can eat the most high-end prime rib. What could be better?
The game is on Monday the 2nd this year but not for the reason the other bowl games are. Most are trying to avoid going head-to-head competition with the NFL on a Sunday. The Rose Bowl goes its own way though. The game, and preceding parade are still run by the Tournament of Roses Committee. They don’t work out of some big west coast high rise. They own one of the most spectacular mansions in Pasadena as their headquarters to keep it all very local.
When the Rose Parade first started in 1890, the committee vowed to the local churches along the 5 ½ mile route that the parade would never be on a Sunday so as not to disrupt their parishioners or the services. When the bowl game came along in 1902, (and annually since 1916), they made the same commitment. The game is old school in that it does not change its name for a title sponsor, (although it has had many presenting sponsors over the years). This year’s game has a little old school flavor to it as well as two of the blue blood programs in college football meet.
2017 Rose Bowl Preview; USC vs. Penn State
Where: The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA
Monday, January 2nd, 5pm EST
This year’s version of “The Granddaddy of Them All,” has two teams that are on strikingly similar trajectories. Penn State started the season 2-2 and that included losses to in-state rival Pitt and a shellacking by Michigan. The Nittany Lions then won nine straight, including an upset over playoff-bound Ohio State and the conference title game against Wisconsin. USC started the season 1-3, (including a season opening 46-point drubbing by playoff bound Alabama), and people were calling for Clay Helton’s head in his first full season as head coach. The Trojans reeled off eight in a row after that including an impressive win in Seattle over the playoff bound Huskies.
Both teams run balanced attacks with offenses that rely heavily on high end running backs, and quarterbacks that extend plays outside of the pockets.
USC’s Sam Darnold was not the starter when the season started. The red-shirt freshman was sitting behind veteran Max Browne. But as the team struggled offensively and its record suffered, Helton made the change to the red-shirt freshman, and the season turned with it. Darnold has thrown for a 68% completion rate to go with 2,633 yards and 26 touchdowns. His ability to show more mobility out of the pocket than Browne did has also rejuvenated the offensive line, which was supposed to be a strength of the Trojans this season, but labored early on. The line has only given up five sacks since Darnold became the starter. And here is your requisite Hollywood, So Cal, glitz and lights connection. Darnold’s grandfather was Dick Hammer, who played the Marlboro Man in television cigarette ads in the 1970’s.
Penn State’s Trace McSorley was always going to be the starter this season. He first saw playing time late last season a red-shirt freshman. He appeared in seven games last year with Christian Hackenberg being in and out of the lineup with various injuries. McSorley even had a touchdown pass in the bowl game against Georgia. This season though he has delivered better than expected results. He has 25 touchdown passes to only five interceptions and his 16.3 yards per completion leads the nation. He is likely to be hampered a little in this game as his best deep threat receiver, Saeed Blacknall, has been suspended for the game for unspecified violations of team rules. Blacknall was the Nittany Lions leading receiver in the conference championship game with 155 yards in six receptions.
The Running Backs
Both teams have high-end running games that are going to get a lot of the work on Monday. USC has a dual threat attack with Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II. They have rarely been healthy at the same time this season, (but are now), and Jones has been the workhorse with 742 yards and nine touchdowns in the last five games.
Saquon Barkley has been the workhorse for Penn State all season with 1,320 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. The irony is that while this is Barkley’s first trip ever to California, he says he wants to move there and has been busy studying the game films to try to learn more from the running style of…wait for it…USC’s Reggie Bush.
This is where the similarities start to break apart. Penn State has a stout defense that is #23 in the nation in giving up only 350 yards of total offense per game. But the Nittany Lions will be missing starting linebacker Manny Bowen, who is also suspended for the game for violation of team rules. Penn State has done a fine job filling in spots due to injuries this season, but the skill position players from USC, (JuJu Smith-Schuster and a likely dose of Adoree’ Jackson), are likely to stretch the defense more than it is used to. No amount of creative defensive designs that come in the mail from the Green County Supermax Prison prepare you for that.
USC doesn’t always maintain the appropriate techniques and tends to give up big plays from time to time because the Trojans rely heavily on athleticism on defense, but it is an ability that can change the flow of the game in an instant. It is pointless to try to label Jackson with a specific position, as he tends to float, (sometimes too much so), to wherever he is needed on the field from play to play. Throw in his kick and punt returning skills and the likelihood of seeing him get several snaps on offense and it may be tough for Penn State to catch up if the Trojans jump out early.
The perfect bowl setting, a pair of college football’s blue blood programs that are also two of the hottest teams in the country and you get why the Rose Bowl stands alone as a game.