Southern California and Penn State played arguably the most exciting and entertaining bowl game of the 40 contests leading up to Monday night’s riveting College Football Playoff championship game.
From the day this Rose Bowl matchup was announced, on December 4, Covers
had an inkling that it would be one worth keeping an eye on. So we did. The following is the "Life Cycle of the Rose Bowl pointspread".SUNDAY, DEC.4
Nick Bogdanovich, director of trading for William Hill US, finds himself in line with several other Las Vegas sportsbooks when he opens Southern Cal a 7-point favorite in this game. That line goes out to William Hill’s shops not only in the Vegas area, but throughout Nevada, as Bogdanovich oversees more than 100 betting outlets across the state.
“USC has been on fire, they’re basically at home,” Bogdanovich says, noting the Trojans play home games at the Los Angeles Coliseum, but this would be a very short trip to Pasadena, 15 miles away. “I think 6.5 looks like a lay, 7.5 looks like a take.”
The Trojans put together an eight-game win streak (7-1 ATS) to reach this game, including a 27-13 road victory as 10-point underdogs against CFP semifinalist Washington. So they definitely have bettors’ attention. Penn State is riding a nine-game spree, going 8-0-1 ATS. The Nittany Lions knocked off Ohio State in the third game of that surge, 24-21 getting 17.5 points at home, and topped Wisconsin 38-31 as 3-point pups in the Big Ten title game.
“USC drew a lot of money down the stretch,” Bogdanovich says. “Penn State was probably a little disappointed about not getting a shot at the title game. But they’ll be ready to play. It’s two storied programs, playing in probably the most famous of all the bowls. Both teams will be jacked up. I think the number is right here."MONDAY, DEC. 5
At the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas, sportsbook director Tony Miller posts his Rose Bowl opening line of USC -7 and explains his logic.
“Seven was a key number, and you usually try to have key numbers, especially on big games like this. And it was a common number,” Miller says, adding that another key was redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold supplanting Max Browne as starter following the Trojans’ 1-2 start. “USC has been a juggernaut since then.”FRIDAY, DEC. 9
Bryan Leonard is a long-time handicapper and sports bettor in Las Vegas. The Rose Bowl has definitely caught his eye, too, for a couple of reasons. One, he’s pretty confident he’ll get a number he likes before kickoff. Two, he’ll be in attendance, after winning a college football handicapping contest held by the Wildfire Casinos.
Leonard says the first line he saw was a tick lower, at USC -6.5.
“I actually thought that was a little bit high. My number said it should’ve been a little bit lower,” says Leonard, whose number was USC -4. “That number at the books was assuming Penn State was upset not to be in the final four, because my number was shorter.”
Leonard believes Penn State, a program sent into absolute disarray that culminated in the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno in 2011, is actually riding high and will be quite eager to play in the Rose Bowl.
“I look at this as a reward for Penn State. I don’t expect any letdown at all,” he says. “At the end of the year, I thought Penn State and Wisconsin were as good a ballclubs as Ohio State and Michigan. I think the Nittany Lions are gonna be excited to go to the West Coast.”
So who is he looking to bet?
“At this point, I’m still looking for Penn State +7.5, and I think I’ll get it,” he says. “The public likes to play the favorite, so I’m waiting for it to get above 7.”WEDNESDAY, DEC. 13
At offshore sportsbook TheGreek.com, Scott Kaminsky’s Rose Bowl line is sitting at USC -6.5, the same as when he opened it nine days earlier, though the line had spiked to -7 for a few days in that stretch.
“I just thought that number was right around where it’s supposed to be. I didn’t have an opinion, ‘Oh, this looks high, this looks low,’” Kaminsky says. “Clearly, USC is the better team, but Penn State has a lot of fight in them and could bring that into this game. A classic matchup, and I grew up 45 minutes from Penn State.”
Kaminsky, like others, is expecting the USC money to eventually flow from the squares.
“As far as where I think the number is going to close, of course you always have to assume that the public is going to bet the favorite - 7.5 times out of 10,” he says. “A lot of places in Vegas will probably close -7. It had reached seven here, then got bought down by some smart guys. I think that’ll be the pattern we’ll see. I’ll be surprised if it closes over seven and surprised if it closes less than six. I think the number is right in the ballpark of where it’s gonna end.”THURSDAY, DEC. 14
Over at the Golden Nugget, Miller is starting to feel some pressure that might take the number where Leonard is hoping.
“We’re already over 2/1 ticket count on USC, and the money is similar. The public is driving me off seven,” Miller says. “I know we’re gonna go to -7.5. I’m kind of hoping someone will take the +7. As soon as I go to +7.5, I know someone will take it. The only reason I’m still at seven right now is because I know there are -6.5s out there at other places. So I’m just kind of waiting.”
Adds Bogdanovich on the same day, “We opened -7, and I don’t think we’ve been off seven. It’s so early in the betting cycle, unless there’s a suspension or something, there won’t be much movement.”
File away that quote for later.SUNDAY, DEC. 17
The line still hasn’t jumped to 7.5, so Leonard continues to wait, but with plenty of time, as the game is still more than two weeks out.
“The public is not gonna play it until game day or the day before, and they’re gonna play the favorite. They normally do,” he says. “At this point, I still think it’ll get to 7.5. I’m not worried about it. I’ll bet it at +7, but think I can get +7.5 somewhere.”
Leonard is confident, even though some shops have gone back to 6.5 - a move that doesn’t surprise him.
“I originally made the line smaller, so when it comes toward my number, I expect it.”THURSDAY, DEC. 22
The previous 24 hours bring a line shift to both William Hill’s shops and the Golden Nugget down on Fremont Street. Miller makes the first move, on the morning of December 23, and again, it’s not in the direction Leonard is seeking to make his wager.
“We took a big bet at +7 on Penn State, a $20,000 hit, so we went to 6.5,” Miller says. “At that point, $20,000 was all we needed to go to 6.5, stay there and get some accumulation from the public, from the squares. Which we did. They started laying the -6.5 with USC.”
It took a little more than a day, but Bogdanovich pretty much has to follow suit.
“We were the only seven left, so I thought it would be better to be at 6.5,” he says, adding it’s still 11 days until kickoff. “People don’t tie up their money two, three weeks beforehand. There will be a ton of action a couple days before and up until the game. But nothing right now.”WEDNESDAY, DEC 28
There’s news out of State College, Pa., and it’s not good. Nittany Lions Wide receiver Saeed Blacknall and linebacker Manny Bowen –both starters – have been suspended due to a violation of team rules and won’t play in the Rose Bowl. Suddenly, Bogdanovich’s quote from December 13 rings prophetic.
William Hill’s line jumps from Southern Cal -6.5 to -7, though Bogdanovich isn’t making too much of it.
“There’s still not a lot of money in the pot. It’s tied up in all the other bowl games,” he says.
At the Golden Nugget, Miller moves too, but not entirely on the suspension news.
“I took back $10,000 in accumulation on -6.5, and now I’m back on seven,” Miller says, while looking ahead to the big holiday weekend in Vegas. “I’m thinking a lot of SoCal money is coming up for New Year’s, and I think there will be a real big rush on Southern Cal. I think we’ll have a decision where we’re probably still gonna need Penn State come 2 o’clock on January 2. The money coming in this weekend, they love betting favorites on straight bets and parlays.”
Early the next morning, The Greek goes to seven, as well.SATURDAY, DEC. 31
The line is sitting solid at Trojans -7 at William Hill’s books around the state. Bogdanovich hasn’t so much as adjusted the juice on either team since moving to seven three days earlier, and he’s got some ideas on how the line will play out over the next two days.
“I think it’ll go down before it’ll go up. I could see it getting to 6.5, six,” he says. “I think seven is an automatic take. I think it’ll close six, 6.5. That’d be my guess.”
Action is in a good spot at this point, but Bogdanovich knows it won’t last.
“We’re dead even to it, but we’ve always got a decision, always got a side,” he says. “It’s very rare that it’s a split game.”SUNDAY, JAN. 1
Almost exactly 24 hours before kickoff, Leonard is still waiting patiently for that line to climb higher than seven, to take Penn State. He figures the fact that a couple of other Big Ten big shots faltered in big games over the past two days will work strongly in his favor.
“I’m thinking now it’s gonna go even higher, because of how Ohio State and Michigan looked in their bowl games,” he says.
Michigan did not look good through most of its Orange Bowl clash with Florida State – though it rallied late in a 33-32 loss – and the Buckeyes got steamrolled 31-0 by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, the second game of the College Football Playoff semifinal.
“I think it’s gonna be at least 7.5 by game time. I’m just gonna wait for it. It will eventually get there,” he says. “I’m not as concerned with eight as with 7.5. I’m hoping for eight, but I’ll take 7.5.”MONDAY, JAN. 2
The line is finally on the move at several spots around Las Vegas. William Hill goes to 7.5 at 8:23 a.m. and stays there the rest of the day. Golden Nugget hits 7.5 about two hours later.
“That move was based on a casino VIP who bet pretty big on USC. Just one big bet on it,” Miller says. “We had some moneyline on Penn State, which was basically why we were at seven - we’ve got some liability on Penn State straight up. I think it’s solid at 7.5, we’re getting good two-way action. I don’t see it going back to seven or up to eight.”
However, some repeat business at 12:30 p.m., about 100 minutes before kickoff, scuttles those thoughts. Miller fires off a text message, as the book is brimming with customers and there’s not much time to talk.
“Just went to -8 on USC,” he writes. “VIP player came back and played again, forcing me to -8.”
And as kickoff looms, literally minutes out, The Greek finally jumps from seven to 7.5.
“What happened was we moved right when the teams were on the field and close to kickoff,” Kaminsky says. “I saw a lot of 7.5s pop up. A guy on the phone wanted to make a big bet on USC, and I went to 7.5 before he made the bet, because I didn’t want the people on the Internet betting on that number (7). And then he didn’t make the bet. He changed his mind. The game was ready to kick off, and 7.5 is where the game happened to close.”
Shortly after kickoff, Bogdanovich says William Hill is a little high on USC money, “but nothing crazy,” and ideally needed the Trojans to win, but not cover.
“It’s the usual Super Bowl thing. They played Penn State on the moneyline, and laid the points with USC. It happens almost every Super Bowl,” Bogdanovich says, while noting he couldn’t point to one side or the other seeing the bulk of professional action. “It was hard to determine. I think there were some sharps on both sides. Sometimes that happens.”
Leonard gets his wager in earlier in the day, a $1,050 bet on Penn State +8 (-105). Then he heads to the Rose Bowl to take in an incredible game, live and in person.
The contest is full of huge swings. Southern Cal leads 13-0 by the end of the first quarter and has 13-point leads at two other junctures in the first half. Penn State goes on a huge run to turn a 27-14 deficit into a 42-27 lead just five minutes into the third quarter.
The Trojans ultimately battle back, tying the game at 49-49 with 1:20 remaining, and the smell of overtime lingers in the SoCal air. But Penn State QB Trace McSorley throws an inexplicable late interception, leading to a USC field goal as time expires.
Final score: Trojans 52, Nittany Lions 49. Southern Cal wins, but Penn State covers.THURSDAY, JAN. 5
After giving all the principals in this story time to recover from an incredible game, it’s time to find out how they all fared. Bogdanovich and William Hill end up with a mixed bag - perhaps the best possible result, but not necessarily that good at all.
“As far as straight bets, the least amount of damage was done by that score. I would’ve signed up for that. USC by 1-6 points was as good as we could hope for,” he says, while noting where the trouble came. “Any parlays alive were on that game, a ton of money to the Over, and parlays to both sides. We lost to the game pretty big - all that liability wrapped into it from the previous bowl games - but it could’ve been a whole lot worse.”
On game day, Miller was none too pleased at the pair of big wagers on USC. But upon further review, he’s much happier for his Fremont Street shop.
“It was a big game for us. We ended up really good - parlays, teasers, straight bets, not to mention (winning) the two bets against him,” Miller says of the casino VIP, who still stung the Golden Nugget for five figures with a first-half wager on USC, but didn’t hurt Miller & Co. by forcing the line up to eight. “Even at 7.5, I still didn’t get takers on Penn State. No one took 7.5, no one took eight, so I was thrilled about that.”
Miller says he didn’t see much sharp action at all, with the public all over both sides. Conversely, The Greek’s clientele is much more of the sharp variety, so while Kaminsky doesn’t take the hit that his buddy Bogdanovich did, he still came out on the short end.
“We don’t have square business,” Kaminsky says. “It wasn’t that great of a decision. We lost a little bit to it, but it wasn’t a damaging game. It wasn’t a hammer-drop.”
Leonard comes out smelling like a rose, though not feeling quite that well. It wasn’t your typical sunny, Southern California weather for the Rose Bowl, so he’s nursing a cold and hasn’t even had a chance to cash his winning ticket.
“I haven’t even left the house since I got home,” Leonard says. “It worked out the way I thought it was going to. There were times in the game where I thought I might be on the wrong side, and times I thought I might win straight up. That’s exactly how it ought to be. Just like a good movie – you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
The prospect of overtime bothered Leonard, but not because of the very small chance that something wacky could happen and he’d end up with a push, or worse a loss – think of USC scoring on an overtime possession, then getting a pick-six or a scoop-and-score.
“The thought wasn’t that I was gonna lose my bet. My thought process was I was freezing my ass off,” he says. “I thought Penn State deserved to win, but then as it ended, when USC lined up for the field goal, part of me was thinking, ‘Let USC win it, and I’ll just cash my ticket.’”
Regardless of who won and who lost, all who took in this game got a spectacular few hours of entertainment. Even Bogdanovich took some enjoyment from that fact.
“It was as good as it could be. That was a great game,” he says. “I’d have to say it was the best bowl game this year. It was incredible.”Patrick Everson is a Las Vegas-based senior writer for Covers. Follow him on Twitter: @Covers_Vegas.