PASADENA, Calif. — Southern California and Penn State followed two difficult paths to reach a remarkable reunion eight years later in the Rose Bowl.
The Trojans will face the Big Ten champions on Jan. 2 in the 103rd edition of the Granddaddy of Them All. The rematch of the 2009 game showcases two venerable football programs that have emerged from bad times since their last trip to this traditional postseason destination for their conferences.
“I can’t think of a better reward for our football team after this season,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “These are the things you dream about as a little kid.”
USC (9-3) will meet Penn State (11-2) in a rematch of the Trojans’ 38-24 victory eight years ago — the last trip to the Rose Bowl for either team. Since then, both programs were rocked to their foundations by scandals and NCAA sanctions.
But both capped years of progress with breakthroughs this fall, recovering from similarly slow starts to become two of the nation’s top teams.
Coach James Franklin’s Nittany Lions have won nine straight games, culminating in a 38-31 victory over Wisconsin on Saturday night in the Big Ten championship game. Penn State finished fifth in the final College Football Playoff rankings, just ahead of Michigan.
“How humbled and honored we are to have this opportunity,” Franklin said. “I think this is a game and a bowl that players and coaches grow up dreaming about having an opportunity to play in and be a part of one day.”
Helton’s Trojans have won eight games in a row, capped by back-to-back victories over top rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. The Trojans barely missed out on the Pac-12 title game between Washington and Colorado — who were both beaten convincingly by USC — but overtook the Buffaloes in the final playoff rankings to snag their record 34th Rose Bowl berth.
Penn State will make its fourth appearance in the Rose Bowl, including three against USC. The Rose Bowl berth is another milestone in the program’s revival after the scandal surrounding former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who was indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes in 2011.
USC has played in far more Rose Bowls than any other team. The Trojans’ downtown campus is 15 miles from the stadium, which became the program’s second home during the dominant years of coach Pete Carroll.
Here are some more things to know about the big game:
Trojans return: USC made the Rose Bowl five times in a six-season stretch under Carroll, including four straight trips from 2006-09, culminating in that victory over Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions. The Trojans have been through tumult since then, with a two-year bowl ban and other heavy NCAA sanctions leveled on the program in 2010. Coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were hired and fired amid regular turmoil in the athletic department over the past half-decade, but the capable Helton stepped in twice to run the team before finally getting the full-time job late last season.
Slow starts: Helton’s first full season in charge got off to a 1-3 start this September with three losses to ranked teams away from home, but the Trojans haven’t lost since. Penn State was 2-2 after a 49-10 loss to Michigan on Sept. 24, but the Nittany Lions are perfect ever since.
Young QBs: The game matches two gifted young quarterbacks who became stars this season. Sam Darnold took over the Trojans nine games ago, and the Pac-12’s offensive freshman of the year has steered their winning streak with 2,633 yards passing and 26 touchdowns. Penn State sophomore Trace McSorley has been outstanding during the Nittany Lions’ unbeaten run, culminating against Wisconsin with a brilliant 384-yard, four-touchdown performance, his most prolific of the season.
Matchups: USC’s solid defense must face a Penn State offense that has scored at least 38 points in six consecutive games. Penn State’s defense will have its own hands full against USC’s offense, which is dotted with NFL-caliber talent at nearly every position — including top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, 1,000-yard tailback Ronald Jones II and a powerful offensive line.
Familiar problem: USC is 24-9 in the Rose Bowl game since making its first appearance in 1923, earning a 14-3 win over Penn State in the ninth Rose Bowl game ever played. According to the Rose Bowl, that 1923 game started 50 minutes late because of a classic LA problem: Penn State’s team got stuck in traffic.
Following is a game capsule looking ahead to the Rose Bowl:
Southern California, Penn State face off in 103rd Rose Bowl
Penn State (11-2, Big Ten) vs. Southern California (9-3, Pac-12), Jan. 2, 5 p.m. EST
LOCATION: Pasadena, Calif.
Penn State: RB Saquon Barkley. 1,302 yards rushing, 5.3 yards per carry, 16 TDs.
USC: QB Sam Darnold. 2,633 yards passing, 26 TDs, 8 INTs, 68.1 completion percentage.
Penn State: After finishing the season with a nine-game winning streak and a victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, the Nittany Lions are back in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2009.
USC: After a 1-3 start to coach Clay Helton’s first full season in charge, the Trojans have won eight straight to return to their favorite postseason destination, leapfrogging Colorado to grab the berth.
USC 38, Penn State 24 (Jan. 1, 2009)
Penn State: 4th trip to Rose Bowl, 46th bowl game overall. Lost the TaxSlayer Bowl to Georgia 24-16 last season.
USC: Record 34th trip to Rose Bowl, 53rd bowl game overall. Lost the Holiday Bowl to Wisconsin 23-21 last season.