USC Trojans: Buck Allen

Spring ball can often be a time of experimentation with personnel decisions and schematic changes, but first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian has also brought a unique approach to his teaching methods.

Among the areas that Sarkisian wanted to emphasize this spring for the Trojans was an immediate introduction to the up-tempo style, the installation of new schemes on both sides of the ball and the desire to have any injured player healthy by the time fall camp rolls around in August.

With the new up-tempo style, the Trojans are running more plays in practice. They ran 120 on the first day of spring compared to an average of 80 or so per day during the Pete Carroll era. There are quotas in place for each period of how many plays need to be run and there is no stoppage between plays to huddle with the coaches -- it is a game-time environment where things are moving at all times.

For the installations, Sarkisian is using walk-through teaching periods as a key element of his plan. The timing of these periods is also designed to mimic game conditions, as a game is a series of high-paced plays followed by working with a coach on the sidelines to review what took place on the field.

“We don’t have time to critique our players between plays, and it’s designed that way,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why you see the walk-through periods at different stages during practice. Most people do that teaching before practice but we break them up into three periods within practice and we call them teaching periods. We take the time to try and fix some of the errors that we saw during the team periods. It’s a little different way of teaching but I think it’s a way to grab the players' attention and I think they respond to it well.”

There are also morning walk-throughs before each practice, which can feature as many as 100 plays in each session.

"The coaches are doing a great job with walk-throughs and meetings,” USC tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen said. “With a walk-through in the morning we're able to fix mistakes for practice that afternoon. A lot of guys learn better in that setting and it translates quickly to the field.”

Getting that kind of teaching done when installing a new offense and a new defense is critical. One bonus that comes with it is the ability to allow the injured players to be more involved, both mentally and physically, in the walk-through portions of practice.

"I think our communication is much better, especially defensively. We've put in a lot of offense and a lot of defense and those two things mashing together can be challenging," Sarkisian said. "I think we are really benefiting from the walk-throughs, one, at practice, but two, the 20 guys that can't practice right now are getting such valuable reps."

With the USC roster numbers still somewhat limited during the final year of NCAA sanctions, this approach by Sarkisian is a good example of the former quarterback evaluating his options and developing a plan to accomplish his goals for spring.

Trojans are deep at tailback

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
After the fax machines stopped rolling and the ink was dry on national signing day, USC first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, when discussing the merits of the 2014 recruiting class, made a point of stating that his staff intentionally did not recruit a running back.

Naturally, given the roster strength of the 2014 running back depth chart, this didn’t exactly come as a surprise. But it was recognition that of all those question marks heading into spring ball, the young men who carry the football aren’t an issue.

Sarkisian also reminded Trojans followers that despite the change in offensive formations, his philosophy on offense is to first having a power running game complemented by a balanced passing attack.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen is poised to be the leading tailback for USC.
There’s no position more identified or glorified in college football than the USC running back, or “tailback” as it is commonly referred. Legendary USC Hall of Fame coach John McKay created the modern era Trojans running game philosophy with the spotlight on the tailback and things haven’t significantly changed over the decades.

During McKay’s tenure, he believed the best ball carrier should be given the ball repeatedly and justified it with such immortal quotes as “It’s [the ball’s] not heavy,” and “he [the tailback] doesn’t belong to a union.”

One look at the Trojans' 2014 tailback depth chart and it appears to be a proverbial embarrassment of riches. Of the tailbacks returning, each has already been given the opportunity to carry the ball and has shown through styles of their own that they could probably start for most universities in the country.

About the only thing that has separated this collection of standout tailbacks has been injuries. As one talented tailback went down in 2013, another took his place without much of a hiccup.

Sophomores Javorius “Buck” Allen and Tre Madden, freshmen Justin Davis and Ty Isaac, and junior D.J. Morgan all return in 2014. About the only thing that separates most them all at this point, besides the brilliance of Allen’s second half of the season, is rehabilitation from injuries sustained during last season.

The healthy spotlight returner heading into spring practice is Allen, the 2013 team MVP whose rise to the prestigious heights of a starting USC tailback was both remarkable and heartwarming.

Allen, who seemed buried in Lane Kiffin’s pecking order last season, was given a chance when Kiffin was fired after the Arizona State debacle. Ed Orgeron handed over the tailback decisions to former running backs coach Tommie Robinson, who thought Allen was the best option in a recommitted power-oriented offense.

Naturally, Sarkisian hasn’t said how he plans to use his assortment of tailbacks. Will it be one featured back like Sarkisian’s former All-American at the University of Washington, Bishop Sankey, or tailback by committee? This decision will be part of many spring ball questions to be answered, but the truth probably lies with the fact that the actual running back rotation order probably won’t be decided until fall practice, when there are more healthy bodies available for scrimmaging.

Unless there is a shocking development in spring, it’s likely that junior-to-be Allen, who will probably be named to some preseason All-Pac-12 lists, will head into fall camp as the Trojans No. 1 running back. However, Sarkisian and running backs coach Johnny Nansen need to show some semblance of credibility when they say all positions are open, which should bring out the best in all the available tailbacks in the spring.

And since the Trojans didn’t recruit a tailback in the class of 2014, those potential running back recruits for the class of 2015 will also be paying close attention to how Sarkisian and Nansen use their backs this season.

So, the implementation of the new- or old-school philosophy of the USC tailback under Sarkisian is just a plethora of spring handoffs away, and it begs an answer to a tantalizing question: Is Sark a one-tailback, “old school” professor, or is he a multi-tailbacks, “new school” professor when it comes to Tailback U?
We're looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2013.

Up next: Nelson Aghol-oh my gosh he did it again.

Who and against whom: USC WR/PR Nelson Agholor had a monster special teams performance in the Trojans’ 62-28 win over California.

The numbers: The Trojans matched an NCAA record by returning three punts for touchdowns in the game. One came off a block, the other two were of the traditional variety with Agholor returning Cal’s first punt 75 yards for a touchdown. He did it again in the second quarter, this time from 93 yards out. He finished with 168 return yards (a healthy average of 84 yards per return) and added four catches for 35 yards.

A closer look: On Tuesday we honored Oregon’s Bralon Addison for returning a pair of punts for scores against Cal. It’s only fair to return the favor to Agholor. And Cal, if it feels like we’re beating up on your special teams a little bit, our apologies. But then again, stop giving up multiple returns for touchdowns in games. Buck Allen gets a tip of the cap as well for his 135 yards on six carries and two touchdowns (22.5 yards per carry … dang!). But it was Agholor who opened the scoring with a 75-yard punt return after the Trojans stopped Cal’s first drive. His second score came before the half with the Trojans already leading 35-14 (Josh Shaw had already returned a block punt for USC’s second special teams touchdown of the game). This one went for 93 yards to give the Trojans an insurmountable 41-14 lead at the break. The last team to return three punts for touchdowns was when Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins did it against UCLA in 2003.

Nansen new tailback caretaker

January, 19, 2014
Jan 19
LOS ANGELES -- When a university has had as much running back tradition and success as the University of Southern California, there’s also going to be interest in the running backs coach, a major focal point when former Washington Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian was named the new USC head coach in early December.

Naming a new running backs coach wasn’t really a challenge for Sarkisian. He simply brought with him from the University of Washington former Huskies running backs coach Johnny Nansen, 39, who grew up in Long Beach and calls his return to the Southland “a dream come true.”

The real challenge for Nansen was restoring the credibility of former USC running backs coach Tommie Robinson, who in just one season had gained a tremendous amount of admiration, respect and love from the Trojans running backs. When Robinson wasn’t retained by Sarkisian and was later hired at the University of Texas under new Longhorns coach Charlie Strong, there appeared to be a rather large credibility gap.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesBuck Allen had four 100-yard rushing performances in USC's final six games.
Nansen’s credibility strictly as a running backs coach might not be his biggest issue. After all, in 2013, Nansen mentored UW All-American, Doak Walker finalist and first-team All-Pac-12 running back Bishop Sankey, who was among the nation’s leading rushers.

No, Nansen’s real challenge is gaining the trust and interpersonal relationships that flourished under Robinson, especially with a former fourth-stringer named Javorius Allen, who became the Trojans’ 2013 team MVP under Robinson’s guidance.

So how does Nansen plan to go about selling himself to Allen and his running back mates and repairing their broken hearts after Robinson’s departure?

“Obviously, you have to get to know the players and spend some time with them,” Nansen said. “They have to understand your philosophy. We’re all different coaches in what we believe in. The kids have to buy into your philosophy, and that’s really where you start off at.”

Ah, yes, a new running backs philosophy. There is, however, the old saying that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But Nansen thinks he can present a philosophy that will help in the coaching transition.

“It’s about having fun and having the kids believe in the little things you teach, not only on the football field but outside of the field,” Nansen said. “I think once they understand and grasp that, you’ll see them starting to perform at a high level, which is expected here at SC.”

Upon officially assuming the role of running backs coach, Nansen knew he had to bridge the gap with Allen. “Buck” was admittedly stung by the departure of not only his mentor Robinson but also former interim head coach Ed Orgeron, who gave Robinson the OK to play Allen extensively and the rest, of course, is history.

After the Trojans’ exhilarating victory over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Allen admittedly gave some serious thought into entering the NFL draft. However, gaining his diploma, increasing his marketability, getting some good advice, and giving Nansen a chance eventually won out, and No. 37 will return in 2014.

“Man, he’s a unique kid and I love him,” Nansen said. “Since I’ve taken over this job, he’s been around and we’ve spent a lot of time together. I am fired up. I did get to watch the bowl game, and he’s a special player.”

By no means has Nansen forgotten the other talented running backs he will instruct come spring ball in early March. One such talent is freshman Justin Davis, who is recovering from ankle surgery.

“I know Justin real well,” Nansen said. “We recruited him when we were at Washington. He’s a great young man and comes from a great family. He’s a hard worker and a very talented back. He’s very similar to a back I had a year ago at Washington in Bishop Sankey.”

Nansen also will have at his disposal the likes of gifted sophomore Tre Madden, a power back who’s also coming off the injury list. When healthy, Madden has repeatedly shown signs of physical dominance. Then there is also junior speedster D.J. Morgan, who also has given glimpses of explosiveness when he, too, hasn’t been in the infirmary.

There had been fears that fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner might be passÚ in Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle, shotgun offense. Both Nansen and Sarkisian recently said that they have great respect for Vainuku and Pinner, and there will still be a vital place for the fullback in the Trojans’ 2014 offensive system.

Ah, yes, the new system. Just how difficult will it be for Nansen’s backs to learn the new system, even though, according to Sarkisian, it’s still a run-first, power-oriented attack?

“I don’t think the system has changed from what they have done here,” Nansen said. “It’s the verbiage that we’ve changed. We were talking with the players yesterday, and they were picking it up and rolling with it. I am looking forward to it.”

And so, eagerly, are Trojans fans, expecting Nansen to maintain the tradition and expectations at storied Tailback U.
LOS ANGELES -- Steve Sarkisian hasn’t been back at USC long -- just over six weeks to be exact -- but as he spoke to a gathering of reporters inside the John McKay Center on Tuesday afternoon, it became apparent that the new head coach certainly isn’t tempering his optimism.

“We’ve got a plenty talented roster to go out and compete for a championship,” Sarkisian said, “and that’s what I said [on] Day 1, and I really have not wavered on that.”

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Season review: USC

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
Our season reviews continue in alphabetic order.

Next up is USC.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Clay Helton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCody Kessler showed improvement with Clay Helton calling the plays.
Offense: When taking stock of the USC offense, you really have to look at it like it was two different seasons: The Lane Kiffin swan song vs. the Ed Orgeron rebirth. The first few games were an extended tryout at the quarterback spot, which was eventually won by Cody Kessler. In the first five games under Kiffin, Kessler completed 63 percent of his throws, averaged 166.4 yards per game and had six touchdowns to four interceptions. His raw QBR was 39.9 and his adjusted QBR was 48.9. Post Kiffin, when Clay Helton stepped in to call the plays, Kessler completed 65 percent of his throws and threw 14 touchdowns to three interceptions. As a team, they averaged 26 points in the first five games and 31.7 over the final nine. We also saw the emergence of Buck Allen at tailback. Once he started getting regular carries, he had four 100-yard rushing games in his final six games and 12 touchdowns over that same span. Often-injured Marqise Lee couldn’t follow up on his 2012 Belitnikoff Award season, but Nelson Agholor came on strong. It will be interesting to see what USC looks like as an uptempo offense with Steve Sarkisian at the helm. Grade: C+

Defense: For all the heat Kiffin took – including one last final burn – he also recognized that the Trojans needed to move to an odd front to keep up with some of the perimeter speed in the league. And he knew he had the horses. Hiring Clancy Pendergast was a wise decision. In one season under Pendergast, the Trojans cut their points allowed by more than a field goal, made huge strides in rush defense (167 yards allowed in 2012 compared to 120.3 in 2013) and were on the plus side of turnover margin at plus-6 after going minus-2 in 2012 and minus-1 in 2011. Four players landed on the first- or second-team all-league squads and Leonard Williams emerged as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country. Statistically, the Trojans ranked in the top three or four in the league in most major categories. Yes, there were a couple of bad games. But there was a lot more good than bad as the Trojans allowed fewer than 20 points in nine of 13 games. Grade: A-

Special teams: The Trojans were first in the league in punt returns with three touchdowns (two from Agholor), but last in the league in kick returns. They were second to last in the league in touchbacks, but had one of the stronger kick coverage teams in the league. Andre Heidari was just 15 of 22 on field goals, but he came up clutch in the Stanford game. And they were 2 for 2 on onside kicks. Some units were really good. Some, not so much. Grade: C+

Overall: Few teams in college football history had to endure the kind of internal drama that USC faced this year. And to come out on the other end up – ranked in the Top 25 and winning a bowl game over a ranked team – speaks to the character of the seniors and the job Orgeron did in relief. But it wasn’t all peaches. While the Trojans did score a huge win over Stanford, they still lost to Notre Dame and UCLA – a couple of big no-nos with the fans, die-hard and casual alike. Firing a coach midseason usually means throwing up a white flag. So we certainly give credit where credit is due. The Trojans fought hard. The losses were ugly (see: State, Washington; State, Arizona; and Dame, Notre). The future of the USC program is certainly going to be an interesting one. But when you peel back all of the layers of 2013 and reflect on what USC managed to get done, it’s hard not to respect where they ended up compared to where they could have ended up. Grade: B-
The USC Trojans defeated the Fresno State Bulldogs 45-20 in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

It was over when: Buck Allen crossed the goal line on a 1-yard run with 4:44 left to put USC up 45-20. The Trojans had taken a 35-6 lead at halftime before Fresno State made a brief run to close the gap, but Allen provided the finishing touch with his second touchdown of the day.

Game ball: Cody Kessler. The USC quarterback set a career high, and a Las Vegas Bowl record, with four touchdown passes, and he had those in the first half alone. Kessler ended the day by completing 22 of 31 passes for 344 yards, along with one interception that was returned for a touchdown. Kessler also earned hometown bragging rights with longtime friend and fellow Bakersfield native Derek Carr from Fresno State.

Key stat: Marqise Lee with seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Those are the type of numbers that were routine for Lee in his 2012 Biletnikoff Award-winning year, but a pair of injuries in 2013 curtailed his performance. If that was his final game in a USC uniform, as it is widely expected he will declare for the NFL draft, it was a fitting ending for one of the best playmakers in school history.

Key stat 2: Fresno State came in averaging a nation-leading 409 passing yards per game. USC held the Bulldogs to 217.

Unsung hero: Dion Bailey. The Trojans' slot defender in their nickel package was all over the field posing problems for Carr. He had a pair of key tackles for loss and got in passing lanes to help thwart the short passing game of the Bulldogs.

What it means for Fresno State: It means the Bulldogs won’t reach their goal of a program-record 12 wins but that doesn’t take away from what was accomplished this year. Not only did they tie the record for most wins, but also they captured the first-ever MWC title game and had one of the top passing offenses in the country, led by a likely first-round draft choice in Carr. And, to top it off, they won’t have to wait long to get a shot at revenge, as they face the Trojans in the 2014 season opener.

What it means for USC: The goal for these players and coaches was to reach 10 wins in what was a season of adversity and change. It also was a resounding performance from those who wondered about the sense of motivation for the team, especially after last year’s effort in the Sun Bowl. Clay Helton hands off the Trojans on a good note, and now the Steve Sarkisian era begins.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, click here.

WeAreSC roundtable: UCLA

November, 25, 2013
WeAreSC staffers discuss topics relating to the upcoming crosstown rivalry between USC and UCLA.

What is the key matchup for USC vs. UCLA?

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillSlowing down quarterback Brett Hundley will be a key for the Trojans against the Bruins.
Garry Paskwietz: I’m going to say the USC defensive front against the UCLA run game, particularly Myles Jack and Brett Hundley. The Trojans have been terrific lately up front led by Leonard Williams and Devon Kennard and they have a chance to neutralize the Bruins offense if they can keep Jack and Hundley from breaking big plays. Jack has given a huge boost to the Bruins as they’ve had a tough time replacing the run game production of Jonathan Franklin. With Hundley, he has his skills as a passer but it seems as if he can really be dangerous when he creates plays with his running ability.

Johnny Curren: The USC defensive line versus the UCLA offensive line. As USC head coach Ed Orgeron noted in his weekly conference call, quarterback Brett Hundley is the heart that makes the UCLA offense tick. As such, one of the major keys to a Trojans victory will be the ability of the USC defensive line to get after the talented Bruins passer. And with UCLA likely to start three freshmen this weekend on an offensive line that gave up a staggering nine sacks to Arizona State, Leonard Williams and Co. have to be licking their chops. If the USC defensive line can, indeed, take advantage of what appears to be a significant mismatch by getting after Hundley on a consistent basis, while also limiting UCLA’s ground attack, the Trojans should certainly come out on top in this one.

Greg Katz: The key matchup will be the Trojans defensive front seven’s ability to contain UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. It’s no secret that Hundley is the heart and soul of the Bruins offense. While his arm is a threat, it’s his feet that can cause greater damage by keeping the Trojans defensive off balance. The problem with Hundley in Saturday’s game is that he’ll probably move around, over, and through the pocket more in this game than any other.

What is the top moment or game from this rivalry to take place in the Coliseum?

Paskwietz: I’ll go with the 27-0 USC victory in 2001. It wasn’t a game that decided a Rose Bowl or national championship and it didn’t involve a dramatic finish. Instead, it was a shocking exclamation point on a turnaround in fortunes for the two programs. For the Trojans, it was a glimpse of what was coming in the Pete Carroll era, the first real sign of a dominant performance under the first-year coach. It was made all the better for USC fans by the fact that it took place against the Bruins, especially since UCLA had been riding high with one L.A. area newspaper columnist even claiming it had become a Bruin town. Since that column appeared, USC has won nine of the 11 meetings between the two schools.

Curren: I’ll go with Rodney Peete’s touchdown toss to Erik Affholter in 1987. With a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line, the underdog Trojans found themselves trailing the Troy Aikman-led Bruins 13-0 in the third quarter. But then, thanks to the determination and arm of Peete, USC mounted its comeback. And with the Trojans down 13-10 with just under eight minutes left, the gutsy signal caller threw a beautiful 33-yard pass into the corner of the end zone that Affholter bobbled, but eventually reeled in for a touchdown, and USC won 17-13.

Katz: No question here that it was the 1967 game when both teams played in the Coliseum, which led to a Rose Bowl berth and the national championship. The specific moment would be tailback O.J. Simpson’s legendary, weaving 64-yard touchdown run in the final quarter, which helped position the Trojans for the final victory margin. Lost in the history was that Trojans placekicker Rikki Aldridge actually converted the PAT after the Simpson run to put the Men of Troy ahead by a point and the eventual final score of 21-20.

Which player will rise up in this rivalry game?

Paskwietz: I think it’s entirely possible that this game will become the Buck Allen show. The Trojans sophomore tailback has burst onto the scene with some dazzling performances -- the most recent being the 145-yard, three-touchdown effort against Colorado -- and he appears destined to break out on the national stage in a game like this.

Curren: RB Javorius "Buck" Allen. Allen, who emerged from anonymity earlier this season, has been on a tear as of late, eclipsing the century mark on the ground in three out of the Trojans’ last four games, and I see that trend continuing this weekend. The Bruins have a solid defense, but not dominating by any means, and they allow an average of 174.5 rushing yards per game. So if the USC offensive line can open up some lanes, there’s reason to believe that Allen, who just keeps getting better and better, will break loose.

Katz: While signs point to Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler, who continues to get better and better each game, the player who could etch his name in the lore of this great rivalry is USC sophomore wide receiver Nelson Agholor. It’s not hard to envision Agholor returning a punt to the house or having a huge scoring day as a receiver. With the effectiveness of All-America wide receiver Marqise Lee still questionable, a healthy Agholor not only has the ability to score from anywhere on the field, but he has a way of doing it in dramatic fashion that can really change the tide of emotion in such a heated rivalry game.

Pac-12 names players of the week

November, 25, 2013
Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey has been named the Pac-12 offensive player of the week, along with Arizona State linebacker Chris Young, who was named defensive player of the week and UCLA returner Ishmael Adams, who was named special teams player of the week.

Here’s some more on the trio per the Pac-12’s release:

Carey, a junior from Tucson, Ariz., racked up 206 yards on a school-record 48 carries to become the Wildcats’ all-time leading rusher with 3,913 career yards as Arizona upset No. 5 Oregon 42-16 on Saturday afternoon in Tucson. His four touchdowns on the day established a new program mark for career touchdowns with 49 while his 45 career rushing touchdowns are also a school record. The 48 carries were the most by an FBS player in a game this season and his string of 14 straight 100-yard rushing games is tied for the longest streak by an FBS player over the past ten seasons. The nation’s second-leading rusher (155.9 ypg) earns the conference offensive player of the week honor for the second time this year.

Young, a senior from Seattle, Wash., led an Arizona State defense that limited a potent UCLA offense and squashed a fourth-quarter comeback bid in a 38-33 win over the Bruins at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night as the Sun Devils clinched the Pac-12 South Division title with the victory. He collected a game-leading 13 tackles, including 12 solo, and three sacks for a loss of 27 yards. His two fourth-quarter sacks and game-ending tackle on the Bruins’ final two drives secured the win for the Sun Devils, who earned a spot in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game on Dec. 7.

Adams, a sophomore from Woodland Hills, Calif., collected 234 return yards in his first game serving as the return man in the Bruins’ 38-33 loss to Arizona State. His efforts in the return game led to three UCLA scores, including a 58-yard return on the Sun Devils’ first kickoff of the game to set up a 42-yard scoring pass on the next play and a 49-yard punt return that set up a 48-yard field goal that put the Bruins ahead late in the first quarter.

Also nominated for offensive player of the week honors were quarterbacks Taylor Kelly of Arizona State and Connor Halliday of Washington State; running backs Javorius Allen of USC and Bishop Sankey of Washington; and wide receivers Ty Montgomery of Stanford and Shaq Evans of UCLA. Also nominated for defensive player of the week honors were linebackers Anthony Barr of UCLA and Justin Sagote of Washington State; cornerbacks Shaquille Richardson of Arizona and Marcus Peters of Washington; and defensive end Leonard Williams of USC and free safety Jered Bell of Colorado. Also nominated for special teams player of the week honors was Washington State kicker Andrew Furney and USC fullback/special teams member Soma Vainuku.

Video: USC 47, Colorado 29

November, 24, 2013
Javorius Allen rushed for 145 yards and three touchdowns to lead No. 23 USC past Colorado 47-29.

Surging Trojans are bucking the odds 

November, 11, 2013
There are lots of ways to gain respect in college football. There are the fans, the media and, certainly, your opponents to consider.

But the true sign of respect comes from only one place: The oddsmakers.

The gentlemen who set the betting lines in Las Vegas are cold, dispassionate observers. They do not let loyalty, emotion or bias enter into their thinking. They are the most objective sports observers on the planet.

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USC 62, Cal 28: Three up, three down

November, 9, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- A look at the positives and negatives from USC’s 62-28 win over California on Saturday, the Trojans’ fourth victory in five games since Ed Orgeron took over as interim coach.

Three Up

1. Javorius Allen
Following a breakout performance against Oregon State last week, Allen was simply unstoppable on Saturday, running through and around Golden Bears defenders at will. Averaging a staggering 22.5 yards per rush, he compiled 135 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, while adding another score on a 57-yard reception. Allen has now run for 268 yards and five touchdowns combined in his last two outings.

2. USC punt return unit
It was a big day for special teams coach John Baxter’s group as the Trojans tied an NCAA record in returning three punts for touchdowns. Two of those scores came from Nelson Agholor, equaling a USC mark set by Mike Garrett against California in 1965. Amassing a total of 168 yards on those plays, the speedy sophomore also broke Garrett’s single-game yardage record (162 yards). The Trojans scored on another punt return when Soma Vainuku came in and blocked a Cole Leininger punt, and Josh Shaw returned it 14 yards into the end zone.

3. USC team morale
Already riding a wave of positive energy that seemed to take shape right from the second that Orgeron took over as interim coach, it’s safe to say that, following Saturday’s win, the morale of the team is now at an all-time high. It isn’t just the fact that the Trojans came away with a victory, but it’s the dominating fashion in which they did it. With a comfortable lead early, the USC players could be seen having what appeared to be the time of their lives, hooting and hollering as Orgeron emptied the bench and allowed a number of lesser-known Trojans to make an impact. The strong contribution of a promising freshman like Ty Isaac -- who rushed for 87 yards -- as well as players commonly relegated to the sideline like Charles Burks, Cyrus Hobbi and Max Wittek could do wonders in terms of the camaraderie and mood on the team with an eye towards the rest of the season.

Three Down

1. USC pass coverage
While the 288 passing yards accumulated by the Golden Bears was well below the 351.1 yards per game that the team’s offense averaged coming into the contest, the Trojans still allowed California quarterback Jared Goff to complete too many passes (34 on 48 attempts) and the secondary had some difficulties in coverage at times. In particular, the cornerbacks, and especially Kevon Seymour, struggled to play the ball in the air. Seymour and Shaw both gave up touchdowns in such situations.

2. USC place kicking
After starting out the season shaky, junior Andre Heidari won a midseason position battle and appeared to have regained the confidence and consistency showcased during his stellar freshman campaign, connecting on five of his last six field goal attempts heading into USC’s battle with Cal. Against the Golden Bears, however, Heidari was less-than-reliable, missing a PAT attempt as well as a 46-yard field goal in the second quarter. He’s now 11-of-18 on his field goal tries on the season, and just 3-of-8 from 40 yards or longer.

3. Silas Redd injury
With Redd appearing to have a blast as he cheered his teammates on throughout the second half, the knee injury that forced him out of the game early doesn’t appear to be anything serious. Still, with a physical Stanford defensive front seven on tap, the status of his health will definitely be worth watching this week. Even with the emergence of Allen and Isaac, USC will need as many healthy backs at their disposal as possible, and Redd brings not only his capable talents to the fold, but also his leadership.

Q&A: USC's Buck Allen

November, 8, 2013
The USC Trojans are 3-1 since changing coaches and have found offensive production up and down the roster. Most recently, running back Javorius "Buck" Allen has emerged. He's coming off a breakout performance against Oregon State, where he rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns. He took some time to chat with the Pac-12 blog this week.

That Oregon State game was a long time coming for you. It had to feel pretty good to get 16 carries and make the most of them.

[+] EnlargeUSC
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBuck Allen (37) has been making the most of his carries and has earned a bigger roll in the USC backfield.
Buck Allen: It did. I wanted to thank the coaching staff for believing in me. My quarterback did an awesome job. My offensive line did an awesome job. My fullback did an awesome job. Without them, none of that would have been possible.

When you look at your team's depth, you guys have been hit hard. But tailback isn't an issue. What's it been like trying to find your niche among that group of talented runners?

BA: [Running backs] Coach [Tommie] Robinson does a great job rotating us all. He knows us and has a great feel for all of our running styles, and he does a good job rotating us all. He believes in all of us. He gets a lot of credit for knowing us and knowing what we all do best and knowing when and how to use us.

You guys are 3-1 since the coaching change. How difficult has the transition been for you guys and how have you been able to handle it?

BA: It hasn't been difficult. We all love Coach [Ed Orgeron]. He's a player's coach. He loves us, and he wants to see us happy and have fun. We really play off of that, and we want to win for him.

Getting burgers and shakes probably helps.

BA: Oh yeah. Definitely.

What do you see from Cal on film defensively?

BA: They are a good defense. You can never judge a team by their record. We're just going to execute the game plan the coaches have for us, and we'll go from there.

Despite the rollercoaster season, you guys are still in the thick of the South Division race. What's the confidence level like in the locker room?

BA: We're confident. But we're really focused on ourselves and getting better every day and every game. That's all you can do.

What's been the best thing about coach Orgeron so far?

BA: He's really good at interacting with us. He wants to see us happy. He's really good at making it all about us. That's the one thing that I love about him, and I think the other guys do too.

What are your thoughts on Cody Kessler? He seems to be settling more into the position.

BA: He's a great player, and we have a great offense. The coaches all put us in the right position to be successful.

Do you feel like you guys are starting to establish an identity?

BA: Absolutely. We have a good running game, and that sets up our passing game. We go with the game plan the coaches give us and execute, and it's been working.

Where does the nickname Buck come from?

BA: I was a freshman [in high school] on varsity, and there were two Javoriuses -- they stated calling me young buck. Then by my sophomore year, everyone was just calling me Buck.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 11

November, 7, 2013
A few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12:

  1. The big one: No. 5 Stanford will host No. 3 Oregon on Thursday night in a game that is sure to send shock waves throughout the Pac-12 and BCS Standings. A win for the Ducks likely re-catapults them back over Florida State and into the No. 2 spot of the BCS rankings -- the outcome of Alabama-LSU pending. A victory for the Cardinal keeps their national championship hopes alive, but they’d still need some help along the way to pass Ohio State and Florida State. This is just the second time that two Pac-12 teams have met while ranked in the top five of the BCS standings. The last time was No. 4 Arizona State and No. 5 Oregon in 2007.
  2. [+] EnlargeByron Marshall
    Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsByron Marshall leads the Oregon rushing attack at Stanford on Thursday night.
    Edges matter: Per the brilliant number crunchers at ESPN Stats & Info, the Cardinal will have to contain the Ducks when they try to run outside. Oregon averages 8.7 yards per rush outside the tackles, second among all AQ teams behind Wisconsin. Last season, Stanford forced Oregon to run 63 percent of the time between the tackles. And when the Ducks did get outside, the Cardinal were able to contain them to the tune of just 29 yards, 1.9 yards per rush and 1.3 yards before contact. In Oregon’s other games last season, they averaged 108.1 yards per game outside the tackles.
  3. The other side of the ball: We know about Oregon’s offense. We know about Stanford’s defense. How about when roles are reversed? The Cardinal offense hasn’t been all that productive of late, averaging just 21.6 points over its past three games. Oregon’s defense yields just 16.9 points per game -- seventh-best in the country. Turnovers will obviously be a premium for both defenses. Stanford has a zero turnover margin with 11 takeaways and 11 giveaways. Oregon, however, is plus-13 with 23 turnovers gained to 10 turnovers lost.
  4. Quotable: Always good for a one-liner, Stanford coach David Shaw was asked earlier in the week about De’Anthony Thomas’ comments that he expects the Ducks to score at least 40 points. “I don’t have an issue with that,” Shaw said. “He’s a confident young man, and they put it on film. They’ve done it. So I have no problem with that if that’s his mentality. I’m just glad he only said 40.” Seeing as Shaw has a penchant for the us-against-the-world approach for his team, here’s betting he had a different message for his defense behind closed doors.
  5. South showdown (1): UCLA heads to Tucson, where it hasn’t won since 2003 -- the first year of the Karl Dorrell era. Both teams have already achieved bowl eligibility. Both teams sit at 3-2 in conference play. Now it becomes a question of pecking order. Ka’Deem Carey has rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 straight games, which is tops in the FBS. The Bruins snapped their two-game losing streak with a win over Colorado last week. Brett Hundley posted the third game of his career with two rushing and two passing touchdowns and he accounted for 345 yards of total offense. Keep an eye on how things play out in the first 30 minutes, because the Bruins are 13-0 under coach Jim Mora when they lead at the half.
  6. South showdown (2): The Sun Devils look to strengthen their foothold on the South with a trip to Utah -- a team they blasted in Tempe last season. In fact, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he has “horrible memories” of last season's loss and called it one of Utah’s poorest performances since joining the Pac-12. The obvious sidebar here is it’s the first time Utah offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson is facing the team he used to coach. But Whittingham said Erickson is a pretty even-keeled guy and he doesn’t expect sentiment or emotions to play a role. Whittingham also said that quarterback Travis Wilson is healed from his hand injury and won’t wear a glove. Across the field, ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly is coming off of a seven-touchdown game on the road at Washington State.
  7. Trojans rolling: Since making the coaching switch from Lane Kiffin to interim coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans have gone 3-1, including a convincing 31-14 win last week on the road at Oregon State. For the second time this season USC had a pair of running backs post 100-yard games with senior Silas Redd rushing for 140 yards and Buck Allen collecting 133 yards (8.3 yards per catch) and 3 TDs. Allen was USC’s fourth different back to rush for 100 yards this season. Marqise Lee is also coming off an outstanding performance, grabbing five passes for a season-high 105 yards and one touchdown in the win over the Beavers. Cal is still looking for a conference win, but should have some more confidence after an improved showing last week against Arizona.
  8. Bowl eligible: So far there are six teams already bowl eligible (Oregon, Stanford, Oregon State, Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA) with two more on the verge of becoming eligible this week. USC, because of the 13-game regular season schedule sits at 6-3 overall and needs to pick up a win at California to get a spot in the postseason. Washington is at 5-3 with a visit from Colorado. Both teams are favorites, which would give the league eight teams headed to the postseason with the legitimate potential for two more (Utah and Washington State). Both have four wins and Colorado still has an outside shot. Cal is the only Pac-12 team eliminated from bowl eligibility.
  9. Star power: Two of the nation’s elite offensive playmakers square off in Seattle when Colorado visits Washington. Buffs wide receiver Paul Richardson has 57 catches for 984 yards with eight touchdowns and continues to close in on several of Colorado’s single-season receiving marks. Washington counters with running back Bishop Sankey, who enters the week as the nation’s No. 3 rusher, averaging 145.3 yards per game. He’s coming off a career-best 241-yard performance against Cal and ranks fourth nationally with 12 rushing touchdowns.
  10. Taking a breather: There are two teams on bye this week with Oregon State looking to refocus after dropping back-to-back games against Stanford and USC and Washington State taking its second bye week in the past three. The Beavers, who are already bowl eligible, close the season with two of their final three on the road; at ASU, home to Washington and at Oregon for the Civil War. With four wins, the Cougars need to win two more to teach the postseason. They are also on the road for two of their past three with dates at Arizona next week and home to Utah before closing out the Apple Cup in Seattle.

Tuesday mailbag: Can Mac get it done?

November, 5, 2013
Just cause it’s the mailbag doesn’t mean I mail it in.

Trojan Nation in (Downtown LA) writes: For the mailbag ... Kevin! You picked USC to lose against Oregon State. You Picked USC to lose against Utah. When are you going to show us Trojans some love and admit that we're a good football team with great talent who are WINNING despite going through what no other college team in college football has to. Would any other team in college football be doing as well as SC is if it had the same restriction put unfairly upon them??? I think not!

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesEd Orgeron's Trojans have managed to overcome plenty of obstacles this season.
Kevin Gemmell: I did, and I did. But I’ll say the same thing to you that I said to the ASU fan who berated my Washington pick a couple of weeks ago: Where were the mailbag notes thanking me for my support when I picked USC over Notre Dame and Washington State or Utah State? Though I will admit, your note was far more polite and playful, which is appreciated.

Color me egg-faced, because you’re right, USC is doing some pretty incredible things considering the roller coaster ride the program has been on with the sanctions and the coaching change and the injuries it has sustained.

When it comes to close games, I tend to lean toward the home team. And given USC’s lack of recent success in Corvallis, I took the best data I had available and made a decision. I was wrong. Ted was right, so a tip of the cap to him.

What impressed me most about USC was the power running game. Getting Silas Redd back has obviously helped, but Justin Davis goes down, Tre Madden exits and Buck Allen steps in and absolutely throttles Oregon State. Say this for USC’s depth, it’s bad in a lot of places, but it’s freaking awesome at tailback.

Now the Trojans are 3-1 since the coaching change, playing inspired defense and pushing people around on the lines. So yes, you are a good football team with great talent who is winning.

I’m not sure what to expect from USC down the stretch. But here’s a spoiler alert, I’m going to go out on a limb and pick you guys this week.

Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Nice article on the new coach at CU. I wish them well this weekend and for the rest of the season. Snarky and spiteful? Ouch. I'll try and get back to my playful self. Let's be clear: I don't love UCLA, but Jim Mora's done a nice job and has handled himself admirably. I just think the media loves to over-hype sometimes, and given the Bruins' most impressive performances have been close losses, I do believe they need to win a meaningful game to earn so much praise. Keep up the good work and give your partner-in-crime a shout out, too.

Kevin Gemmell: This is why Ryan is one of my favorite mailbaggers. He flew off the handle a bit last week. I called him on it and had to reel him back in. And he comes right back with another note. The dedication is appreciated.

First, thanks for the kudos on the Mike MacIntyre story. I know the wins and losses aren’t there. And I don’t think anyone expected a massive swing in the win column in just one season. But he’s a proven rebuilder and recruiter, and I think he’s got the program moving in the right direction.

Regarding UCLA, I still consider the win in Nebraska to be a meaningful game. Not just because of the tragic circumstances that led up to it, but simply for how explosive UCLA looked in that second half when everything was clicking. We got a glimpse of a team with remarkable offensive and defensive potential and saw firsthand that when it’s clicking, it can hang with anybody.

Now, it wasn’t clicking the past couple of weeks, and it clicked off and on against Colorado. A lot of that has to do with youth and injuries.

Right now ASU looks like the team to beat in the South. But I’m not banking on anything in this final month. With USC yet to play UCLA, and the Bruins and Sun Devils yet to play Arizona, a lot can, and probably will, happen.

Mahalo in Honolulu writes: Hey Kevin, most of us Buff fans are happy with the new coach, yet are still skeptical on the outlook for the future -- primarily because of recruiting. High school kids don't have any memory of the glory days, the facilities are bleh, and the product on the field is, well, you know. What would you do to sell CU to the kids that can come here and help Mac build the Buffs to a contender?

Kevin Gemmell: Your skepticism is valid. You’ve been jilted a few times over the past five or six years.

I don’t know Mike MacIntyre as well as I do some of the other coaches. We’ve met a few times and speak on the phone every week during the teleconference. And for the story last week, he was gracious with his time and gave me an extended phone interview.

But there is a sense when talking to the man that he’s going to at least get the program back to respectability or go down with the ship trying. He’s a no-excuses guy. His pedigree is phenomenal, and there is no question about his dedication to the program.

That’s what you sell. You buy into the man, not the facilities or the school’s record 25 years ago. Take, for example, linebacker Addison Gillam. He had committed to MacIntyre at San Jose State. And when Mac changed to Colorado, Gillam followed. Here’s a young man who had a chance to go to an 11-win team, ranked in the Top 25 and moving into the Mountain West, a very respected non-AQ conference. But he followed MacIntyre because he believes in the man and the vision. He wants to be a part of something special -- building up a program from scratch and restoring it.

There is something admirable about that. And I think that’s MacIntyre’s greatest asset in recruiting.

And though the wins aren’t there yet, I think we definitely see a fiery, competitive team on the field. One playing with much more confidence than we’ve seen the past couple of seasons.

Daniel in Pittsburg writes: Hey Kevin, as a diehard Stanford fan and family member, I'm curious to know what your projected BCS standings would be if Stanford beats Oregon? I would also like to know if a Baylor victory would also play a role? Thanks Kevin.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesEven if Stanford and Kevin Hogan beat Oregon, the Cardinal may need help from some other teams.
Kevin Gemmell: Everything plays a role. A butterfly flaps its wings in Uzbekistan and the Colley Matrix blue screens.

I think Stanford would still need help, even if it beat Oregon, for the obvious reason that there are still undefeated teams in front of the Cardinal. If Florida State and Ohio State were to lose, then we could see the Cardinal jump into that No. 2 spot if they were to beat Oregon. And if Alabama loses, obviously the rest of the field moves up. So Stanford’s best chance is to beat Oregon and hope for an assist from a Syracuse or Florida, an Indiana or a Michigan, or an LSU or Auburn.

Assuming everyone else wins, Stanford beating Oregon would further supplant Florida State as the No. 2 team and strengthen Ohio State even more as one of the few undefeated teams. Perhaps Stanford gets a couple of No. 2 or No. 3 votes in either of the human polls, but I’m not sure voters would spring them over an Ohio State team that hasn’t lost in almost two seasons.

As for Baylor, I think it would enjoy a nice bump if it beat No. 10 Oklahoma. But I don’t think it would be enough to vault the Bears over Stanford if the Cardinal beat Oregon. If Stanford loses, it’s moot, because it will drop. If Baylor loses, it’s moot, because the Bears will drop. Both teams need to win to keep pace, and I think Stanford’s win would be viewed as more significant, so I don’t see Baylor jumping the Cardinal.

Joe Bruin in Westwood writes: Hey Kev ... Joe Bruin here. As a fan (and a mascot), I seem to be a little too worried about my team, especially after the games against Stanford and Oregon. I concur with Coach Mora when he said the team seemed to have a "hangover" from those games. Is it just me, or did the win against Colorado not look too impressive? Should I be worried about this team? Or will the Bruins get back in the swing of things?

Kevin Gemmell: I’d be concerned about this game coming up. The Bruins haven’t won in Tucson since 2003, Karl Dorrell’s first season, and Ka’Deem Carey is obviously one of the nation’s most elite playmakers. I know a lot of focus is on the Nov. 23 date with Arizona State -- and rightfully so -- but the Bruins still have a couple of tough tests in Arizona and Washington before that showdown.

However, Brett Hundley actually turned in the best quarterback performance of the week, per ESPN’s Adjusted QBR rating (note, adjusted reflects opponent’s strength).

Here’s the other side of it. As I said earlier, Colorado is a better team than it was last fall so give those guys a little credit for coming in and not being intimidated.

I think Colorado provided a nice little test (when was the last time we typed that?) for UCLA to knock off some of the rust from the back-to-back losses. The Bruins figured a few things out, and the offensive line got some more experience.

And Mora has shown that he can rally the troops when they are down. And I wouldn’t call the Bruins down right now. I’d just say they have a tough November ahead of them.