With USC quarterback Sam Darnold having been successful in and out of the pocket, Penn State’s pass rush is an emphasis for both teams in the Rose Bowl.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold became a revelation in 2016, helping turn the Trojans’ seemingly D.O.A. season around. Now entering the first big game of 2017, the freshman is a bonafide problem for opposing coaches.
“He finds a way to keep the play alive, and he finds a way to make a play with his feet,” Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Wednesday. “He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Those guys, I hate defending those guys.”
To prepare for the challenge in the Rose Bowl, Pry isolated game film based on schematic similarities between USC and previous opponents, along with teams the Trojans have played.
It put Indiana and Ohio State front and center.
Like the Hoosiers, the Trojans can spread the field in the passing game. But physically, their talent level at key positions is on par with the Buckeyes.
“We’ve seen quarterbacks that have been good and have been able to do things that [Darnold] can do, especially J.T. Barrett at Ohio State,” PSU defensive lineman Evan Schwan said. “We’re just going to have to get a good rush. Everything is going to start up front for us, especially with their big, physical offensive line.”
Penn State’s 4-3 defensive scheme is built on just that, front to back, with pocket penetration being paramount. They boasted the third-most tackles for loss in college football, and the Nittany Lions’ relentless pressure on Barrett helped steer them to a signature win.
The 11 tackles for loss against Ohio State were a season high, and defensive end Garrett Sickels had a career night with 2.5 sacks despite missing the first half due to suspension.
Without question, a repeat performance in the Rose Bowl would serve them well. USC’s offensive line has surrendered just five sacks in nine games with Darnold as the starting quarterback.
The freshman’s ability to shake defenders, shimmy out of trouble and find creative ways to pick up third down conversions are reasons why the Trojans have been so efficient on offense, ranking seventh nationally in third down S&P+.
USC’s offensive line has surrendered just five sacks in nine games with Darnold as the starting quarterback.
To combat him, Penn State is preparing to take a counterattacking approach.
“In later downs, we’re going to have our staple blitzes that we try to gear toward their protection,” Pry said. “He’s not going to sit back there and hold the ball long. So we’ve got to come clean on him. We study protections like everybody else does, and try to get a beat on them.”
Getting a beat on your opponent is all a part of the coordinator chess match.
As USC offensive lineman Zach Banner explains, scheming on the field and through film is football’s version of fishing.
"They’re good at finding their fishes in offensive schemes. Hopefully we put a lot in the film that’s going to be hard for them to find that fish, but they want to identify it and they want to expose it. So when you talk about it – that’s why they’ve had so many different types of fronts and blitzes and blitz packages. Their scheme is different every game, so what we did is we’re going into this game thinking, ‘Let’s put everything together where some people have exposed us or some people have gotten us, and let’s practice that because we know that’s what they’re going to come with.’"
Even with the variety of looks Pry will throw at the Trojans, Penn State has shown the ability to establish a sizable pass rush when they opt not to blitz.
It’s why USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin emphasizes as simply getting ‘hats on hats’, and maintaining a numbers advantage despite some schematic creativity.
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“They always try to get seven or eight men in the box somehow,” Martin said. “And the obvious passing down, whether it’s 3rd and long or 3rd and medium, they have all the stunts and games and things like that. I think the pressure package is pretty cool. It’s unique.”
All told, Penn State’s willingness to apply pressure in a variety of ways –Justin Davis called their blitzes exotic– sets them apart from previous opponents.
Alabama game planned for a much different quarterback in Max Browne. Then there’s Washington, who faced USC during their good run of form but prided themselves on a blitz-less pass rush.
There’s no better time than the Rose Bowl for the Trojans’ All-American offensive tackles to prove their mettle, along with Darnold showing out on the grandest of stages.