Yes, those are lyrics from Elvis Presley’s ‘It’s Now or Never’ – the No. 1 song in America the last time the Beavers won at USC. Can the Trojans get up from a nasty fall in Boston to keep the streak alive?
The USC Trojans (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12 South), ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press (AP) poll and No. 22 by USA Today, return home for the first time in nearly a month to face the Oregon State Beavers (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12 North) at 7:30 p.m. PDT on Saturday, September 27, in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It’s the 76th meeting between the schools –but the first in Los Angeles since 2009 (a 42-36 Trojan victory) – with USC holding a commanding 60-11-4 edge. While USC and Oregon State have split the past six meetings, the Trojans smacked the Beavers, 31-14, in Corvallis last season – USC’s first road win in the series since 2004. Oregon State knows a little about road droughts – the Beavers haven’t beaten the Trojans in Los Angeles since 1960, a 22-game streak.
A week ago, the Trojans stewed through their first bye week of 2014 after suffering an ugly 37-31 defeat at Boston College on Sept. 13. USC’s defense was shredded by the Eagles’ zone-read attack for 452 rushing yards, 191 by quarterback Tyler Murphy. A 17-6 USC lead in the second quarter dissolved in a barrage of 24 consecutive BC points before the Trojan offense reawakened, but two fourth-quarter TD drives were clearly too little and too late. Meanwhile, the Beavers held San Diego State to just 215 total yards and quarterback Sean Mannion became Oregon State’s all-time leader in passing yards during a 28-7 victory in Corvallis.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (2-1 at USC, 36-30 career) is in his first season at the helm after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). Up north, Oregon State headman Mike Riley is in his 14th season (91-73)– covering two stints – in Corvallis and is the Pac-12’s longest tenured head coach. After struggling in 2010 and 2011, the Beavers won 16 games combined in 2012 and 2013. However, Oregon State fans have gotten used to hot starts and troubled finishes, as well – the Beavers have gone 3-4 and 2-5 in the final seven games of the past two seasons, respectively.
Oregon State Offense
Offensive coordinator John Garrett – the brother of Dallas Cowboys’ head coach Jason Garrett – replaces long-time staffer Danny Langsdorf, who left after the 2013 campaign for a gig with the New York Giants. Garrett, who has 19 years of NFL experience, hasn’t coached at the college level since 2006. The Beavers’ pro-style offense has run in fits and starts so far in 2014, ranking in the lower third of the conference in total offense, rushing offense and scoring offense. Mannion, a 6-foot-5 senior, is a captain and can be a difference maker when given time to operate. He holds the Beaver records for career passing yards (11,339) as well as single-season passing yards and single-season TD passes, both set in 2013.
Mannion lost his top target from a season ago when Brandin Cooks decided to go to the NFL after a sensational junior season. Still, things looked good coming into 2014, with sophomore Victor Bolden and junior Richard Mullaney returning as reliable – and, perhaps, explosive – options. In fact, Bolden was off to a huge start – 18 catches for 192 yards and a TD – before injuring his thumb against SDSU. He’s out this week, putting the onus on the sizeable Mullaney – who has 11 grabs and a score so far this season. Don’t be surprised, though, to see a lot of redshirt freshman slotback Hunter Jarmon (6 catches, 16.3 yards per) and – if healthy – sophomore Rahmel Dockery in OSU’s game plan this week. There are also rumors that true freshman speedster Xavier Hawkins could make his debut in the Coliseum. And you can never discount how effectively the Beavers use tight ends, which makes senior Connor Hamlett (11 catches, 1 TD) and junior Caleb Smith (six grabs) worth noting.
The Beavers have definitely struggled with the run so far in 2014, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t weapons here. The two-headed monster of junior Storm Woods and sophomore Terron Ward are both capable pass catchers as well. Woods is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has caught seven passes, with three total TDs. Ward, a 5-foot-7 bowling ball, is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, scoring four rushing TDs, while also catching 10 passes out of the backfield.
One of the Beavers’ biggest issues is a green offensive line. With junior center Isaac Seumalo still struggling to return from a broken foot suffered in the 2013 Hawaii Bowl, Oregon State had just one returning starter among the group that opened the 2014 campaign – sophomore RT Sean Harlow. This group has allowed eight sacks in three games. Saturday’s starters should include Harlow, classmate Grant Bays at right guard, junior Josh Mitchell at center, senior Roman Sapolu at left guard and junior Gavin Andrews at left tackle. Sophomore Garrett Weinrich is likely to see time behind Sapolu. Outside of Harlow, this group combined for eight career starts entering 2014.
Oregon State Defense
Long-time defensive coordinator Mark Banker has to be happy with his unit’s performance so far in 2014. The Beavers rank second in the Pac-12 in every major defensive statistical category thus far (total, scoring, passing and rushing). But, aside from facing so-so opposition, this group – which operates mainly out of the same attacking 4-3 scheme we’ve seen for years – has capitalized on outstanding back-seven play that’s allowed a relatively young front four to round into shape. While OSU has notched just six sacks, the Beavers are holding opponents to just 113 rushing yards and 255 total yards per game while forcing an impressive nine turnovers.
Senior defensive end Dylan Wynn’s skillset also allows him to swap inside in nickel and dime packages. He has 10 tackles (1.5 for a loss). However, his 35 total starts dwarf the combined total of the rest of his linemates. When he swaps inside, look out for senior Obum Gwacham off the edge. He has a team-leading three sacks. Senior Bud Delva has been excellent so far at one tackle spot, notching two sacks among his seven stops. The other two spots have seen heavy rotation – but solid play. Junior Jalen Grimble (a transfer from Miami and cousin of former USC TE Xavier Grimble) and senior 350-pounder Siale Hautau split time at tackle, while at the end opposite Wynn, juniors Lavonte Barnett and Jashwa James – a converted middle linebacker – have paired for six total tackles.
Experience is not an issue at linebacker, where three seniors who have combined fro 463 career tackles have keyed a Beaver unit that tops the nation in third-down conversion defense. Strongsider (and captain) Michael Doctor gained a medical redshirt after suffering a season-ending ankle injury early in 2013. He’s returned with a vengeance, leading OSU with 18 stops (3.5 for loss) and also has a pick and a fumble recovery. In the middle, Jabral Johnson splits time with solid sophomore Rommel Mageo, who appears to be on track to unseat Johnson after a solid effort against San Diego State. On the weak side, D.J. Alexander matches Doctor’s team-leading 3.5 tackles for loss among his 13 total stops.
Experience is also the rule in a secondary that tops the nation in pass efficiency defense. Senior cornerback Steven Nelson, who tied for the Pac-12 lead with six interceptions a season ago, already has two in 2014. The only new starter is junior corner Larry Scott, but redshirt freshman Dashon Hunt, who missed much of camp with a hamstring injury could become a factor there. Senior safeties Ryan Murphy (strong) and Tyrequek Zimmerman (free) form a solid duo. Zimmerman has two interceptions. And in nickel situations, reserve safety Justin Strong, a redshirt freshman, has impressed.
Oregon State Special Teams
Redshirt freshman Garrett Owens has been solid so far, making all seven PATs and six-of-eight field goal attempts. He’s also handling the bulk of the kickoff duties, though senior Trevor Romaine could also see time there. Senior Keith Kostol is averaging 42.7 yards per punt with more than half of his 13 boots pinning opponents inside the 20. With Bolden out, return duties will likely fall to Dockery as long as he’s able to play. If not, expect Ward and fellow running back Chris Brown to see opportunities.
USC Offensive Gameplan
While USC got off to a fairly solid start at Boston College, leading the game 17-6 in the second quarter following a 51-yard TD on a screen pass to Javorius “Buck” Allen, things stagnated quickly after that. As the Eagle offense picked up steam, the BC defense became more inspired – and USC’s offensive design seemed to shrink from the challenge. Time and again in the second half, the Trojans found themselves in a third-down hole after questionable running plays on second down. Then, the horror of third-and-long – at one point, Cody Kessler was sacked on third down to end four consecutive USC drives. Before the Trojans made much-needed adjustments to take advantage of a huge athletic disparity in favor of USC’s receivers, the game was all but out of reach.
While one could understand the conservative gameplan drawn up by Sarkisian and Clay Helton against Stanford, the stubbornness of sticking with a rushing attack that clearly wasn’t working against a revved-up Eagle defense remains rather confusing. USC struggled on third downs for the first time in 2014 – mainly because its second-down play selection (and execution, to be fair) was atrocious.
Saturday brings a new and different test against an Oregon State defense that has rolled up some big numbers against less-than-impressive competition. Are the Beavers as stout as those numbers attest? Or will they look more like the team that allowed USC to roll up 489 yards (242 on the ground) in Corvallis a year ago? After the struggles with conservative second-down looks a week ago – and the fact that the Beavers have been stellar on third down so far this season – USC must bring a much more varied and balanced look that attacks the Beavers’ less experienced DL and uses the short-middle of the field to get its athletes in space. Oregon State still wants to attack with its linebackers, and its defensive backs love looking for the big INT. It’s the kind of defense USC can expose – if the gameplan takes advantage of all of the weapons Kessler has at his disposal.
USC Defensive Gameplan
After an incredible show of fortitude at Stanford, the Trojans looked bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the Eagles’ rushing attack. After some early success, USC was consistently beaten off the edges by BC’s running backs. For long stretches, you wondered if a defensive end or outside linebacker would ever keep contain again. And then, once USC was befuddled by the running backs, Murphy – whose legs got most of the pub coming into the game – finished USC off in the second half, breaking one long run after another. Yes, USC held Boston College to two-of-11 on third down. The problem was that BC was averaging almost eight yards per play. It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that third downs became rare occasions for the Eagles from about the middle of the second quarter on.
Of course, if you’ve watched USC football for any length of time, seeing an option team with an excellent running QB confusing the heck out of the Trojans isn’t something new. The bigger issue with what happened last week comes deeper in the schedule – like, say, next week – when the Trojans face teams with mobile QBs who can actually throw a football to an open receiver.
Thankfully – with Oregon State’s huddle-up, pro-style offense that features Mannion, a stand-in-the-pocket QB – it shouldn’t be a big issue this week. Yes, the Beavers still love to run their vaunted fly sweep, but at the end of the day, OSU plays it pretty straight on offense. They do mix their pass routes up well, forcing defensive backs to switch on the fly – and with an accurate thrower like Mannion, any confusion in the secondary can lead to big plays. With the Beavers’ offensive line suffering growing pains, don’t be shocked to see USC bring big pressure on Mannion from the get go. With the Beavers missing Bolden, Mannion is the big difference maker in this offense. If the Trojans can force him to throw earlier than he wants to, he’s still prone to turning it over.
So much for the “no letdowns” mantra you read here a couple of weeks ago. The Trojans had one – and the best thing you can say about it is that at least it was in a non-conference game. Sure, it’s a game USC should have handled. But when you play a Trojan football schedule, you’re often going to find yourself in a Power 5 conference stadium in September, facing a dangerous opponent, when most of your cohorts are playing at home against either lower-level FBS teams or even those dreaded FCS foes. So, was it a bad loss? Yes. Was it the worst loss in the world? As someone who’s sat through such memorable efforts as “Memphis State 24, USC 10 in 1991” – hell no.
The more important question now is how do the Trojans respond? Having a full two weeks to stew over the loss and really take a deep look at how it happened should help. Returning home to the Coliseum should also benefit the Trojans.
The Beavers’ style of play shouldn’t hurt either. As long as the Trojans remain focused on defense and don’t get down on themselves for their poor play two weeks ago, Oregon State’s offensive style isn’t what has generally bothered the USC defense in recent seasons. At the same time, the fact that this will be the Beavers’ first true test against quality talent this season could help USC. If the Trojan offense is clicking early, it might take a while for Oregon State to get used to the size and speed of the USC playmakers. A motivated Trojan team should be able to handle whatever the Beavers throw at them.
USC 35, Oregon State 20
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).