If this were a prize fight USC and Oregon State would measure up as two middle weights, measuring about the same height, weight and reach. The most noticeable difference between the combatants would be that the Trojans posses a little bit more offense and a lot more defense. Since this is a football game, not a boxing match and because we all know defense wins in this arena, the edge has to go to SC. Because of that, this week's battle cry for the Trojans has to be... "Let's get ready to rumble!"
The USC Trojans and Oregon State Beavers are two teams that are both in search of offensive breakout games. At the beginning of the 2001-02 season, the Beavers declared Ken Simonton their Heisman hero. Now, heading into their eighth game, Simonton has amassed only 544 yards and has all but vanished from the Heisman race. Due to the lack of an explosive rushing offense, the Beavers have been forced to lean heavily on senior signal caller, Jonathan Smith. As good of a season Smith had in 2000, one could only anticipate his performance for 2001. Unfortunately, Smith has not been up to the call, throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns and completing a very modest 54.7 percent of his passing attempts. Combine Simonton and Smith's productivity this season and it is no wonder why the Beavers have struggled, currently ninth in the Pac Ten in total offense. The only team behind them is... the USC Trojans.
So, if USC is even worse than the Beavers offensively, then what is it that is going to allow them to win the fight? Defense. The Trojans are second in the Pac Ten in overall defense and have caused 22 turnovers placing them at +7 in the turn over margin. Another key factor that could heavily favor the Trojans is penalties. The Beavers are the most penalized team in the Pac Ten Conference, averaging 85 yards per game. No USC fan has to look too far back to recall how devastating penalties can become when trying to mount a victory. Poor execution on the field makes winning next to impossible.
Oregon State's defense ranks 7th in overall defense and have been susceptible to the big play, both on the ground and in the air. In their four losses the Beavers have given up 39.3 points per game. In contradiction to the points put up against them, Oregon State fields a very solid linebacking corp, who are the strength of their defense. James Allen and Nick Barnett lead the team with tackles. And free safety, Jake Cookus is right behind them. Of course the Trojan's Troy Polamalu is the Pac's leading tackler, both in solo and assisted knock downs. SC's secondary should measure up well against the Beavers wideouts. The key will be stopping the run, while also keeping Smith on his heels with constant pressure.
The Trojan offense is going to have to control the ball. The opportunity to break Byrd, Howard or Pierson into the Beaver's secondary is there, if the blocking schemes are executed properly. Alex Holmes has proven to be the man on the outside when closing off the end and making the flat a safe place to be for his fellow skill players. SC is going to have to get even greater productivity from both the tight ends and running backs by generating the underneath yardage to keep drives alive. It will also be imperative that Keary Colbert has a consistent enough game to allow Kareem Kelly to get behind the Beaver safeties for the big hit. That has been the achilles heel for Oregon State throughout the 2001 season. Jab, jab, jab... punch - set them up, then know them out. The Beavers have fallen every time thus far, glass jaw and all. But the jab is of the utmost importance to allow the big punch to exist. SC might choose to go for broke in the first round and get their opponent slightly punch drunk with a trick play or two involving future Trojan hero, Matt Cassell. It's all possible if the Trojans come out hard and play as they have been coached.
When asked about what moment in Beaver football meant the most to their program, Dennis Erickson responded: "To finally beat USC, in this program, was huge last year. It doesn't make any difference right now, but it was huge for the program to show that we could compete with one of the great traditions in all of college football in USC, and that we have a chance to compete against a school like that. That was a big part of it. Obviously, as far as this year, it doesn't make much difference. But last year, there were a lot of those things that happened and were historic at Oregon State. That was a big win for us." SC leads the series by a dramatic margin and because of that, beating the Trojans last year was not only a huge win by itself, it was also a victory that announced to the nation the Beavers were for real.
Dennis Erickson is a coach accustomed to winning. He is 42-9-1 in the month of November. He has produced National Championships at the college level and chose to remain at OSU, after strong overtures from USC to become their head coach, so he could build the Beaver program into a winning institution. In one year, Erickson stole whatever thunder the Ducks Mike Bellotti possessed in the state of Oregon. This season hasn't been as favorable to the Beaver's coach, but that is more to do with the personnel that graduated prior to the 2001 campaign, then poor coaching choices. Erickson is only in his third year at OSU, but in that short time he has already put his thumb print on a program that prior to his arrival had grown comfortable in the position of Pac Ten doormat.
The Beavers and Trojans are both still looking for their game, that knockout punch. Both play an aggressive style of defensive football and both have enough offensive weapons to put points on the board. It might take a little razzle-dazzle, a touch of rope a dope, and a solid right hook named Troy Polamalu and a left jab in Sunny Byrd to put the Beavers on the canvas, but it appears the USC Trojans are ready to go the distance.