No. 5 Penn State and No. 9 USC Set for 103rd Rose Bowl

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LOS ANGELES - The 103rd Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual has nearly arrived, as Penn State Football is set for its 47th bowl game appearance in program history, squaring off against USC in "The Granddaddy of Them All."

The fifth-ranked Nittany Lions and the No. 9 Trojans will finally meet on the field at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California Monday at 5 p.m. ET, with live coverage on ESPN. 

Penn State's Rose Bowl matchup is nothing short of a marquee matchup, featuring a pair of surging programs with a rich tradition and storied histories. Making their fourth trip to the Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions and the Trojans first met in the historic event in 1923, in Penn State's first ever bowl game appearance.

USC owns a slim 5-4 advantage in the all-time series, which includes a total of five previous neutral site meetings, including the 1923 and 2009 Rose Bowl games.

In what will be the fourth bowl game meeting between the two teams, the Trojans will become Penn State's most common bowl opponent.

Since touching down in sunny Los Angeles on Monday, the Nittany Lions have soaked in every moment of an exciting and festive week. Penn State held three practices at the StubHub center in nearby Carson, before a final walk through Sunday afternoon.

Penn State also continued its yearly tradition at the conclusion of the final Rose Bowl practice, carrying Nittany Lion seniors off of the practice field with help from selected teammates and staff members. 

 

Outside of business, the Nittany Lions also took some time for a little fun, traveling to Disneyland for a day, enjoying a meal at Lawry's in the beef bowl, taking in a comedy show and even a little bowling on New Year's Eve. 

With fun and final preparations complete, it's time for the Nittany Lions to key in on gameday. A bucket list item for head coach James Franklin and a childhood dream for many on the team, the wait is nearly over.

"This is a game that everybody you talk to talks about how special it is and how unique it is," Franklin said. "I think if you have a bucket list as a coach, this is one of the things that you want to do during your career. Obviously, we're blessed to be here."

The Nittany Lions and the Trojans have seemingly similar paths to the Rose Bowl game this season. Most notably, Penn State turned a 2-2 start into a nine-game winning streak for an 11-2 regular season record that featured a dramatic comeback victory against Wisconsin for the Big Ten Championship. Conversely, USC opened the season 1-3 before closing out the regular season on an eight-game winning streak at 9-3 in the regular season with a second place finish in the Pac-12 South Division.

"I don't know if you could have written a better script for the Rose Bowl with USC and Penn State coming together, how our seasons went, how we kind of both took off at the end of the season and our fan bases and all those types of things," Franklin said. "So it should be pretty exciting."

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What To Watch For -

Penn State
1. The Nittany Lions have proven on multiple occasions this season that they're no stranger to a nail-biting second half comeback. Outscoring opponents 298-105 in the second half, Penn state has also outscored its opponents 121-14 in the fourth quarter across the last eight games. As Franklin noted a few times this week though, it's still a top priority for the Nittany Lions to get out to a strong start. Penn State's high-scoring offense will need to spark early and it's defense will need to come through with key stops to help the Nittany Lions avoid another situation like the 28-14 halftime deficit in the Big Ten Championship win against Wisconsin. 

2. The dynamic duo featuring Nittany Lion quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley is back for another performance on the field as the two playmakers have been centerpieces of the Penn State offense this year. Penn State is one of just 18 FBS teams with a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher. In his first season as the starting signal caller, McSorley set the Penn State season passing yards record with 3,360. Barkley, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year enters the Monday matchup with 1,302 yards rushing, which ranks 10th in program history.   

3. Franklin noted near the end of the week that a top matchup he's eyeing is between veteran center Brian Gaia and USC All-Pac-12 second team defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, who stands 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighing 320 pounds.

"He has been very disruptive," Franklin said of Tu'ikolovatu. "That's going to be a challenge for us. Brian's our senior starter, a captain, does a great job getting us lined up. He's not the biggest guy in the world. He's big enough to get the job done, but that's going to be a challenge for him."

USC
1. Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold earned the starting job in the Trojan's fourth game of the season, helping USC to its current eight-game winning streak. The 2016 Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year has thrown for 2,633 yards with 26 touchdowns, tossing multiple touchdown passes in each of the last eight games. Darnold has also completed 213 of 313 total pass attempts on the year.

"I think you've got to try to get to this guy a little bit," Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. "But they've done a nice job. He doesn't hold the ball. He's smart enough that he's not going to be careless with it. He doesn't make poor choices. We're going to try to have him do that." 

2. Trojan junior do-it-all cornerback-wide receiver-return Adoree Jackson is a highlight of the USC team, who has the ability to come through a wide variety of big plays. The 2016 Jim Thorpe Award winner earned numerous honors this season, as he stands as the USC career record holder for kickoff return yardage (2,045 and returns (75). 

"He's definitely a game changer," McSorley said. "A guy of his capability, any time you throw the ball near him, he can maybe a play. He's a big-play guy, so you have to be aware of the type of player he is and where he is at all times, knowing how he plays guys and how he can play in certain different coverages and not being away from him, but respecting the type of player that he is."

3. Led by Tu'ikolovatu, the Trojan defensive line is big, physical and strong having had to rebuild this year after loosing all five starters from the 2015 season. Defensive end Porter Gustin leads the team with 12.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Gustin highlighted the season with a game-high nine tackles in the early season meeting against Alabama. 

The Final Word -
In a team meeting Franklin asked every single member of the meeting to stand if they had ever been a part of a 12-win season in college football at any point in their career. Only three or four people stood up. Come Monday, the Nittany Lions will have another opportunity to add a milestone to an already impressive list this season. 

"I think they're special seasons," Franklin said. "I've been a part of 11-win seasons. I've never been a part of a 12-win season. To me, that's a different threshold. You have 12-win seasons, and there's only a handful of teams in the country that are going to do that. That's special." 

Should the Nittany Lions defeat the Trojans, Penn State will etch its first 12-win season into the record book since 1994, a milestone reached by just three other teams in the entire history of the program. 

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