The new year is on the horizon — and so is the Rose Bowl.
We’re about a week-and-a-half away from seeing No. 5 Penn State and No. 9 Southern California meet in “The Granddaddy of Them All,” and to help break down the Trojans, the Centre Daily Times spoke with Joey Kaufman, who covers USC for the Orange County Register.
Here’s what Kaufman had to say about quarterback Sam Darnold, the Trojans’ unsung hero, and what worries USC the most.
Q: From the sense you get with the players and coaches, what’s the Trojans’ excitement level to be playing in the Rose Bowl and against Penn State?
A: They’re pretty excited for this game, largely because it’s the school’s first Rose Bowl game in eight years, which is not a huge dropoff by most schools’ standards but for USC eight years is a long gap between Rose Bowls. It’s also a big deal because they started 1-3, and this was a team after September that nobody thought would be in the Rose Bowl. ... There are also a lot of seniors who have been at USC during the NCAA sanctions, so they were at the lowest of low points. A lot of them are pretty happy to have the chance to play in Pasadena.
Q: For Penn State, there was a moment against Minnesota when things really clicked and the Nittany Lions haven’t looked back since. Outside of the Washington win, was there a game or play that stands out to you as critical to getting USC in this position?
A: They beat Colorado 21-17, and they were winning most of the game, but Colorado made it pretty tight in the fourth quarter, so USC was winning by this narrow margin. Sam Darnold throws a pass to Darreus Rogers on the final drive. It wasn’t a perfectly thrown ball; it was actually thrown behind Rogers on a comeback route, so he was coming back to the ball. He had to reach over the helmet of the Colorado defender, and he ripped it away from him. USC was able to run the clock out on that drive. If that ball is picked off, Colorado gets the ball and maybe they have a chance to drive. If USC loses that game, they go to 2-4, and I think they’d lose a lot of steam.
Q: USC’s win against Washington — was it a surprise to the beat writers or a surprise to the team? After Penn State beat Ohio State, the players said they fully expected to beat the Buckeyes. Was it kind of the same deal?
A: I don’t think most people were surprised by it. A lot of people on the beat were still somewhat skeptical of Washington at the time because Washington hadn’t beaten a great team to that point in the season. A lot of people were not 100 percent sold on Washington. ... It was not entirely stunning. What was stunning was the way USC won the game. It wasn’t by a fluky fumble or interception where the quarterback throws it and it hits someone’s back and a defender picks it off and runs it in for a touchdown. USC led about the entire way, start to finish. ... That was the surprising thing. Not that they won the game, but they pretty much controlled the game.
Q: You mentioned Darnold. From his first game against Utah to now, where has he grown the most, and, if he has one, what would you say is his biggest flaw or weakness?
A: If you look at the Utah and Colorado games, he had a fumble against Utah in the red zone and he had two fumbles against Colorado, and USC lost all three of them. That really hurt drives, and that was an issue with Darnold. He’s a guy who’ll move outside the pocket, dive for first downs, and he’s a pretty aggressive player. He was a linebacker in high school at one point. I wouldn’t call him a dual-threat, but he kind of bullies his way. A lot of times he wasn’t being secure with the ball and it was getting knocked loose. ... He’s been better at that lately.
Q: If you were to pick an unsung hero for USC during its winning streak — maybe someone the casual fan doesn’t know, or a Penn State wouldn’t know — who would it be, and why?
A: I’d say Porter Gustin. He’s sort of an outside linebacker and rush defensive end in their 5-2 defense. He sacked (Jake) Browning twice in that Washington game. He’s a pretty disruptive guy. He actually kind of looks like Clay Matthews with that long blonde hair. He’ll win the weight room award if that’s a thing. He’s a deceptive player, and he really came on with the defense.
Q: Penn State is the best fourth-quarter team in the country and has had a penchant for dramatic comebacks, against Ohio State and Wisconsin most notably. How do you think that, if at all, affects USC’s preparations?
A: They’ve talked about it, and a lot of it comes back to USC being ready to play in this game. USC was in the Holiday Bowl last year against Wisconsin, and they had only seven bowl practices, which is not what you really want. This year they had a lot more practices, partly because they didn’t play in the Pac-12 title game, so they had an extra week. Conditioning will be important to not be gassed in the fourth quarter, and also to not take Penn State lightly and not get caught napping. USC’s defense has a tendency to give up big plays, and if you go back to the Alabama game there were a couple of times where there were just miscommunications. Even against UCLA, there was a time where Adoree’ Jackson got beat badly on a deep route, and in the Washington game, John Ross beat Adoree’ on a deep route. This team can give up big plays, and that’s something they haven’t fully corrected yet.