USC's offensive line quietly leads Rose Bowl revival
CARSON, Calif. (AP) Quarterback Sam Darnold is usually credited with the dramatic turnaround that carried Southern California to the Rose Bowl.
The play of the offensive line in front of Darnold hasn't received the same attention but has been just as critical during the No. 9 Trojans' eight-game winning streak, allowing just four sacks in that span.
''If you were going to tell me, `Hey Zach, stay through it. In a few months, you'll be playing in the Rose Bowl,' I wouldn't be surprised just because I knew that's the type of level our team had going into this season, and I couldn't be more proud of my guys,'' USC right tackle Zach Banner said.
Banner and left tackle Chad Wheeler were turned into turnstiles by Alabama's fearsome pass rush, giving up three sacks to defensive end Jonathan Allen and outside linebacker Ryan Anderson. But while the Crimson Tide was able to attack with only four rushers, No. 5 Penn State will use a variety of blitzes to get to the quarterback.
The Nittany Lions have 39 sacks this season, maintaining a per-game pace almost on par with last year when they finished tied for FBS lead with Arizona State, one spot ahead of Alabama.
New defensive coordinator Brent Pry downplayed the variety of pressure packages he can deploy, saying he only blitzes when ''we need to,'' despite having 18 different players record a sack.
''We're not going to create anything new at this point in the season,'' Pry said. ''We're going to hang our hat on what we do well, and that's a little bit who they are. They don't do a whole lot because they are pretty good at what they do.''
USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin was more effusive in his praise of Pry's defense.
''I think the pressure package is pretty cool,'' Martin said. ''It's unique. And we're going to have to do a great job of knowing where they're coming from and putting hats on hats.''
USC is leaning on its familiarity with the Sun Devils, another aggressive defense that relies on exotic blitzes, to help prepare for what Penn State might do on Monday. That is good news for USC, which started its winning streak against Arizona State and did not allow a sack in the 41-20 victory.
''Arizona State, that's the closest comparison because they are doing a whole lot of moving up front,'' running back Justin Davis said. ''They are blitzing safeties, corners, the whole deal.''
Darnold's mobility was an asset in that game and is often cited as a main reason the reduction in sacks after allowing seven in USC's first four games. Pocket passer Max Browne started the first three and Darnold made his debut at Utah, which led the Pac-12 in sacks this season.
Banner, however, points to the efforts of Martin, head coach Clay Helton, quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton and offensive line coach Neil Callaway in tailoring the offense to better match the strengths of Darnold and the front five.
''Understanding that we needed to figure out who we were as a team, I think that also helped identify who our offensive line is,'' Banner said. ''We felt like there was a little bit of a change-up in terms of the play calls and things we were running, and obviously we had a switch up at quarterback, so there was a lot of things we needed to maneuver. But once we got that comfortable scheme, we got that comfortable person behind us and everything like that, that's what helped take us off and show what we can really do up front.''
Banner has thrived since those adjustments were made, not allowing a single quarterback pressure in the last six games. Earning an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl next month could allow the massive 6-foot-9, 360-pound Banner to further restore his reputation in the eyes of NFL scouts and executives.
Banner also gets to cap his tumultuous five-year career at USC with the school's first Rose Bowl berth since 2009, giving the revitalized offensive line one more chance to claim the credit it has yet to receive in full.
''I have full confidence in myself,'' Banner said. ''I have full confidence in my boy Chad. I have full confidence in the three guys inside. I wouldn't count on anybody else.''