Two weeks ago, following the Trojans' destruction of the Colorado Buffaloes, Pete Carroll was asked about his next opponent, the Kansas State Wildcats. His response was so cautionary, I wondered if he was practicing "coach speak," or if he really felt the men in purple presented that great a challenge. One week later, I have my answer.
Coach Carroll has been just as verbose with his praise of USC's latest combatant, the Oregon State Beavers. And why not? OSU leads the conference in rushing, total offense, scoring and scoring defense.
The Beavers have started the college football season by defeating four straight opponents by a combined score of 190-49. They have the nation's second-most prolific offense, averaging nearly 500 yards a game (499.75) and 48 points (47.5), the No. 2 pass efficiency defense (which also ranks No. 1 in interceptions with 11) in the country, the No. 3 pass efficiency offense in the country. On offense, they have Derek Anderson, a sophomore quarterback ranked No. 2 in the nation in passing efficiency. On defense, Oregon State boasts two of the best defenders in the nation with linebacker Richard Seigler and cornerback Dennis Weathersby. The Beavers have already forced 16 turnovers in four games. And the Beavers have one other thing, that last season had me chanting his name above all others for the best tailback in the Pac-10... they have Steven Jackson, a sophomore tailback ranked seventh in the land in rushing (134 yards a game).
With all that fire power, it's hard to believe these are the same old Beavers we've come to count on for our annual easy win. Unfortunately, they aren't the old reliables any more. The Beavers got tired of being the Pac-10 whipping boy, went out and got themselves a coach in Dennis Erickson. It was just about that time, coincidentally, that, despite the ghost of Jerry Pettibone (I know he's not dead), they started taking football seriously. The rest of the nation woke up to Beaver Fever, when they nearly decapitated Notre Dame in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl. Yes, Trojan fans I did say Fiesta Bowl. The Beavers got their following an eleven win season, something the Bruins have never done and something USC hasn't done in ages.
Against the same Bulldog team that gave the Pac-10 Defending Champ Oregon fits, OSU did, however, rush for 286 yards, pass for 224 more and managed to pile up a total of 510 while stifling Fresno State by allowing just 64 rushing yards, picking off three passes and making 11 tackles for loss, Erickson understated the obvious, then turned even wiser...
"I always say this — you're never as good as you think you are or as bad as you think you are," Erickson said. "None of us in this league know how good we are. We will find out as this league starts and all these games start taking place."
Dennis has truly become a wiley beaver, for he, despite all the glory his team has experienced through their first four games, will be coming to Los Angeles to play the USC Trojans in Memorial Coliseum. And Dennis knows that, not since before he ever thought of playing football, much less becoming a coach, have the Beavers conquered the Trojans. Take that one huge mental obstacle, add in a few fifth year seniors, some outstanding underclassmen, along with some excellent coaching and USC just might have the recipe for victory.
In looking back at last week's game, I can't help but think that if special teams had played "special," than SC's final drive would be for the go-ahead field goal and not a tying touchdown. Then I sing to myself... "If, ifs and buts were candy and nuts..." If they were, we'd all have rotten teeth. This game is for real and could spell out the path to the Pac-10 crown.
SC's Offense vs. OSU's Defense
Oregon State is second nationally in pass efficiency defense (69.3, first in Pac-10), eighth in turnover margin (+2.3, second in Pac-10), tied for eighth in scoring defense (12.3, first in Pac-10), 13th in total defense (257.8, second in Pac-10) and 16th in pass defense (148.0, third in Pac10). TheBeaver defense, which has nation-best 11 interceptions in 2002, is led by senior SLB Nick Barnett (38 tac, 7 for loss in 2002), junior MLB Richard Seigler (30 tac, 6 for loss, 2 int in 2002) and senior CB Dennis Weathersby (14 tac, 3 dfl in 2002). Their defense is surrendering only 257.8 yards per game and leads the nation with 11 interceptions. Add to that another 5 fumble recoveries and it's no wonder they are winning games big. When you look at both teams' opponents, a statiscal comparison to what SC's offense has done becomes almost futile. The Beavers have been playing the dregs of Division No A, while the Trojans have faced the nation's elite. However, I posed that same argument last week, prior to the Kstate game and it held water about as well as well as I do beer... "Excuse me, pardon me, excuse me..."
Jokes aside, in looking at the Trojan's offensive performance through their first three games, it's obvious that they are better than their 2001 version, but have yet to really perform. SC still isn't putting up outstanding numbers on the ground, or in the air. And although Palmer has been accurate, he's also had his mistakes and also been his harshest critic... "I haven't won the big games. I haven't done anything." This Saturday will be a big game and Carson will have his chance to do alot. But for the fifth year senior to have room to play, he will need his running game to come alive. This will be the key to a Trojan victory. In the first three games of the season the SC ground game offered glimpses of things to come. Sultan McCullough is running like a man inspired. He's hitting holes, protecting the ball, getting the tough yards as well as putting together two long touchdowns. His first for 62 yards, against CU, was the longest of his career. Finally healthy enough to join him in the backfield is Justin Fargas. Fargas got a handful of carries in Manhattan and was able to put together a 4 yard average. Putting either one of those backs together with Mal MacKenzie is enough to cause great defenses fits. Slip freshman phenom Herschel Dennis into the mix, and SC has the makings of one of the better collections of ball carriers in the nation. But they will be worth little if the Trojans' offensive line can't open some holes. If the Trojans can't run the ball, Oregon State will get after Palmer with the rush. They'll bring the house. It'll be up to the offensive line for SC to set the tone.
For three games SC has faced great defensive line after great defensive line. They have gone to war with freshmen, rotated in injured seniors and all in all, proved more than effecient. Those three games have been a test of fire, forging this line into a unit. The shuffling is done, the line is set and they are thrilled to be blocking for the backs behind them. OSU's base formation is a 4-3 shell with cover-two in the secondary, but the Beavers will give multiple looks to an offense. This system has been successful for Erickson and has helped two of his former coordinators, Sonny Lubick and Tommy Tuberville, have success as head coaches at Colorado State and Auburn, respectively. The Trojans already faced Auburn, who featured an outstanding defensive line and solid backers. They handled them without a starting unit and without their number one ball carrier. It may not be more of the same, but it won't be anything SC hasn't already seen.
If wars are won in the trenches, then on this side of the ball, SC is the victor.
In scouting the SC offense, OSU coaches have had their hands full. "Chow has won wherever he's gone. They offer so many looks to a defense and feature so many pass catchers, that it makes it very difficult."
SC's Defense vs. OSU's Offense
The Trojans lead the nation in pass defense, allowing just 108 yards per game -- though Auburn, Colorado and Kansas State hardly are aerial juggernauts. USC is ranked third nationally in total defense (229.7 yards per game), and opponents are converting just 16.2 percent of their third-down plays.
OSU quarterback Derek Anderson has piled up big numbers against weak opposition, but he hasn't yet produced a win on the road against a ranked team. "Any time you're a young quarterback playing (USC) in the Coliseum, it's a huge test," OSU coach Dennis Erickson said.
It won't hurt Anderson that SC has lost two in it's two-deep rotation at the corner position. This is a weakness in the Trojans Coach Erickson is sure to exploit. It will be up to SC's experienced safeties to cover lots of ground. Expect another stellar day from Troy Polamalu as he will be moved all over the field. It will also be key to have the Trojans' front seven step up and play even bigger than they have in their earlier matchups. There is no question that the Beavers have yet to see a defensive line as versatile as SC's. Adding to that, OSU lost Brian Kilkenny, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound junior starting offensive tackle. He is replaced by a fifth year senior and it may not prove that detrimental, but it is a chink in their armor.
Sophomore tailback Steven Jackson should take some heat off of Anderson. Jackson leads the Pac-10 with 134 yards per game after 227 yards and two touchdowns against Fresno. He ran for 119 last year against SC, but many feel it was due to the fact that Simonton had such a different gate and teams would prepare for him. Then the Beavers would put in the much bigger, power running Jackson to change the pace.
Earlier this week, Erickson said Jackson benefited from the opposition's focus on Simonton, the second leading rusher in Pac-10 history behind USC's Charles White.
"He came in when Kenny softened them up a little bit and now he's had to deal with being the back," Erickson said.
"He didn't show up on any of the films," Trojan middle linebacker Mike Pollard said after the game. "We didn't realize how good he was."
Pollard knows now and also realizes that he's going to have to step up his game to be effective against such a strong back.
They key for SC's defense will be whether or not Carroll feels comfortable enough utilizing the blitz packages he has developed. To blitz means leaving players in man coverage. That means exposing the young corners and the Coach just may not have enough confidence in them to take that chance. If that is the case, like in last week's game where he held back to contain the option, giving Kstate's quarterback enough time to knit a purple sweater, then SC could be in trouble. OSU's Anderson is only a sophomore, but his 6'6" frame and rifle arm has Erickson drawing comparisons to NFL and Washington State great Drew Bledsoe. So far he's been deadly. Eight difference players have caught touchdown passes, led by flanker James Newson with five.
"This is a team that is just loaded," USC coach Pete Carroll said.
"They may be playing the best of anyone in the conference right now," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti.
It would be difficult to find a weakness with the Beavers at this point. Despite the Scappoose Sensation's early success, look for Pac-10 defenses to load the box and force Anderson to beat them.
USC vs. OSU - The Final Factor.
One of the only downfalls for OSU has been 43 penalties in the first four games, and the mistakes must be eliminated. For SC it has been the Special Teams meltdown. In either case, the team that fixes those problems for sixty minutes, will most likely come out on top.
Regardless of how this game turns out, it should be obvious to all passionately involved, that this season will offer a new war for the Trojans each weekend. Oregon State, like their three predecessors are just one of a revolving cast that will bring heartache and joy to SC's faithful until the month of January has come and gone.
I like the Trojans this weekend for a myriad of reasons, starting with Carson Palmer and ending with Troy Polamalu. Senior leadership can never be undervalued in college ball. If the Trojans can generate a running game and our receivers can catch just a few more balls, then that should be enough to keep the Beaver at bay. However, if not, the Trojans could be watching history in the making.
Oregon State quarterback Derek Anderson, who ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency. "We're eager to go down there because we haven't beaten them in 280 years or whatever it is." Make that 281, Derek.
"I've got beaver fever. She's got beaver fever. Everybody's got beaver fever..." No, I really don't. That noxious feeling I attributed to the Beavers coming to town, really was just some bad fish I had this week. I'm fine. The Trojans will be fine. We'll all be fine.
It's going to be a war, like every weekend to come. SC is favored by 3 and considering it's in our house, I'll take the Trojans and add a point on the spread for good measure.
SC 31 - OSU 27