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Saturday, October 12, 2013
USC's ceiling looks higher than expected

By Steve Bisheff

Tre Madden, Jonathan McKnight
USC's offense exploded in the first game under interim coach Ed Orgeron, with Tre Madden's 63-yard touchdown reception from Cody Kessler highlighting a 546-yard night.
LOS ANGELES -- So now that we know the new, fun-loving Ed Orgeron-led USC Trojans are more relaxed and creative on offense, while still trying to patch up a secondary that seems to be growing more leaky by the minute, the next question is obvious:

Exactly how many more games can USC win this season?

The team that built up a three-touchdown lead in the cool October night and then had to hang on through a nerve-jangling fourth quarter to beat Arizona 38-31 still seems to be a work in progress.

The Trojans are 4-2, but there seems no question had Clay Helton been calling plays, had Nelson Agholor been properly utilized and had play-action passes generously inserted in the game plan, this group would have defeated Washington State back on Sept. 7 and probably made the road game at Arizona State much more competitive.

So they should be 5-1 and might have even been 6-0 with a few breaks here and there. But let’s be honest here, this bunch isn’t consistent enough offensively or sound enough defending passes to be undefeated and ranked among the nation’s top 10 or 15 teams.

What they are at the moment is a talented group that seems to have had a huge weight lifted off their shoulder pads. The ugly pressure that had built through the final weeks of the Lane Kiffin Era quickly dissipated in the chilled air of the Coliseum on Thursday night.

“We want them to play hard and have fun,” Orgeron kept repeating, and it seems like they did. These kids genuinely like Coach O. They revel in his energy and want to do well for him.

But just how well can they do in the final, challenging seven-game stretch? Well, depending to a large extent on the health of Marqise Lee and Morgan Breslin, maybe better than a lot of people think.

Lee and Breslin are arguably the two best players on the team. With both at or near full strength, the Trojans have an outside shot at going 5-2 the rest of the way. Without their two stars contributing as only they can and with the overall depth of this already-thin roster depleting as the injuries pile up, well . . . if you’re a USC fan, you don’t really want to think about that.

After Orgeron’s happy debut, it’s much more soothing to concentrate on many of the encouraging signs of that first post-Kiffin adventure:

Helton’s play-calling was a breath of fresh, downtown L.A. air, or as fresh as the air can get downtown. He emphasized the strength of this team, the power running game, while complementing it with the kind of play-action passes Kiffin stubbornly refused to mix in. The result was a 546-yard production featuring a balanced offense and a much more poised, assured quarterback in Cody Kessler.

• It is OK to throw downfield and even better to utilize the middle of the field. Kiffin seemed hesitant to do both, especially when Lee wasn’t playing. Helton went deep immediately, allowing Agholor to score on a 62-yard bomb and Tre Madden, circling out of the backfield and running up the seam, to catch another long pass for a 63-yard TD.

• You have five -- count ‘em, five -- gifted tailbacks. Why not use them all? After Madden injured a hamstring early, Orgeron showcased what has to be one of the deepest stable of running backs in the country. Silas Redd’s delayed debut was a big one, especially late in the fourth quarter when his power surges kept Arizona from completing what would have been a devastating comeback. Justin Davis was his usual nifty self, Javorius Allen showcased his tough running ability, topping it off with a Sam Cunningham-like dive into the end zone for one of his two touchdowns. And even true freshman Ty Isaac demonstrated some of the smooth, big-time ability he has hinted at during scrimmages.

• The offensive line is getting better and more cohesive. It blocked beautifully on running plays and was much more adept at pass protection, although the play-action definitely helped. If these kids keep improving, so will the flow of the offense, something that hasn’t always been there yet.

Even amidst all that, as well as Orgeron’s hard-to-ignore sideline animation, there were some negatives, too. The secondary remains a mini-disaster area. Dion Bailey, still making the transition to safety, was beaten badly on one Arizona TD pass, and Torin Harris, who had been improving at one corner, was embarrassed on a simple stop-and-go route that resulted in another Wildcats touchdown. Arizona’s pass offense is not even close to the Pac-12’s best but it moved almost at will in the second half.

Notre Dame is next, and the physical Fighting Irish deserve to be favored, especially in South Bend. But that is not a game USC is incapable of winning, whether Lee returns that quickly or not. The Trojans will be favored over Utah at home and probably even at Oregon State, although we all know about USC’s recent history in Corvallis, especially at night.

What about Stanford and UCLA, clearly the two most difficult opponents left on the schedule? Both the Cardinal and Bruins seem to be better teams at this point, but both games are also at the Coliseum, and if the Trojans can build any kind of momentum going in . . . well, you never know.

Here is what you do know: The entire tenor of this football team has changed since that long, dark night in Tempe, Ariz. The kids are eager and relieved. They like their gruff, gravelly-voiced interim coach and they’re anxious to see how much of this upcoming challenge they can handle for his sake . . . and their’s.

The Trojans might not finish 10-3 or even 9-4, but whatever happens the rest of the way, they will have fun trying.