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December 30, 2008Sadly, this will be my last article for USCFootball.com. My new career awaits. I've truly enjoyed myself writing for the best site on Rivals, and working for Ryan Abraham has been a pleasure. Rest assured though, I'll still be cheering and complaining on Saturdays as everyone here does.
Obviously, Penn State is the best football team that the Trojans have faced this season. They are balanced on both sides of the ball, and that makes any team tough. They have a great coach in Joe Paterno, and his staff has done an outstanding job of versing the team in their program and schemes. But the question remains: is this a truly elite team, or just the best team in the Big Ten? The Trojans have laid waste to every Big Ten team that they've faced in the Pete Carroll era. In some respects, the Nittany Lions are different. Are they different enough to be competitive and/or pull an upset. Here's a look at the match-ups.
Penn State Offense vs. USC Defense
This is the "battle of the titans" in this game. There has been a lot of focus on the USC defense being possibly the greatest one in college football history, but there has been little talk about the Penn State offense, which very quietly averaged 40 points and 450 yards per game. They are extremely balanced, and probably are more diversified than any team that the Trojans have played this season. In QB Daryll Clark, they have a guy who can run a little, and has made himself into an effective passer. His rushing ability comes more from strength than from speed, which has made him the team's most effective red zone runner. He's in the top 25 in passer rating as well, although he has a somewhat awkward release. He's a pretty good passer on the run.
The Lions have done a lot of different things this season. They have lined up in the shotgun spread and run the zone read. They will line up in the I and go with a traditional running game with traps and counters, and they like to run play action boots and deep drops. The bootlegs often roll left rather than to Clark's throwing arm side, which forces weakside ends to be vigilant. They will run the Wildcat formation with WR Derrick Williams playing the McFadden position, and he mostly keeps the ball when they do this.
They do a lot of different things in their running game. They do have some zone blocking schemes with inside runs and belly stretch plays, as does every college football team in America. But, as stated above, they will pull guards, and occasionally, tackles on counters. They do the direct snap stuff that is in fashion right now as a change of pace, and they run out of the shotgun. Their lead runner, Evan Royster, reminds me a lot of former Michigan RB Mike Hart. He's not big or fast, but is slippery, and gets a lot of yards after contact. Their second guy is Stephfon Green, a little guy who is a speed burner. He was effective in the games that I saw as a change of pace. They will also line up Williams some at tailback and run sweeps with him.
The passing game is somewhat of a hybrid of USC's and Oregon's. You see a lot of the play action roll outs that the Trojans like to employ. But the Lions don't use the TEs as much as SC does on them, preferring to throw outs, corners, and the occasional double move stop and go routes, while the Trojan offense uses flats and drags. Penn State also likes to run play action seven step drops and post routes with their big play receivers, but I doubt we'll see much of that because their coaches see how USC schemes and know that's asking for trouble.
PSU has the best receiver corps that the Trojans will see all season. Williams was the #1 recruit his senior year of high school, and despite some injuries, he has come into his own this season, but more as a utility guy than a #1 receiver. That role belongs to Deon Butler, who is the team's true deep threat on the outside. Jordan Norwood gives the team a third player, who can hurt you up top. Even fourth receiver Graham Zug has been reliable. The Nittany Lions don't use their tight ends and backs much in the passing game, but did pull out screen plays for teams that blitzed. I expect we'll see some of those.
There are some weaknesses though. The Penn State offensive line is solid, but it is not the quickest unit in the world, and that has really hurt past Big Ten opponents against USC. The Lions struggled to protect Clark in the games against Ohio State and Iowa, and he has a VERY bad habit of tossing the ball up for grabs while he is in the grasp. He did that repeatedly in the games that I watched. That's one of the reasons that he hasn't been sacked much. In the two games mentioned, Clark struggled, completing 21 of his 43 passes for 207 yards, no TDs, and one INT.
There is also the question of the quality of defenses that the Lions faced. Penn State will be the eighth Top 50 defense that USC squares off against. Paterno's offense has only faced three so far this season, with SC being the fourth. They annihilated Oregon State, who is ranked #31, but struggled against #13 Iowa and #8 Ohio State, averaging 18 points and 285 yards per game. Penn State cracked 40 points seven times this season, but other than their game against Oregon State, the highest rated defense they faced in those games was Michigan at #69.
One of the things that has been mentioned a lot is that Penn State, unlike other Big Ten teams, has withstood the speed tests of teams from the SEC and Florida State, and won their bowl games. But none of these were exactly great offensive performances. In their win over Texas A&M last season in the Alamo Bowl, the Lions weren't even able to meet the defensive averages of the Aggies and scored only 24 points. In their Outback Bowl win over Tennessee, they scored 13 points on offense. Their Orange Bowl win over Florida State featured 14 offensive points in regulation against a five loss Florida State team that gave up 22 per game. So if Penn State is going to win this one, it will have to be on defense in my opinion.
Penn State Defense vs. USC Offense
This is the best defensive team that the Trojans have faced all season, and they do it with discipline, not with a lot of crazy scheming designed to trick the quarterback. They line up mostly in a 4-3 set, even on obvious passing downs. Most teams now will switch to a 3-4 on those downs. Their linebackers play at regular depth, and the weakside guy stays on the field against three and four wide. Their corners play at medium depth, and they don't do much bump and run stuff except in situations like third and three. They will cheat their strong safety up a little, but they won't walk him up into the box very much.
Penn State's gameplan is very simple. They think their defensive line can beat your offensive line. Against quality teams, like Ohio State, they will blitz more than they usually do just to mix it up, but their objective is to play their base defense in a disciplined manner, and force you to beat them with execution. They play the run straight up, with the strong safety giving you a slight cheat look, and not flying up unless he knows the back has the ball. They do play their safeties interchangeably, with a guy like Anthony Scirotto taking free safety duties on some plays and playing their "hero" back (strong safety) at others.
Against the pass, they keep it simple. On most plays, they will rush four, drop six in an almost straight line across the field, and have the free safety as a center fielder who can roam where the ball is. They will show some Cover 3 with both corners taking a deep third. They are a zone team through and through, even when they blitz. They feel that they have a good pass rushing front four, so they will try to sit on the short stuff some, take away the deep stuff with a roaming free safety, and hope that their pass rush will take the intermediate stuff away. It's really elementary, but they do it very well.
The catalyst for the group is DE Aaron Maybin, who notched 12 sacks this year. He's a quick guy who is starting to master some of the technique involved with the position. He has become effective with a spin move. Jared Odrick is a beast in the middle, who is the team's second best pass rusher. He's a big guy with quick feet. They also have a playmaker at linebacker in Navorro Bowman. In my opinion, their secondary is above average, and nothing more. The Tojans have seen better back fours in the Pac-10. They have seen more athletic linebacker crews. They have not seen a better defensive line though, and they have not seen a group as disciplined and tough as this one.
There aren't many question marks with this team, but if there is one, it's similar to their offense who have they faced? They have not exactly faced a cavalcade of explosive and balanced offenses. The best offense they have played against this season is Illinois. The Illini managed to move the ball and put up 24 points. That's the only top 20 offense (#19) that Penn State has faced all year. In fact, USC has faced more top 50 offenses (four) than Penn State (three). The fact that Penn State faced so few top 50 offenses and defenses speaks to how poor the Big Ten is, along with the rest of PSU's non-conference schedule (Coastal Carolina, Syracuse, Temple). Still, Penn State did face one team in the top 50 in total offense and total defense, and annihilated them. That team handed USC its only loss of the season. So in this game, as with when teams are playing USC and not the Pac-10, USC is playing Penn State and not the rest of the Big Ten. The question: is Penn State really that much better than the rest of its conference, as USC is in the Pac-10?
Trojan fans can probably forget about hanging 35-40+ points on the Lions. Unless Penn State has a bad turnover day, that isn't likely to happen, and PSU has taken care of the football very well this season. And the Trojan offense has been inconsistent this season, moving the ball well but sputtering at key junctures.
On the other hand, even with a diversified attack and some quality skill position players, I don't like Penn State's chances of moving the ball consistently against USC. The Trojan defense has been absolutely outstanding this year. I heard a stat on ESPN that was startling. The national average in scoring is 25 points per game. SC gives up just under eight per game. That 17 point spread between the nation average and SC's average is the largest in college football history since they began recording these stats.
Penn State is going to try to do what most of USC's opponents do: win the game with rushing and short passing. But of all the things that they do, they don't have much of the three step drop passing game, and I suspect that it's because Clark isn't very good at it. Clark won't be able to run as much as they want him to, because the Lions' backup QB transferred recently, leaving PSU with an inexperienced senior and Williams as their backup QBs. The Lions will do some interesting things with Williams, as they have at times this season, but the Trojans are good at preparing for these types of tricks.
The Lions have been pretty much stifled by the two top defensive teams that they've played, not cracking 300 yards in either game, and struggling to pass the ball effectively. USC is not going to stop Penn State's running game in its tracks, because the Nittany Lions commit to run the ball, and are pretty good at it. But the Trojans will probably hold the Lions to under four yards per carry and well under 200 yards rushing, and they'll probably minimize the big plays that PSU was able to get against some lesser defenses. The Trojans will get after Clark with some blitzing, and Clark, who has the second fewest passing yards of any QB in the Top 25 of passing efficiency will struggle, as Jeremiah Masoli did, and as Clark did before against Ohio State and Iowa.
Still, that doesn't mean that the Lions can't win. UCLA beat SC in 2006 with a poor offensive performance by winning the line of scrimmage with their defense and battering John David Booty. That's how Penn State can win this game. The problem for Penn State is that they haven't played anyone who ranks in the top 20 in rushing and pass efficiency, as USC does. The Trojans have already faced a rugged Big Ten defense in Ohio State with a somewhat similar style and comparable numbers against essentially the same schedule, and moved the ball well. The Lions are better on the DL, similar at LB, and not as good in the secondary as Ohio State.
I think you'll see a lot of what we've seen so far this season, with the Trojans trying to balance out the offense. I doubt you'll see anything like you saw in the Rose Bowl against Michigan, where the Trojans threw 20+ passes in a row. The Trojans will run the ball well as they have against three top 25 rushing defenses (Ohio State, Cal, and Oregon), averaging 164 yards rushing in those contests. They probably won't get that high, but they'll be in the 140-150 range. The Trojans will protect the passer reasonably well against a four man rush, as they have for most of the season, and Mark Sanchez will make some plays with his arm and his legs.
The problem for Penn State, as has been the problem for many Big Ten teams before, is that they haven't faced the kind of efficient QB that SC has. Juice Williams is likely the best passer that they have seen, and that isn't saying much. Sanchez will spread the ball around, and I expect that Patrick Turner and Anthony McCoy will be the standouts, as they have been solid possession receivers of late, which will be important against Penn State's simple but tight scheme.
This game will likely not feature the fireworks and big plays that past Rose Bowls with SC have been known for. It will just feature too well coached football teams taking the field, and the team with the better athletes will win the game. The Trojans will rattle Clark into a poor game, and the USC offense will feature the same workmanlike, unspectacular, balanced offense, with an emphasis on between the tackles zone running and short to intermediate passing. Penn State's key to winning will be the defensive line dominating the line of scrimmage, and I don't think that will happen.
Trojans-28, Nittany Lions-10
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