When USC football and Penn State square off at the 2017 Rose Bowl, the Trojan run game, and the Nittany Lions’ efforts to stop it, will take center stage.
Penn State has plenty to worry about when it comes to slowing down USC’s rushing attack.
The Nittany Lions ranks 27th in S&P+ rushing defense, an opponent-adjusted advanced statistic. The Trojans have faced five teams ranked higher than the Nittany Lions. Of those, only Alabama and Washington held USC to under four yards per carry. The Crimson Tide alone limited them to under 100 yards.
The Trojans are averaging 200 yards per game on the ground for the first time since 2005, with a trio of backs each capable of damaging a defense.
Ronald Jones II is chief among Penn State’s concerns.
“The running back is one of the best running backs we’ll see this year,” linebacker Brandon Bell said. “[He] can make his O-line right even if they’re wrong.”
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry compared Jones to Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel.
The running back is one of the best running backs we’ll see this year. Can make his O-line right even if they’re wrong.
“[He’s] a little bit of a slasher, but can get to full speed pretty quick, has good vision, and good balance, and nice feet,” Pry said. “He’s a match-up problem.”
The Samuel comparison doesn’t fit perfectly, given Jones’ noted troubles as a pass catcher, but the big play ability certainly applies. Samuel broke free for a 74-yard touchdown against the Nittany Lions when they met in October.
Jones led the Pac-12 with six rushes of 40 or more yards, including three from 60 yards out.
Penn State is no doubt concerned about preventing the big play on the ground, but USC’s rushing attack in the more general sense will be critical to the outcome of the game.
The match up shouldn’t involve many surprises, just strength on strength.
“[USC’s run game is] pretty kind of vanilla. There’s no smoke and mirrors in it,” defensive end Evan Schwan said, thankful to be facing a more straightforward attack after the disguises of Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Of course, more straightforward doesn’t mean easier. Not when you’re going up against run blockers like USC’s, including the 6-foot-9, 360-pound Zach Banner.
“The run game is something that I’ve tried to focus on a little bit more just because of [Banner’s] size,” Schwan said, though practicing against Nittany Lion offensive tackle Chasz Wright, at 6-foot-6, 343 pounds, can’t quite replicate the challenge that Banner will present for Penn State’s rush defense.
There’s only so much you can do against a personnel match up like the one USC offers, so Penn State doesn’t plan to do anything different to match up with the Trojans.
“We’re not going to create anything new at this point in the season for us. We’re going to hang our hat on what we do well,” Pry said.
In that sense, the schematic battle should take a backseat to the simplicities of execution.
From a Penn State perspective, that means being in the right spot and being fundamentally sound.
From a USC perspective, the script remains the same.
“We just have to be on point, make sure we’ve got our Ps and Qs right, because they’re going to be coming,” said running back Justin Davis, who partners Jones in the backfield and is finally healthy after being slowed by an ankle injury at the tail end of the season.
The Trojans have maintained from the beginning that they haven’t done anything differently during their eight-game winning streak — the change has been improved execution and the confidence that accompanies it.
That combination of execution and confidence, in each other and what they do, fuels USC’s offensive line, the workhorses of the Trojan run game.
“I have full confidence in my boy Chad [Wheeler]. I have full confidence in the three guys inside in Damien Mama, Viane [Talamaivao] and Nico [Falah], and I have full confidence in the three guys coming behind us, Chuma [Edoga], Chris [Brown] and Jordan [Simmons],” said Banner. “I think when you talk about a team and what we’ve been through, I think it shows in those eight guys and the offensive line especially. I wouldn’t count on anybody else.”
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Another cog in the rushing machine, Davis echoes that faith in his teammates.
“With this group it’s been two or three years with them. I have confidence in them forever,” Davis said. “I know they’re going to do their job to the best of their ability. That allows me to focus on myself and try to read their blocks and just trust in them. And I do, it makes my job a whole lot easier.”
With both teams on long winning streaks, a theme of the match up between USC and Penn State is the idea that something’s got to give.
The Trojans want to keep rolling in the run game and the Nittany Lions want to stop them. It’s a simple equation, but a key one for both sides.