USC Trojans (9-3 SU, 8-4 ATS) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (11-2 SU, 9-3 ATS)
Date/Time: Monday, January 2, 2017 at 5PM EST
Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California
by Scott, NCAA Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: USC -7/PSU +7
Over/Under Total: 62.5
The USC Trojans meet the Penn State Nittany Lions on January 2 in the Rose Bowl from Pasadena. Neither of these teams made it to the College Football Playoff, though both are among the very best teams in the nation. Each team may have had a few setbacks, but with USC winning 8 in a row and Penn State winning 9 in a row to end the season, an argument can be made that these teams can play with anyone. Weíre talking about two teams that got better over the course of the season and when looking at bowl matchups, this looks to be perhaps the most appetizing of all games.
USC never looked like it would get to this level after a 1-3 start that included a massive beating at the hands of Alabama, with losses to Stanford and Utah. Once they got Sam Darnold behind center, things began to come together. Next thing you know, USC was crushing conference opposition with nary a struggle, while covering spreads left and right, including their last six. During this 8-game winning streak, only Pac-12 South champion Colorado was even able to remain competitive with the Trojans.
A lot of players stepped forward for the Trojans this season, as they developed the battle-hardened grit that comes from rallying back from such adversity. On offense, Sam Darnold, a redshirt freshman, was a key part of the equation. Despite not taking over until a third of the season was over, Darnold ended up with 2633 yards and 26 touchdowns, also running in a few touchdowns. He completed over 68% of his throws, though he did throw some picks toward the end of the season. It didnít matter. No team really came that close to the Trojans over the second half of the campaign.
At Darnoldís disposal are a full box of tools. The run-game turned around over the course of the season, with Ronald Jones going over 1000 yards, while Justin Davis and AcaíCedric Ware added some flair on the ground. Darnoldís options through the air are many, led by JuJu Smith Schuster, one of the best in the conference, along with Darreus Rogers and Deontay Burnett. With other role players and a line that seemingly improved with each passing game, the Southern Cal offense is a handful.
The USC defense played in consort with the offense, getting better as the other side of the ball began achieving improved results. No team surpassed 27 points against the Trojans in their last 8 games, not too shabby considering their opposition. They have some playmaking ability, with the electric Adoree Jackson patrolling the secondary. Jackson has also been a major game-breaking presence on special teams. Theyíve given up an average of just 22.2 points per game and thatís after starting off the season with Alabama pinning 52 on them.
Penn State showed its true mettle in a Big Ten title game win over Wisconsin on the 3rd. Down 28-7, the Nittany Lions started chipping away at that lead, with a passionate display on offense, combined with a defense that went from getting exploited to holding the Badgers to very little. After getting lit up in the first half, the defense made plays and allowed a mere field goal in the second half. With nine straight wins, including a Big Ten title and wins over a bunch of good teams like CFP-bound Ohio State, Penn State had one heck of a season.
The Penn St. offense has been consistently putting together big performances, led by gutty quarterback Trace McSorley and rampaging running back Saquon Barkley. On the season, McSorley threw for 3360 yards with 25 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also ran in 6 touchdowns. Barkley had 1302 yards with 19 touchdowns. Through the air, Chris Godwin, Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall, and Barkley have been dependable targets. In their last 6 games, theyíre one of the highest-scoring teams in the country.
The Penn State defense has been giving the offense more than enough room with which to work. Theyíve given up some points during the course of the season and even against Wisconsin, they looked very vulnerable in the first half. But they are a team that can tighten up and play at its best in the most critical of situations, just as they did in the conference championship game. They can really get after the quarterback, one of the best pass-rushing teams in the nations, especially over the last half of the season. Evan Schwan, Garrett Sickels, and Kevin Givens have been making plays and this defense can play a lot better than it looks on paper.
Both of these teams were completely off the radar after the first month of the season. They both found the wherewithal and overall spirit to dust themselves off and rally for big seasons, as they now find themselves in the Rose Bowl. Beyond the Xís and Oís and each teamís strengths and weaknesses is a certain unquantifiable level of character that these teams possess. And after working so hard and overcoming so much to get here, it will be interesting to see which team can overcome the other and the war that will be waged in order to do it. While USC is a short ride from the venue and they are on a tremendous roll, itís hard to bet against Penn State right now, especially when getting a touchdown. Iím taking the points.
Scott's Pick to Cover the Point Spread: Iím betting on the Penn State Nittany Lions plus 7 points.
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