Penn State’s ability to hit explosive plays has been key to their success in 2016. USC’s task in the 2017 Rose Bowl is to cut off the deep ball.
The most striking feature of Penn State’s impressive win streak this season is their explosive passing game, using shots downfield to devastating effect.
Considering how the Nittany Lions boast the No. 2 S&P+ passing offense in the country, hitting more long passing plays than anyone USC has faced this season, it’s an aspect of their attack that is hard to ignore.
In the 2017 Rose Bowl, Trojan defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast says explosive plays will decide the game.
Quarterback Trace McSorley, who is not afraid to pull the trigger on long attempts, represents the first side of the equation.
“To [McSorley], open is one-on-one,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “If he sees a one-on-one opportunity, he puts the ball up. He allows those big receivers to go up and make the one-on-one football play.”
The other side of the equation? Those big receivers.
The Lions will be without one of those downfield weapon — 6-foot-3 Saeed Blacknall was suspended for a violation of team rules and will miss the game — but PSU is flush with options and depth at the position.
“With the amount of success we’ve had with those shots, we’ll just continue to call them.”
Chris Godwin headlines the unit at 6-foot-1. He’s accounted for 15 plays of 20 or more yards. That’s 30 percent of his catches.
At 6-foot-6, tight end Mike Gesicki has added 12 of his own — 25 percent of his grabs.
Then there’s DaeSean Hamilton, who stands 6-foot-1 and has nine 20-yard catches on the year — tallying at 26 percent.
Penn State isn’t shy about their game plan in that regard either.
“With the amount of success we’ve had with those shots, we’ll just continue to call them,” Gesicki said.
It’s Adoree’ Jackson and the Trojan secondary’s job to stop them. So the focus since USC got back on the practice field for bowl prep has been to perfect the art of winning one-on-one battles.
“We’ve had to work on this for three weeks now, high-ball situations of being able to really focus on playing the ball as a defensive back,” Helton said.
Of course, that’s an area where the Lions pride themselves on being the best.
“We’d like to say there’s no such thing as a 50-50 ball. It’s a 100 ball,” Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said. “When the ball’s in the air, it’s ours. Our receivers have done a great job going up and making plays.”
Jackson understands that mentality, since he approaches being a cornerback the same way.
“It’s the same thing that we do. They’re throwing it up, we’re going up and battling for the ball, too,” said Jackson. “I’m always thinking I’m going to get a pick or intercept the ball or bat a ball down.”
The Trojans haven’t always won their one-on-one battles this season. They gave up six passing plays of 40 or more yards in the first month of the season alone. However, USC has improved on that mark, conceding seven over the final two months of the season.
A large part of that improvement links back to things clicking for Jackson and fellow starting cornerback Iman Marshall as the season wore on.
Jackson missed spring camp with track while Marshall is still a young player learning the game. Both were asked to do something different, schematically and technique-wise when Pendergast and new defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford were brought in, so both needed time to adjust and grow in 2016.
“When you’re playing different techniques, particularly at the cornerback position, and you’re being asked to study opponents and understand splits and receivers, understand what the quarterback’s looking at, in your back-pedal knowing when you’re at 12 yards to open your hips, all those little things,” Pendergast said. “It takes time.”
Jackson and Marshall each bought in to what the coaching staff was selling, and each has improved on a game-by-game basis, along with the entire Trojan secondary.
“The more we played together, the better we got as the year went on,” Pendergast said. “And we’re able to do some things differently week-in and week-out that maybe we weren’t able to do early in the year because we hadn’t been together as long.”
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The coaching and improvement got them this far, but on game day it’ll come down to who makes the plays and who doesn’t.
“[We have to] make sure we do the little things better and know when the ball is there. There’s no more coaching after that,” said Jackson. “You’ve just got to go out there and try to grab the ball and return it to the offensive player.”
Jackson’s ultimate goal is to turn the tables on Penn State’s offense.
“We know things may happen in the game and it’s about letting that go and trying to make an explosive play yourself,” he said.