Southern California head coach Clay Helton doesn’t see the big, bumbling, traditional Big Ten side when scouting Penn State.
No, he sees something rather familiar.
“Looking at the tape, it reminds us a lot of our Pac-12 foes,” Helton said. “When you think Big Ten football, you think, oh gosh, here comes 21 and 22 personnel. You think of the Wisconsins of the world, the Michigans of the world.”
After checking the tape, Helton quickly realized that’s not the team his Trojans are facing in the Rose Bowl on Monday.
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The Nittany Lions’ attack is a high-flying, opportunistic free-for-all that should cause USC fits.
Penn State’s dramatic comeback in the Big Ten Championship game to defeat Wisconsin 38-31 on national television piqued everyone’s interest, but the Nittany Lions have been slinging and spreading it around the field all season long.
Early in the year, the offense was more focused around running back Saquon Barkley, and when opposing defenses decided to stack the box, that’s when Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead went over the top.
With Barkley at 1,302 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns, and quarterback Trace McSorley humming with 1,770 passing yards and 16 scores against two interceptions in his last six games, the Nittany Lion offense is hitting on all cylinders right now.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by any means,” Moorhead said of any expectations set for his first season running the offense. “Certainly there’s a saying that no one rises to low expectations.”
Whatever the preseason expectations were for this offense, the Nittany Lions smashed them. Penn State has exploited defenses with chunk plays all year, tied for fourth nationally in plays of 40 yards or more (28).
USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is well aware of Penn State’s compelling aggression.
“Our antennas have to be up,” Pendergast said. “We have to realize every part of the game that they can be explosive. So we just have to keep reminding our players. We’ve played some explosive teams this year, so it’s new, but it’s not new in a lot of ways.”
What concerns Helton the most is McSorley’s creativity. He called Barkley “an elite-quality back” and knows that the Trojans have to key in on the talented sophomore, but he especially doesn’t want to get burned by McSorley.
He’s seen the redshirt sophomore signal-caller do it consistently over Penn State’s nine-game winning streak.
“He keeps his eyes downfield, and he’s able to find these big receivers,” Helton said. “You saw it over and over and over again, his ability to create versus Wisconsin, and really ultimately won the game because of his ability to do that.”
Helton, a former college quarterback himself, also admires McSorley’s tendency to push the envelope and Moorhead’s job of putting the quarterback in the position to do so.
“To him, ‘open’ is one-on-one,” USC’s head coach said. “It’s not, ‘Is he three yards open, or four yards open?’ If he sees a one-on-one opportunity, he puts the ball up with good timing. So we’ve had to work on this for three weeks now of really high-ball situations of being able to focus on playing the ball as a defensive back. You just can’t be in a kid’s hip.”
Now that the Rose Bowl is so close, Helton started to reflect on just how Penn State’s offense led the Nittany Lions to this point.
Sure, the Trojans present problems on defense. Adoree’ Jackson, known for his prowess on special teams, won the Thorpe Award for the nation’s best defensive back, while nose tackle Steve Tu’ikolovatu and pass rusher Porter Gustin can disrupt McSorley and Barkley in the backfield.
But USC, which boasts a potent offense itself, could be in for a doozy keeping up with the Nittany Lions.
“To have the opportunity to beat Wisconsin in a championship game and beat an Ohio State, think about what they’ve accomplished,” Helton said. “They’re just as hot as we are. I think that’s what’s making this game so exciting is you’ve got two teams playing really, really good football at this moment.”