USC and Penn State followed similar comeback paths to the Rose Bowl

CARSON, Calif. -- September couldn't end soon enough for USC, and by now, the Trojans' miserable 1-3 opening month is well-documented. When the calendar turned to October, the idea that the season would end with a trip to the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual was inconceivable.

In fact, forget the Rose Bowl. There was real concern that USC wouldn't be one of the 80 teams in a bowl.

"We thought we weren't even going to make it to a bowl game," USC running back Justin Davis said. "We just sat down like, 'We suck, y'all. Like this isn't cool.'"

Considering who the losses came to -- Alabama, Stanford and Utah -- that was an overly pessimistic reaction to disappointment, but the feeling existed.

"It was a dark time, and it was really bleak," Davis said. "There wasn't a whole lot of good things going for us. But we all knew that our team is special, and we just can't let it go to waste."

It wasn't exactly the start Clay Helton was looking for in his first full season as the Trojans' head coach.

Over 2,000 miles away, Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who coached with Helton for three seasons at Memphis, hardly noticed his friend's early struggles.

"We had our own issues going on in Happy Valley," he said.

In the season's first month, Penn State allowed more points than any school in the Big Ten (131) and had the conference's worst points margin (minus-15). At 2-2, there were 10 teams in the conference with a better record.

If USC and Penn State were going to play in a bowl game at the season's end, the Foster Farms Bowl would have felt like the most likely scenario and, maybe if both teams turned things around, the National Funding Holiday Bowl.

The Rose Bowl? C'mon.

Yet, here they are.

Since September came to a merciful end, USC and Penn State are a combined 17-0. Only three other teams in college football are undefeated during that span, and only one of those -- Alabama -- is among the four-team College Football Playoff field.

Because of their respective slow starts to the season, both teams are savoring their experience leading up to Monday's game.

"Definitely not an easy road at all. Especially when you, in my opinion, play the best conference in college football," Penn State running back Saquon Barkley said. "You got to play Michigan. You got to play Ohio State, Michigan State and so on. So, I mean, we faced a lot of adversity. We were 2-2 at one point, and we were able to overcome that. That's kind of what this year has been. We've been down a lot and been able to overcome adversity a lot.

"And to get here is special and shows the true heart of this team and shows how special this team is to be able to play in a Rose Bowl this year."

For USC quarterback Sam Darnold, a Southern California native, the magnitude of USC's first January trip to Pasadena since 2009 -- when the Trojans beat Penn State 38-24 -- isn't lost.

"It's something special, something that I've dreamed of. I'm just really anxious to get out there and play the game itself," he said. "With that being said, we're really focused on our task at hand. But we're not blind to the fact that the Rose Bowl brings a lot of festivities and a lot of great things that we can experience as a team and bond even more with."

Penn State, the Big Ten champion, and USC, a seven-point favorite over the Nittany Lions, were justifiably left out of the playoff, but regardless of what the rankings say, they are without question two of the most dangerous teams out of the national-title picture.