Due to the schedule rotation of the LA schools that came with the expansion to the Pac-12, it's been nearly 3 years since Oregon St. and USC last met on the football field, a 36-7 upset of the then 20th ranked Trojans by the Beavers.
A lot has happened since then, including one of the worst and one of the best seasons in Oregon State history, and a couple of contenders for above and well below normal seasons at USC as well. And then there were the NCAA sanctions that cost the Trojans some post season eligibility, and more recently, 10 scholarships a season for 3 straight years.
That last one has made the once mighty Trojans, who are still loaded with talent in that first and best bunch of players, vulnerable to injuries. When the injury bug bit hard this season, USC has been left with having to start, never mind suit up, walk-on interns, and the Trojans are now playing with just a few more scholarship players than Division II rules (think Western Oregon and Humboldt St.) allow.
One of the side affects of the struggles has been former head coach Lane Kiffin being fired by Athletic Director Pat Haden in the airport parking lot as the USC team was returning home from a 62-41 loss at Arizona St. late last month, and assistant and college football lifer Ed Orgeron taking over the Trojans, at least for now.
And suddenly, rather than falling apart, the Trojans are "Fighting On", piecing things back together well enough to have won 2 of their last 3 games, including a 19-3 throttling of Utah last week. When USC rolls into Reser Friday night, where they have lost their last 3 visits, the Trojans will be looking to become bowl eligible, and move into second place in the Pac-12 South.
Occupied with other dark of the night opponents, many in Beaver Nation may not be as on top of the current state of affairs with the Trojans as they would like, so we got with Evan Budrovich, who is the new head honcho at Conquest Chronicles, but a veteran on the USC beat, to get an update as we get ready for Friday night's "Orange Out".
Thanks, Evan, for taking some time to take a look at the Trojans!
Here's what we had to say about the questions Evan had.
BTD: What did USC do to so effectively shut down Utah? How significant was Travis Wilson's injury in causing the low-scoring outcome?
Evan: The Trojans were successful against Utah for a combination of factors, mostly centered around an all-out aggressive look on defense, combined with some limited play from Travis Wilson. USC loaded the box with seven and eight defenders from the start, effectively eliminating the running game which got Utah into some long down and distance situations. Wilson was still able to make plays for first downs with his feet, but could never get in a groove throwing over the middle because of the relentless pass rush coming at him.
BTD: The Trojans fortunately had a good kicker to turn to in Andre Heidari, but it was a surprise that USC couldn't run the ball hardly at all. Is that the main reason for all the drives that ended in field goals? How did the Utes so effectively shut down what had been the strength of the Trojan offense much of the season? Especially Silas Redd?
Evan: That was probably the most mystifying part of the Trojans otherwise impressive performance. USC prides itself on pounding the rock and using the play-action game right off that to move the football, so being limited in that facet really limited any chance of scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
What Utah was able to do on offense, to force these FG attempts, was rather similar to USC in the fact that they loaded the box and utilized their quick and aggressive defensive line to create great penetration in the backfield. Then they forced Cody Kessler to throw everything short and in front of them, so that the team could up and rally to make the tackle for the stop. It may just have been a bad week more than anything, but some of the missed blocking assignments were putrid to watch from the stands and surely lead to many negative rushing plays in critical situations.
BTD: Especially given that he's working with a decimated receiving corp, it appears that Kessler is beginning to find his way. Is he the qb of the future for USC? Can he lead/carry the Trojans to wins down the stretch?
Evan: Kessler is the quarterback for the here and now, but has not necessarily guaranteed his starting place moving forward. I bring that up for two reasons, one the development of five-star freshman Max Browne and his continual growth into an elite quarterback in the upcoming seasons. Secondly and probably more importantly, once a new coach comes into the fold Kessler will have to earn his job once again, or at least show that he can make all the throws in a different offensive system.
BTD: Marqise Lee has said he hopes to be able to play against Oregon St., but that it isn't certain. How likely do you thing it is that he plays and is effective? Is the nature of the injury such that opponents can use it against him, because it will limit him even if he's able to play?
Evan: Watching Marqise Lee battle injury concerns this season has been horrifying, and rather frustrating, given the fact that such a talented player will not be able to shine at his best level. At this point in the week, I tend to believe that Lee will not play this week, and will fully rest up for a strong return next weekend against Cal. Lee certainly plays a role whenever he is on the field, but luckily the Trojans have two pretty good receivers to fill his shoes in freshman Darreus Rogers and emerging star Nelson Agholor.
BTD: The USC defense has been dominant when not playing teams from Arizona, but not so much in those 2 games. What did both the 'Cats and Sun Devils do that others couldn't?
Evan: The Wildcats and Sun Devils did an excellent job of spreading out the rock, while running an effective no-huddle offense. This limited USC's ability to get ahead of the down and distance situation, making an effective pass rush (which leads the Pac-12 conference) seem rather negligible. Both these teams have running quarterbacks who are effective throwing and rushing when forced out of the pocket, and that continues to give USC major problems.
BTD: That's certainly a problem Oregon St. fans can relate too!
BTD: Is the difficulty USC has had in the state of Oregon, and especially in Corvallis, something that is either playing on or providing extra motivation to the Trojans? Or has there been so much else happen in the 2 years since the teams have met that the popular theme has been pushed off the radar?
Evan: Well its tough to say because almost noon of the players on this entire roster, except for sixth-year senior OL Abe Markowitz among a few others, have ever made the trip to Corvallis. It's also important to remember that the last time this similar squad traveled to the state of Oregon, they played their best game of the season, and pulled off a monumental upset over the Ducks, ending a bad run there too. I would say players understand the history, but also know that mainly they can't afford to come out flat on the road.
BTD: In that vein, what do you think has caused even some very good USC teams to have so much trouble up here? There's been no similar issue in the state of Washington, or really anywhere else, over the long haul.
Evan: When in doubt, the motivation of players and their ensuing performances usually stem from coaching. Which is where Coach Orgeron comes in. While the Trojans may only be 2-1 under interim coach Orgeron, the team has played more inspired football on the defensive end of the ball, which should bear well for a rather close affair even against a top-ranked Beavers passing offense. That being said, this USC team has been known in recent memory to struggle in third quarters, especially when falling behind, so all bets could be off if OSU comes out firing with some early touchdowns.
BTD: Is the Ed Orgeron era going as well as it seems from afar? Does he have any chance of keeping the job? Do you think he should have a chance once the scholarship limit is lifted, and he can actually have more healthy scholarship players than Division II rules provide for?
Evan: In terms of the interim coaching future, can we wait for Orgeron and company to go through some tough tests against Stanford, UCLA and Oregon State first before we jump to any long term conversations? I do feel as if his influence has been rather positive on the program, and much like a substitute teacher, his presence has been a fresh change of pace from previous coaching schemes. Given the nonsensical nature of the NCAA, changes to scholarship bans will never happen, but its always fun to dream that maybe next season (the last of the 10 per year ban) could be slightly subtracted.
Thanks again Evan. It should be an interesting evening Friday, and while we didn't arrive here quite the way ESPN envisioned when they picked this game for their ESPN2 Friday Night football featured game last summer, it certainly looks like they got what they wanted, as far as an important game with plenty of interesting questions to see answered.