USC, Penn State return to Rose Bowl after trying times
No. 5 Penn State (11-2, Big Ten) vs. No. 9 USC (9-3, Pac-12), 5 p.m. (ESPN)
Line: USC by 7.
Series Record: USC leads 5-4, and 2-1 in bowl games, including a 38-24 victory in the 2009 Rose Bowl
WHAT'S AT STAKE
After overcoming poor starts in September to reach the Granddaddy of Them All, the winner of the Rose Bowl will find itself christened as an immediate favorite to reach the College Football Playoff in 2017. The Nittany Lions nearly made it this season after winning their last nine games, including the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, and can finish in the Top 5 for the first time since 2005. The Trojans won eight straight to end an eight-year absence from their postseason home away from home, and Clay Helton can join John Robinson as the only USC coaches to win the Rose Bowl in their first full season.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold vs. Penn State's pass rush. The redshirt freshman revitalized a struggling offense with his mobility and ability to spread the ball around, taking just five sacks since replacing Max Browne as the starter in USC's fourth game. But Penn State can get after the quarterback, with 18 different players producing 39 sacks this season. Led by defensive ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, Penn State can create pressure without blitzing and has no problem bringing additional rushers from anywhere on the field on critical downs.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Penn State: RB Saquon Barkley. Barkley's sophomore season has been an up-and-down affair, shaking off a slow start to rush for 675 yards in a four-game midseason stretch. But Barkley has been held under 100 yards in each of his last four games, even as Penn State's passing game has emerged as one of the nation's most explosive. Bolstered by rapid improvement from its young defensive line, USC has allowed just one 100-yard rusher in its last nine games and tends to focus on stopping the run first under coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
USC: CB Adoree Jackson. After a sensational performance against Notre Dame in which he scored on a 51-yard run, a 55-yard punt return and a 97-yard kickoff return, USC's most dynamic performer gets to play on an even bigger stage. The first task for the Thorpe Award winner as college football's best defensive back will be to help limit a big-play offense that has produced 12 TD passes on throws of 20 yards or longer, but the electrifying junior also should get a handful of touches on offense lining up at receiver or running back. Jackson ranked third nationally in punt returns (15.9 yards per return) and sixth in kickoff returns (30.5 yards per return), but Penn State has been stingy in allowing special teams yardage.
FACTS & FIGURES
Appearing in its record 35th Rose Bowl and seeking its record 25th win, USC has split its four previous appearances when the game is played on Jan. 2. ... Penn State has outscored its opponents 298-105 in the second half this season, not including its overtime victory at Minnesota. The Nittany Lions had a 24-3 scoring edge after halftime in their 38-31 win over the Badgers. ... USC RB Ronald Jones II has rushed for 895 yards and 10 touchdowns during the team's winning streak. ... Penn State QB Trace McSorley has passed for 3,360 yards and 25 touchdowns this season, both school records.
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