Oregon St. returns to the LA Coliseum tonight, for their first visit since 2009. The Beavers haven't won there since 1960, and the Trojans have won 22 in a row in the Coliseum, to take a 60-11-4 edge in the series that dates back exactly 1 century, when Oregon St. beat USC 38-6 in the team's first meeting to complete a 7-0-2 season.
It was Oregon St.'s first ever game against a major program from outside the northwest.
USC has also won 33 of the last 37 meetings, though Oregon St. did win 3 of 5 prior to last year's 31-14 Trojan win in Corvallis, their first at Reser since the 2004 Fog Bowl.
Has it really been 5 years? With the last 2 games at Reser, as the rotation has flipped, and the 2 year miss cycle of the Pac-12 schedule that alternates whether northwest teams play USC or UCLA, its been a while since the Beavers have been to the Coliseum. They came close to winning that last trip, with the Trojans running out the clock to preserve the 42-36 win when many felt that had Sean Canfield and company had had 1 more possession, the Beavers, having scored touchdowns (by James and Jacquizz Rodgers) on their last 2 possessions, was going to roll on by for the dramatic win.
All the players for both teams have changed, and a lot of staff changes have happened too, yet it somehow seems like not that long ago.
Boston College surprised USC, and upset Trojan fans, with a 37-31 win in a night game, under deteriorating weather conditions a continent away, essentially exposing the lack of depth that NCAA sanctions wrought. The scholarship reductions are over, but at 25 per year, it will still take a couple of years to rebuild a team that's down to 62 scholarship players, and only dressed 56 of them against the Eagles, once injuries and illness factored in.
Unfortunately for Oregon St., USC had a bye to recover and prepare, and will have only LA traffic to contend with as far as tiring travel goes.
Further, health issues will be another unfortunate circumstance for the Beavers, who will be without their best WR/KR Victor Bolden, who dislocated the small finger on his right hand attempting to make a catch against San Diego St.
Fortunately, Oregon St. has Sean Mannion at quarterback, AND a new-found balance. Mannion found 10 different receivers against San Diego St., and the Beavers ran 32 planned rushing plays, against 35 called pass plays. The yardage picked up on those runs wasn't half what the pass plays produced, but all 4 touchdowns came on the ground. This and a solid defensive effort, again a result of a balanced defensive effort that had all 3 levels contributing, resulted in an almost 11 minute edge in time of possession against the Aztecs.
This balance, and Mannion's ability to both manage a game and make plays in the passing game, gives the Beavers a chance to achieve the 2 things necessary to compete with the current version of the Trojans under Coach Steve Sarkisian, who wants to run as many plays as possible to give his offensive talent the maximum number of opportunities to make plays.
Last year, the Trojans were just better than the Beavers on both sides of the ball, and that played out over the course of the game. The Oregon St. game plan and performance against San Diego St. if approximated against USC will limit the time and opportunity the Trojan offense will have to pile up scores, and keep the pressure on a talented defense, but one that lacks depth.
The complicating factor has been the poor performances in recent years when Oregon St. head coach and play caller Mike Riley has matched up against Justin Wilcox. With Wilcox as Sarkisian's defensive coordinator, Riley's offense has struggled severely, producing the "Clinker at the Clink" in 2012, and then last year's disaster against the Huskies.
There were other factors involved in both debacles, but a common theme was a Washington defense under Wilcox's direction that was far better prepared than the Oregon St. offense. Wilcox moved with Sarkisian to USC, and so one of the most interesting and important matchups of the game anyway becomes even more crucial.
Beaver Believer's Keys To The Game:
1. Run the ball up the middle. The Beavs have had more success on the ground and it has been a focal point for the team and media alike. The run game will need to be a featured component of the Beaver offense, as the Trojans have allowed 238 more rushing yards than passing yards this year. This will require a heavier dose of Terron Ward as he's proven to be better up the middle which is exactly where OSU needs to run the ball. USC has team speed and so the stretch plays, screens, and fly sweep will be less effective. They need to be used just to keep USC on their heels, but the Beavers need to smash them in the mouth and play physical up front.
2. Play smart. Guess what? The Trojans have great athletes. Always have and always will. The Beavers cannot give them extra opportunities, because they will turn them into huge chunks of yards. They cannot have procedural penalties, no more false starts, no bonehead mistakes like late hits. They need to wrap up, and if they can't bring down their guy they need to hold on for dear life until the second and third guy arrives. OSU has to execute at an extremely high level to win this game.
3. Stop the Trojan run game. The Beavers are 3rd in the Pac-12 with 113.33 rush yards allowed per game so far. That was against inferior opponents, but USC will be a stiff test. The Beaver defensive line needs to hold up against the onslaught that is sure to come. Bud Delva has looked great so far this year, crushing through lines and disrupting plays. With the rotation of linemen that the Beavs employ everyone will need to disrupt plays, which may be a tall task for the 2nd half of the rotation. The Beaver d-line has the ability to win, but it will take a mammoth performance.
I believe that the Beavs will compete, and hang around, but USC is going to be mad. The talent gap and being away will hurt as well, I see USC winning but the Beavers covering. 24-16 Trojans.
This is probably the most unpredictable game the Beavers will play all season. We haven't seen them play against an opponent nearly as good as USC, and USC has been wildly inconsistent in their first few games. I'm not sure there's really much to say in terms of strategy and what we'll be looking for on Saturday night. They need to run the ball, and we don't really have a gauge for how well that's going to go. They need to stop USC's ultra-talented offense, and we don't really know how well that's going to do.
This is obviously a huge test for the Beavers, as USC is by far the best team they've played so far. Boston College, however, lost to Colorado State earlier today which makes the Trojans' loss to them look even worse. The fact that USC had a bye to recover (and fester) doesn't bode well for the Beavers at all. That, combined with the talent gap, makes this an even more difficult game. Nonetheless Beavers fans are right to have hope. Sean Mannion can keep the team in it if the run game falters, which it very well may. The receivers, while down a Victor Bolden, have more than capable replacements that will play serviceably at the least. The O-Line's pass blocking will have to stay strong, but I think they can give Mannion enough time to make the throws he needs to.
For the Beavers to win this game, the linebackers and secondary will have to be flying over the field making plays, and the O-Line needs to keep up their improved run blocking. I doubt this is a blowout either way, but I don't see Oregon State having enough to take a victory from LA. 27-21 Trojans.
First conference game of the season for Oregon State, and it is a big time match up in Los Angeles!
On paper this looks to be a fascinating match up with two offenses that seem pretty even in the stats, and two defenses where it looks like the Beavs have a slight edge. At the same time that "on paper" edge could well be misleading, since USC has played a couple higher caliber teams already versus basically one for the Beavs. All-in-all though it sure has the look and feel of a really big game in the Pac-12 in terms of sorting out what these two teams are going to bring to the rest of the season, and to start writing the conference championship script.
Some key areas to watch for as this drama unfolds:
1. QB battle: This is going to be one of the more fascinating storylines of the game with Sean Mannion and Cody Kessler going up against the current #2 (OSU) and #3 (USC) conference pass defenses. Mannion will have a bit more hype coming in, but Kessler is not one to be overlooked and this game will be a test for both veteran QBs. We for sure have the lead actors in place for this game.
2. Rush game: I believe the Beavs are going to be a bit overshadowed here because they do not have one 100 yard average running back like the Trojans have in Javorius Allen, but I think this is going to be an overlooked area of possible advantage for OSU. Oregon State has two backs equally sharing the load and as such it is not as bad as the stats may have it look on paper. Indeed in many ways it seems that this could be an excellent area for the Beavers to exploit. First if the OSU rush defense (#2 in the conference) can shut down Allen then the Trojans do not seem to have another really strong option to go to in the run game. At the same time the SC rush defense is last in the conference and the Beavs can throw two different type of backs at the Trojans. Will this be a "twist" ending that catches some of the audience off guard as the Beavs win the game based on their run game, and based on the supporting characters in Woods and Ward?
3. Bolden's short-term replacement: Oregon State will be without Victor Bolden in this game, so who will step up their game? Is there an understudy waiting in the wings here? Or does anyone specific really need to do this beyond Mannion? Will the team show another well-balanced, and ensemble passing attack like they were able to throw at the Aztecs last week after Bolden left the game?
4. USC bye and home field: The plot so far has the Trojans starting out hot against a pretty weak Fresno State team, defeat the in-State rival Stanford in a hard fought defensive battle, but then had a let down against Boston College to put a bit of a chink in their armor. USC though does have a couple advantages coming in to this, and they had a bye last week and are playing on their famous home stage (one that has stymied Oregon State since 1960!). At the same time OSU is coming off a pretty strong confidence building performance defeating San Diego State. USC will be rested, but will they be rusty enough for the Beavs to get them on their heels to establish a strong rushing attack? Will OSU, with a week-by-week improving football team, overcome their historical based Coliseum underdog role and come out on top to go to 4 and 0?
With the way this game has been written coming in, it has potentially shaped up to be a spectacularly good football game. It looks on paper that both teams are fairly evenly matched, but there is also some foreshadowing of possible areas to exploit for each team against the other team. In the end I don't know if there is anything to add beyond this is the first conference game of the year for Oregon State, it is OSU vs. USC, and Mannion vs. Kessler. Let the games begin in the Coliseum, the fist chapter of Oregon State's Pac-12 season is about to be written!