USC Trojans: Clay Helton
Arizona State’s 38-33 victory over UCLA last week solidified one thing: Neither UCLA nor USC will be playing in the Pac-12 championship game.
Los Angeles has represented the South Division the first two years of the title game. UCLA went both times, but USC fans will always hold a 50-0 asterisk over the Bruins’ heads for 2011.
Still, motivation isn't an issue when these teams meet.
The Bruins have won just twice in the last 14 meetings, and they haven’t won at the Coliseum since 1997. But they won last year in a game that was (almost) the final insult on an otherwise train-wrecked 2012 for the Trojans.
“We do understand that this is our rivalry game and this is a game that’s huge for our fan base and huge for our players,” USC interim coach Ed Orgeron said. “… No disrespect, but this is a game that we want to win very badly.”
It’s a huge game for Orgeron, also, because he has put himself in position to lose the “interim” status from his title. Since Lane Kiffin was fired after the Sept. 28 Debacle in the Desert, Orgeron has led the Trojans to a sterling 6-0 mark in Pac-12 play and a 6-1 record overall. They've resurfaced in the BCS rankings at No. 23, one spot behind the No. 22 Bruins.
Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles summed it up best:
This next game is the kind of thing Ed Orgeron was born for. He’s a fiery motivator who loves to talk about USC tradition and will find the right emotional buttons to push to have his team excited about Saturday’s game.
UCLA coach Jim Mora recognizes it, also.
“You see an energy,” Mora said. “I don’t know if you call that a tangible or an intangible. But you see an energy and enthusiasm and passion and a group of guys going out and having a lot of fun … They are a team that’s filled with a lot of good football players. There’s a lot of talent over there and they are playing with a lot of confidence right now. Their energy and their confidence level is apparent.”
Mora is hoping that confidence isn't something his guys are lacking following their loss to the Sun Devils, who claimed the Pac-12 South title and sacked quarterback Brett Hundley nine times in the process.
The Trojans, who rank fourth in the conference with 33 sacks on the year, are hoping they can make a similar impact against a UCLA offensive front that starts three true freshmen.
“[Hundley] can make you miss,” Orgeron said. “We had a hard time getting him down last year. We thought we rushed the passer very well but we could not get him down. He’s the key to their offense. They have a very good scheme. They are very well-coached. It should be a tough ballgame.”
Mora has been equally impressed with the play of USC’s quarterback, Cody Kessler. In the first five games of the year, Kessler was completing 63.4 percent of his throws with an average of 166.4 yards per game with six touchdowns to four interceptions. In the seven games since Orgeron took over and Clay Helton started calling the offense, Kessler is completing 65.8 percent of his throws, averaging 231 yards per game with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
“When you have talent like Cody does and you get an opportunity to play, like he’s getting, and you gain that experience, like he is, you’re going to get better,” Mora said. “This is a talented young man and he’s getting snaps and he’s feeling more comfortable in that offense and he’s getting a rhythm with his receivers. Talent plus experience, that equals good performance.”
Being the biggest show in town comes with its share of distractions. Yet both coaches said they believe their players aren't going to get caught up. Mora especially praised his young team for showing great resiliency following each of their three losses this season.
“I think our young men do a good job of that every week, of focusing on what it’s going to take to go out and play their best,” Mora said. “We talk about having zoom focus and eliminating distractions and following our routine. This week is no different. You prepare like you prepare. You focus on what you’re supposed to focus on. All that periphery stuff doesn't necessarily affect what happens on the field. Our guys have a firm grasp of that and I think that helps us.
“These are two very proud programs with a lot of tradition. Our schools sit about 12 miles from each other and this town is very divided between Trojan and Bruin. There is a lot of pride that goes along with being either a Bruin or a Trojan.”
There are nine assistants whose livelihoods and potential family relocations might be at stake, pending the outcomes of the Colorado and UCLA games. It’s a tenuous position, as Trojans athletic director Pat Haden will soon make the difficult decision on the next USC head football coach, which will affect some, if not all, of the current assistants.
Be assured that Haden has empathy for Orgeron, his assistants, and their limbo status, as this coaching staff attempts to finish the regular season in spectacular fashion and state their case for further employment at USC.
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We could try to quantify how much better USC is under Ed Orgeron the past six games compared to Lane Kiffin during the season's first five, but that really is pretty easy. We don't need numbers. We need only three words:
Everything is better.
USC is less sloppy. It's more disciplined. It's protecting the football. USC is playing better offense. It's even playing better defense, if you consider the schedule. It's better on special teams.
Obviously, USC is playing with far more passion. And you can't undersell this: Its players are having way more fun.
"We absolutely love him," USC quarterback Cody Kessler said after the 20-17 win over Stanford. "We'd run through a brick wall for him. He has that look in his eye that you can tell that when he talks to you he really does care. I gave him a hug after the game, and I don't know if he'd want me saying this, but I saw his eyes water up. It's awesome when you play with someone who has that same passion."
How can you dispute or diminish that? You can't.
But the question then becomes: Is that enough to hire him to be the next USC head coach? That is, reportedly, the $6 million question.
When you look at how USC is playing and the Trojans' 5-1 record since Orgeron took over, it's impossible to not give his candidacy legitimacy. Further, that already strong résumé will become measurably stronger if the Trojans win out, which would include a victory over highly ranked rival UCLA, and they would thereby finish the regular season with a 10-3 record and a high national ranking.
At that point, Orgeron would own the locker room and probably have significant momentum with the Trojans' fan base. That would make it difficult for athletic director Pat Haden not to hire him.
The expectation when Orgeron took over for Kiffin after a humiliating 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the Trojans would play better because the season-long hot-seat talk surrounding Kiffin would be over, thereby allowing players to breathe easier and play looser. That improved play, however, wasn't expected to include a 5-1 record and a win over Stanford, ending a four-game losing streak in the series.
In fact, the Pac-12 blog's expectation was the "Hire Coach O!" talk would end with losses to Stanford and UCLA. The Pac-12 blog was wrong, at least so far. Further, when the Pac-12 blog conceived of writing this column about USC's improvement under Orgeron, it expected to, after giving Coach O a tip of the cap, recommend against hiring him, no matter how the now seemingly charmed season ended.
Yet, after further review, there is not enough evidence to overturn the ruling in the stands and the locker room, at least if USC wins out and wins its bowl game.
The only advice the Pac-12 blog has for Haden, though, is this: Don't allow the emotions of the moment to overrule your long-term vision for this coaching hire. A serious evaluation of Orgeron should begin now, if it hasn't already, and there are myriad considerations besides his popularity among the players.
One doesn't have to look far for examples of internal promotions producing great results: Chris Petersen taking over for Dan Hawkins at Boise State, Chip Kelly taking over for Mike Bellotti at Oregon and David Shaw taking over for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Although those three programs were already successful, you could make the case that USC's circumstances are similar because, well, it's USC.
The next USC coach isn't rebuilding a program. His job is to maximize the potential of a college football superpower, one that no longer will be yoked with NCAA sanctions after the 2014 recruiting class. Orgeron just might be able to do that.
Of course, we also have precedents that suggest that promoting from within or hiring an interim coach because of his initial success and support of the locker room doesn't always yield long-term success.
Larry Coker took over in Miami after Butch Davis bolted and won a national title in his first season. He went 35-3 his first three seasons, in fact, losing the national title game in Year 2 and winning the Orange Bowl in Year 3. But then things went south and, after a 7-6 season in 2006, he was fired. Coker was a strong short-term answer but not one for the long term.
As interim coach after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan, Bill Stewart led West Virginia to a stunning upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. But after three consecutive 9-4 seasons and an off-the-field controversy, he was pushed aside in favor of his head-coach-in-waiting, Dana Holgorsen.
We know what great college head coaches look like: Urban Meyer and Nick Saban top the list. I'd throw in Bill Snyder at Kansas State. But after them, there are no sure things. Petersen is not a sure thing because he has never been a head coach in an automatic-qualifying conference. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has an impressive recent track record, but that track record in an AQ conference is only two years and includes one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football history.
The NFL guys such as Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio? Not sure things by a long shot.
So the risk of hiring Orgeron isn't that much greater. Sure, he went a dismal 10-25 at Ole Miss, but his thus-far-successful audition running the USC program provides a strong counter to that. He's not only learned from his mistakes; he's also coaching in an environment he knows how to navigate. It's also noteworthy that he's clearly motivated his assistant coaches to care about and focus on their present jobs instead of giving USC 60 percent while the other 40 percent pining about their future employment.
The apparent formula for an Orgeron administration would go like this: He plays the CEO and lets his coaches coach, which means Clay Helton runs the offense, Clancy Pendergast runs the defense and John Baxter runs the special teams. Orgeron leans on his strengths: motivation, chemistry, emotions and recruiting.
The big question would then be whether Orgeron can be consistently and obsessively detail-oriented as all good head coaches are. Can he maintain discipline and run a tight ship? Will he lead a recruiting effort based on insightful evaluation rather than star rating? Can he skillfully handle all the off-the-field responsibilities that head coaches deal with?
My guess is that Haden immediately realized after the Stanford game -- and not before -- that Orgeron deserved at least a raised eyebrow. Haden will be practically forced to make a more thorough evaluation of Orgeron if the Trojans beat UCLA.
"When you have a father figure like Coach O treating us all like sons and putting us under his arm, we want to run through a brick wall for him," linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "One team, one heartbeat, we wanted to carry that over. We wanted to show him that we are with him no matter what."
That's inspiring and meaningful. But there's more to being a head coach than getting your players to run through brick walls.
At this point, however, Orgeron is not only getting his guys to run through those brick walls, he's also getting them to hit the wall in the correct place and use good technique while doing so.
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Orgeron on the improved play of the USC secondary:
On the strong performance of the USC offensive line against Oregon State:
“I just think that we went back to the fundamentals. When we went and played against Notre Dame, I think playing on the road ... the crowd had an effect on us, on the silent count [and] we made some mistakes. We piped in the noise. ... I think it’s the second week in a row in which they’ve played together with Max [Tuerk] at right tackle. Talking to the offense, they felt that the communication with Max and Aundrey [Walker] was where it needed to be. I thought that John [Martinez] had one of his better games. And so, I just thought that the cohesiveness of the unit for the second week in a row helped, the communication helped, we simplified the game plan, the protection was all built on us being able to not get beat one on one, and I thought Clay [Helton] did a great job with his protections.”
On USC’s nine penalties for 68 yards:
“Obviously, some of the penalties are inexcusable ... some of them we really just have to fix. Some of them are right on the cusp where our guys are playing hard, and that’s going to happen. Penalties are going to happen ... they’re not excusable, but we’re not going to take the aggressiveness away from our players. We’re going to teach them the right technique, and do the best we can with it.”
On the development of Cody Kessler since Orgeron took over as interim coach:
“Just the style in which he plays, his tenacity, his moxie, his leadership. ... He’s got some stuff to him that I really like in a quarterback -- all the intangibles. I think he was 17-of-21 with the interception that was not a good decision. But the way he runs the offense, the way he wants to win ... he’s very competitive. Our guys believe in him.”
On the Trojans’ 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive after Oregon State’s game-tying pick-six in the second quarter:
“We talked at the beginning of the week, we said, ‘Listen, they’re a good football team. They’re going to make plays. At one point in the game we’re going to face adversity. It’s going to be OK. We’ll just stick together. No matter what happens, we stick together. Know that you’re going to be prepared well, you’re going to be ready, and we can overcome any obstacle they throw at us.’ And our guys did. When Cody came to the sideline, the defense was telling them, ‘Hey, it’s OK.’ And then they responded with that 10-play drive. I think that was a turning point in our new five-game season so far.”
On the 1-2 punch that developed in the rotation at tailback with Silas Redd and Javorius Allen:
“Give the credit to Tommie Robinson. I let the guys handle their rotations ... and Tommie does a great job. Tommie is one of the best running back coaches I’ve been around. What a tremendous job he’s done.”
On what impressed Orgeron about Allen’s performance:
“The way he’s running, and slashing, and leaning, and breaking tackles, and staying upright and moving forward. ... I think he’s gaining confidence every time he touches the ball. We’re seeing things that we haven’t seen from him, really. We’ve seen some things from him in practice that we really like. As you know, Buck [Allen] was on the scout team with me for two years, so I knew [him] probably the best on the staff. But when we had a change of coaches at that running back position, Tommie came in and kept saying, ‘Hey, I really like Buck Allen.’ And you know, when a coach likes you, and a coach wants you to play, wants to give you a chance, it means a lot to a young man. Buck has a heart of gold, and he’s like a lot of players on our team, he’s a great team guy, and I’m just happy to see him have success.”
On the confidence level of the team:
“I’ll say this, I know the confidence level on the football team and the coaching staff after the game was very high ... that we could go there and beat Oregon State in a hostile environment. Now the key is for us to still take it one game at a time and make improvement. One of the best things with Coach [Pete] Carroll’s teams was they got better in the month of November, and that’s my goal with the football team, is this week for us to take the next step and get better.”
On where Orgeron’s passion for USC comes from:
“I came here in 1998. I wanted to coach here since I was 6 years old, and the opportunity to come here and coach here has been everything I ever imagined and more. I’ve been to a lot of universities and a lot of great places, and I feel that it’s the best place in the world of coaching.”
It was the most complete game that USC has played in years. The defense did a great job against the top statistical passing game in the nation, including three interceptions, which was the total that Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion had coming into the game. The offense had tremendous balance with 242 yards rushing and 247 yards passing. It was the best play calling yet from Clay Helton.
As important as anything, however, was the way in which the Trojans physically dominated on both sides of the ball. For a team that has struggled with injuries and has thrilled in recent weeks to take any win no matter how it happened, this game was one to enjoy for its physical beauty.
It was somewhat unexpected too.
The Trojans defensive front had been solid coming into the game but they were without leading sack-man Morgan Breslin and Mannion had proven to be tough to rattle. Not only did the Trojans get two sacks but they added nine pressures in addition to the critical interceptions -- two of them at or near the end zone -- and they also held Mannion and leading receiver Brandin Cooks well below their nation-leading averages.
The Trojans offensive line had been in a state of flux after an injury to Kevin Graf resulted in three players seeing time at new positions. USC was also limited at tight end. Regular starter Xavier Grimble tried to go but for most of the game it ended up being walk-in tackle Nathan Guertler filling in and doing a very commendable job in the blocking department.
The USC running game was coming off a net 30-yard performance the week before against Utah and it was clear early on against the Beavers that leading rusher Tre Madden was not going to be available due to injury. Not a problem for Silas Redd and Buck Allen.
Redd set the tone with his physical runs gaining big chunks of yardage. Then Allen would spring in and use his combination of speed and slashing ability to keep things going.
There was no better example of what kind of day this was going to be for the Trojans on the ground than early in the second quarter after Oregon State had pulled to a 14-14 tie. It was the kind of moment when you need to rely on the run game to settle things down. The Trojans went on a 10-play drive -- eight of them on the ground -- to score what would prove to be the game-winning points.
More importantly, it was the kind of drive where the Trojans realized they could impose their will. Momentum had been completely on the side of the Beavers at the start of the drive but the Trojans stole it right back with a physical ball-control drive.
For the second time this season, the Trojans also saw the emergence of a two-headed weapon at tailback. Early in the year it was Madden and true freshman Justin Davis but now, thanks to injuries to both, the opportunity has been presented to Redd and Allen and both took advantage on Friday night.
As the Trojans continue to ride this wave of emotion under interim coach Ed Orgeron, this latest physical performance can only offer encouragement for what is possible in the coming weeks. The next game offers an opponent that is struggling and an opportunity for USC to get back more bodies from the injured list. If the Trojans can build upon what took place in Corvallis, you never know what might be in store for this team in the final stretch of the season
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1. Orgeron in South Bend: This will be the first big test of Ed Orgeron’s tenure as interim coach and it’s a doozy. The game is expected to be a physical battle -- which should fit Orgeron just fine -- but there’s something about this rivalry which can bring out some interesting twists and turns. How Orgeron manages his team during those twists and turns will go a long way in the eventual outcome.
2. Momentum: Both teams come into the game looking to continue momentum. For the Irish, the majority of the momentum was built in 2012 when the team advanced to the national title game. There was a lot of excitement around the program for 2013 and you know they didn’t expect to have two losses at this point in the season. They certainly don’t want a third at the expense of the Trojans. USC, meanwhile, is riding a wave of Orgeron-inspired emotion over the last two weeks since the coaching transition. The Trojans would love to see a victory against the Irish to build on what Orgeron has already accomplished.
3. Lee and Breslin: The Trojans beat Arizona last week without arguably their best players on offense and defense. Marqise Lee (knee) and Morgan Breslin (hip) sat out the game against the Wildcats, but there is optimism both will be able to play this week. There’s no discounting how big that would be for the Trojans. Lee has yet to have a true Marqise Lee-type game this year but you know it’s due at any time. Even his simple presence on the field will help loosen the coverage on Nelson Agholor, who is also capable of big things. As for Breslin, he is the most productive pass rusher the Trojans have, and the Irish have only given up four sacks this year. That gives a clear indication of why Breslin is needed in this game.
4. Big man on Big man: Former USC assistant coach Marv Goux had a special passion for this rivalry that he described as "Big Man on Big Man Football." The matchup on Saturday should be a classic return to that style as both teams will be looking to rely on the guys up front. As mentioned above, the Irish offensive line has been outstanding this year in terms of protecting the quarterback. The USC front seven has been very good as far as sacks and tackles for loss. That’s a good “strength on strength” battle that should be fun to watch. On offense, the Trojans will be looking to establish the run with a good rotation of backs, while the Irish counter with a pair of big-time run-stuffers in the middle of their line.
5. Clay Helton: The new offensive play-caller for the Trojans is going to be critical in this game. If there is an area of concern it is with the USC secondary, which has proven to be vulnerable against the pass this year. The best way to limit the Notre Dame opportunities on offense is to control the ball when you have it. This is where Helton will need to be sharp. He will need to spread the ball around to his various weapons and get Cody Kessler in a rhythm, but first he will need to establish the run. For the Trojans to win the game they will need to be able to run the ball with consistency. Fortunately for Helton, he has the offensive line and backs to do it.
Matt Fortuna and Ted Miller take a look at this weekend's matchup.
Matt: We'll start with the obvious, Ted. USC is a talented team that just got a bit of a second wind this past week under Orgeron. Was the performance against Arizona simply the culmination of weeks of frustration? Or do you think these Trojans have new life and need to be looked at as the kind of threat many of us have been expecting them to be the last two years?
Ted: Is it fair for a know-it-all sportswriter to type that he has no idea? USC has been so difficult to read the past two seasons. You look at the 22 starters and think, "That's a lot of talent." But it doesn't translate to execution. Was that all Kiffin's fault? I don't think so, though the offense looked significantly better with Clay Helton calling the plays. Even the quasi-redemptive win over Arizona revealed the Trojans' tangible Achilles heel -- depth. USC jumped to an impressive first-half lead but seemed to wear down in the second half. I do think the locker room will continue to unite around Orgeron, as fiery a motivator as there is. The question is whether USC will be as motivated and focused on the road as it was at home. And can it maintain that in the fourth quarter?
Speaking of mercurial teams, the Fighting Irish. I picked Notre Dame to beat Arizona State (reaches around, pats self on back), but I did that as much because of the Sun Devils' tendency to throw up on themselves just when they seem to take a step forward as believing the Irish were better. Where does this team stand? How did the week off help -- or hurt -- the cause?
Matt: Well, this answer may sound quite familiar, too, but I think we're all still trying to figure out the Irish. A loss to ASU would have been brutal, as BCS hopes would have been eliminated by the mid-point of the season. Of course, USC can erase those scenarios this week, too, much the same way it did two years ago in a similar situation -- seventh game of the season, prime time at Notre Dame Stadium, Irish coming off a bye. Everyone slept on those Trojans that time, and they ended up turning in a 10-2 campaign while the Irish locker room nearly revolted on its head coach in that game's aftermath.
Notre Dame's front-loaded schedule looks a little less daunting in retrospect -- losses to Michigan and Oklahoma look worse by the week, as does a tight win at Purdue. But there is that small matter of Stanford underwhelming, too, and the Cardinal are easily the toughest opponent the Irish have left after the USC one, so it is not out of the question to see Notre Dame make a final push for a 10-2 mark and BCS bid.
That said, it needs to take some of the lessons from the ASU win and apply them moving forward. Coach Brian Kelly showed his players a highlight tape of three tight wins from 2012 leading up to that game in an effort to demonstrate just how razor-thin the margin for error was. We saw a much more complete performance from the Irish against the Sun Devils, but there was still a pick-six and a defense that looked little like last year's dominating unit.
I'll say this: USC's improved play under the one-game regime of Orgeron has seemed to add a much-needed jolt going into this matchup. It's USC-Notre Dame, with the Irish looking like they may have turned a corner in the rivalry last year and going for three wins out of four this year. Do you think the Trojans, having seen the Irish clinch a title-game berth on their field last season, carry a bit of a chip on their shoulder coming into this year's game? I know it sounds cliche, but from over here it looks like USC's 2013 issues have been more mental than anything else.
Ted: This is one of the truly great college football rivalries, one that is unique with its cross-country feel. If the Trojans can't get fired up for this one, then that will show you the Trojans' problems were as much the sort of player they recruited as the guy leading them onto the field. And, of course, in a rivalry game, the players who lost the year before should be particularly motivated to exact revenge.
Still, I see that as an uphill slog for USC. For one, the Trojans are banged up, with receiver Marqise Lee and outside linebacker Morgan Breslin, among others, highly questionable for the game. Second, Notre Dame is superior on both lines. I see USC hanging early but then getting worn down. Further, the pass defense has been poor, which means Irish quarterback Tommy Rees could again look like the solid decision-maker he was against Arizona State.
That said, if USC does manage to get the upset, we might have to re-evaluate USC's prospects this season. And, perhaps, even raise an eyebrow at what Orgeron is doing leading the Trojans.
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.
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1. USC tailbacks: It’s safe to say that USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron wasn’t joking when he talked about wanting to get more players involved in the offensive attack. All five available scholarship tailbacks contributed on Thursday, helping the Trojans offense amass 249 rushing yards. Tre Madden – who went out in the first half with a hamstring injury – set the tone early, and Silas Redd, Justin Davis, Javorius Allen and Ty Isaac each kept it going. Redd, who closed the game out with some crucial runs during a game-clinching fourth-quarter drive, rushed for a team-best 80 yards.
2. USC passing offense: Offensive coordinator Clay Helton impressed in his first game as the Trojans’ play-caller, spreading the ball all over the field while placing an emphasis on establishing the vertical passing game. Cody Kessler completed passes to six receivers and threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns. The Bakersfield (Calif.) Centennial graduate completed long, first-quarter touchdown passes to Madden and Nelson Agholor, the latter of whom finished with seven grabs for 161 yards and one touchdown. To top things off, USC didn’t turn the ball over.
3. J.R. Tavai: Tavai, who had just two tackles to his credit on the season heading into the game, had a breakout performance. Filling in for Morgan Breslin at outside linebacker, he racked up 10 tackles (seven solo), including 3.5 tackles for loss. He was particularly active early on, making eight stops by halftime.
1. USC passing defense: For the second consecutive game, the Trojans defense struggled tremendously in pass coverage. Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker entered the matchup by completing just 50 percent of his throws for an average of 111.2 yards per game, yet he managed to look like an All-American against USC, completing 28 of 44 passes for a career-high 363 yards and four touchdowns.
2. Second-half letdown: The Trojans led 28-10 at halftime and appeared well on their way to a blowout victory, but unable to match the stamina nor the emotionally hyped level of play that they put on display early, they let the Wildcats hang around until the very end. Arizona outscored the Trojans 21-10 in the second half, and the USC defense, in particular, appeared to be physically drained in the fourth quarter, allowing Arizona to drive down the field with ease for touchdowns on the team’s final two possessions.
3. Attendance: The Trojans’ first-ever non-Thanksgiving/non-bowl Thursday night game in the Coliseum drew just 64,215, a number that began to shrink dramatically near the end of the third quarter -- just when Arizona started to make the game interesting. On a positive note, those who were in attendance were noticeably enthusiastic and vocal, feeding off the energy of Orgeron and the USC players.
The players are the same. The schemes/concepts are the same. Uniforms, helmets, etc., all the same. It’s what’s under the helmets -- specifically between the ears -- that might be noticeably different.
That ... and also a new coach. You might recall Lane Kiffin was fired nearly two weeks ago and the Trojans have spent the past 11 days going through a rebirth of sorts. The hope in Troy is that their minds are right for Thursday night's kickoff.
“There is a lot of energy and excitement right now which is a good thing going into the Arizona game,” said USC linebacker Devon Kennard. “When Coach Kiffin first got fired, some guys were really surprised and some guys were sad. After our first meeting, we bounced back and we’re ready to move forward and we’re really buying into what Coach O is doing and the direction he’s trying to take this program. We believe. That’s a good start.”
Coach O, being Ed Orgeron, was named interim head coach following the near-immediate dismissal of Kiffin following the 62-41 loss in Tempe, Ariz. He’s spent the bye week doing everything he can to put the fun back in USC.
“It was a critical week for us to get back to USC football,” Orgeron said. “These guys have been through a lot, so I tried to ease up on them and change a couple of things that were going on in the program. I thought we needed some change and to let the guys know it was going in a different direction. It’s been great. The guys have been walking around and smiling. There is a lot of energy in the room. A lot of energy on the practice field. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, but still focused.”
Then he, Orgeron and the Trojans got down to business.
“Coach O addressed the hard circumstances, but reminded us that the only thing that matters is the men in this room,” Kennard said. “We’ve got to fight the rest of the season. We really have a unique opportunity to turn this season around with a fresh start and a new beginning. That really fired a lot of the guys up.”
So what will the Trojans look like under Orgeron? Probably not too different than the previous Trojans. But Orgeron said there will be subtle tweaks that hopefully will have not-so-subtle results. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will call the plays and Clancy Pendergast will continue to run the defense.
“It’s hard to make wholesale changes in a week,” Orgeron said. “... There is hope. You’ve seen the running game; we’re making strides. Our strength is our running backs. The offensive line is doing a better job. We got out of whack in our passing game and it was not what USC used to be. We went back to some fundamentals. Some things they do really well and some things they aren’t ready to do. We’re making it quarterback-friendly so we can do some things we know we can do to get the ball deep.”
Arizona knows a little something about changing coaches in midseason. It happened to the Wildcats in 2011 when Mike Stoops was let go. The Wildcats came out the following game and beat UCLA 48-12. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said his team is preparing for an emotionally charged USC squad.
“I would hope we would play normally like ourselves no matter what,” Rodriguez said. “But I did tell the players that this game is going to be more difficult because USC is going to play extremely fired up, loose and come out with a chip on their shoulder. We will get USC’s best shot.”
Kennard and his teammates see the change as an opportunity to move forward and erase the negativity that has plagued the program for the past nine months.
“At this point in the season, coming off the ASU loss, things could be a lot more down around the locker room than they are,” he said. “But because of the change, there is a lot of energy and guys feel like it’s a fresh start and a new opportunity for everyone. In that sense, it gives us a clean slate. Nothing that happened up until this point matters. All that matters is the future.”
Now, despite Kiffin’s ouster, the Trojans stilly have some heavy hitting recruiters on staff. WeAreSC asked prospects for their opinions on some current USC coaches as recruiters:
On linebackers coach Mike Ekeler ...
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So who is Clay Helton, and how different a play-caller and schemer will he be compared to Kiffin, who will be remembered by disgruntled fans as the game-day coach who seemed hopelessly buried inside his huge Denny’s menu of plays?
Helton seems genuinely excited and enthusiastic for his new challenge and responsibility.
“I look forward to this opportunity as a competitor,” says Helton, 41, who also was the offensive coordinator and play caller at Memphis (2007-09) and is now in his fourth season as quarterback coach for the Trojans.
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If you could change one thing on offense with Clay Helton calling plays, what would it be?
Garry Paskwietz: To develop a consistent identity. The players really liked what they saw from Helton during spring ball when he called plays in some scrimmages and it will be important to get that comfort level back. The USC offense has been up and down this year with play calling that ranged from what was seen against Washington State to solid efforts against Boston College and Arizona State.
Johnny Curren: Getting the tight ends more involved in the passing attack. Although low in numbers, the Trojans possess a very talented group of tight ends, headlined by Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, yet they’ve been totally underutilized throughout the past two seasons. This year, in fact, the group has a total of just 12 grabs. By getting this unit more involved in the offensive attack, it would add a whole new element to the passing game, and perhaps make life a whole lot easier for Cody Kessler.
Greg Katz: If I could change one thing on offense with Helton calling plays, it would be to run the ball even more and then use play-action passes off the running game, which I believe is going to happen.
Garry Paskwietz: The tight end spot, with Grimble and Telfer. USC fans have sat back for the last two years and wondered why these two terrific athletes were not utilized more as part of the offense. That should change now.
Johnny Curren: Nelson Agholor. Agholor has just 11 receptions through five games, and he really hasn’t even been thrown to with much frequency this season. With Marqise Lee sidelined at the moment, he will likely take on a bigger role regardless, but with Orgeron’s statement on Monday that he wants to spread the ball around more, Agholor could really take off in the long run. As he showed in the spring, he’s a dangerous big-play threat, and he’s just waiting for the chance to break out.
Greg Katz: I think that Agholor will now be incorporated into the offense even more by this coaching change, and I suspect we will see greater use of tight ends Grimble and Telfer.
Who has been your MVP through five games?
Garry Paskwietz: I’m going to go with Tre Madden. He has been a consistent presence while averaging more than 100 yards per game, something the offense hasn’t had in a while. It becomes all the more impressive when you realize Tre is coming off knee surgery and, by the way, he had never carried the ball in a college game before this year.
Johnny Curren: Madden. While the production of the offense, as a whole, has been up and down, Madden has performed at a consistently high level throughout the season. Leading the team with 583 yards on the ground, he ranks No. 4 in the conference with a rushing average of 116.6 yards per game, and he gives USC the program’s first real workhorse at tailback in quite a while.
Greg Katz: My MVP through five games would be defensive end Devon Kennard, who has really found a home in Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 alignment. Devon has been a real force there each and every game, and you have to admire his attitude and consistency. Offensively, I would have to go with Madden, who seems to be getting better and better each week. It won’t shock me to see him now carry the ball 20 times a game with backup carries by Justin Davis.