USC Trojans: Cody Kessler
Having fallen in love with the tradition at USC, however, on top of a desire to play close to home, Kessler ultimately opted to become a Trojan.
It’s a decision that Kessler – who has passed for over 2,600 yards this season as USC’s starting signal caller – doesn’t regret one bit.
But now, with the arrival of Sarkisian as the Trojans’ new head coach, the two are together. That fact wasn’t lost on either of them as they came face-to-face after an introductory team meeting held Monday night.
“It was kind of funny,” Kessler said following Sarkisian’s press conference on Tuesday. “The first time that I saw him yesterday after the meeting he just kind of laughed and said, ‘Here we are now.’”
Before compiling a record of 34-29 at Washington, Sarkisian was known as a quarterback guru who blossomed as a Trojans assistant, playing a major part in the development of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez.
“Coach Sark is a quarterback guy,” Kessler said. “When you have a guy that has that experience, and knows what he’s doing, and has a resume that’s second to none when it comes to getting guys to the NFL, you’re very excited about it.”
Still, like most of his teammates, Kessler’s excitement has been tempered by a heavy heart that has come with the departure of Ed Orgeron. Taking over as USC’s interim coach following the dismissal of Lane Kiffin, the boisterous Louisiana native guided the Trojans to victory in six of the team’s final eight games. More than that, he fostered an atmosphere marked by enthusiasm and energy that helped unify the team.
Not surprisingly, when Kessler and his teammates were informed by Orgeron on Monday that he had resigned to pursue other head coaching opportunities following Sarkisian’s hire, they were overcome with emotion, with many players being brought to tears.
“It was crazy,” Kessler said. “Guys were freaking out and it was just unreal. And that’s something you expect when that happens. When you lose someone that you care about so much.”
But in his first crucial move as head coach of the Trojans, Sarkisian would some calm during his first team meeting.
“For Coach Sark to walk in and face this thing head on and attack it right away like he did, and settle everyone down, was awesome,” Kessler said. “The way he addressed the team, he was just real. He told us, ‘this is home for me. It may seem like I abandoned my team when I left Washington, but this is home. This is where I’ve always wanted to be. This is where I started out, and we’re going to do great things.’”
“One thing he told us is that we’re going to have to condition a lot more, and we’re going to start running a lot more in practice,” Kessler said. “But when you can go all four quarters and not slow down, teams are going to be slower, they’re going to be breathing hard, they’re going to need to substitute and they won’t be able to.”
Looking past that obvious difference, Kessler says that Sarkisian’s offense actually shares some traits with the Trojans’ current system -- something that could speed up the transition.
“I watched a little when we watched other teams’ defenses against Washington, they had a lot of the same concepts, but I was talking to him yesterday after the meeting and he told me that there’s a lot of different verbiage,” Kessler said. “It’s kind of shortened down because there’s no huddle [and] you don’t have time to call long plays, but he says it’s the same concepts. Maybe different formations and stuff like that, but it’s the same schemes that he’s taken from Coach [Pete] Carroll and from this offense, and he’s kind of put his own stuff into it.”
Kessler has little time to dive into his future with Sarkisian as the QB will have to prepare for the Trojans’ yet-to-be-determined bowl game and help the Trojans remain focused after a roller coaster week.
And beyond that, with Sarkisian at the helm, he believes that brighter days most certainly lie ahead.
“Coach Sark is our coach now and I’m so grateful for that,” Kessler said. “I really feel like this team is going in the right direction.”
UCLA's Myles Jack earned freshman of the year for both offense and defense with his 70 tackles as a linebacker and seven touchdowns as a running back. This is the first time since the awards were introduced in 2008 that the same player has won both sides.
Arizona State coach Todd Graham is the league's coach of the year for guiding the Sun Devils to a conference record of 8-1 and winning the South Division. The Sun Devils host Stanford this weekend in the Pac-12 championship game.
The team is selected by the Pac-12 head coaches.
Offensive player of the year: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year: Will Sutton, DE Arizona State
Freshman Offense and Defensive Player of the Year: Myles Jack, RB/LB, UCLA
Coach of the Year: Todd Graham, Arizona State
First team offense
QB Marcus Mariota, So., Oregon (2)
RB Ka'Deem Carey, Jr., Arizona (2)
RB Bishop Sankey, Jr., Washington
WR Brandin Cooks, Jr., Oregon State
WR Paul Richardson, Jr., Colorado
TE Chris Coyle, Grad., Arizona State
OL Evan Finkenberg, Grad., Arizona State
OL Hroniss Grasu, Jr., Oregon (2)
OL Marcus Martin, Jr., USC
OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, Jr., UCLA (2)
OL David Yankey, Sr, Stanford (2)
First team defense
DL Ben Gardner, Sr., Stanford
DL Trevor Reilly, Sr., Utah
DL Will Sutton, Sr., Arizona State
DL Leonard Williams, So., USC
LB Anthony Barr, Sr., UCLA (2)
LB Trent Murphy, Sr., Stanford (2)
LB Shayne Skov, Sr., Stanford
DB Deone Bucannon, Sr., Washington State
DB Alden Darby, Sr., Arizona State
DB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Jr., Oregon
DB Robert Nelson, Sr., Arizona State
DB Ed Reynolds, Sr., Stanford (2)
First team specialists
PK Zane Gonzalez, Fr., Arizona State
P Tom Hackett, So. Utah
RS Ty Montgomery, Jr., Stanford
ST Soma Vainuku, So. USC
Second team offense
QB Taylor Kelly, Jr., Arizona State
RB Tyler Gaffney, Sr., Stanford
RB Marion Grice, Sr. Arizona State
WR Ty Montgomery, Jr., Stanford
WR Jaelen Strong, So., Arizona State
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jr., Washington
OL Jamil Douglas, Jr., Arizona State
OL Cameron Fleming, Sr., Stanford
OL Andrus Peat, So., Stanford
OL Isaac Seumalo, So., Oregon State
OL Khalil Wilkes, Sr. Stanford
Second team defense
DL Scott Crichton, Jr., Oregon State
DL Taylor Hart, Sr., Oregon
DL Devon Kennard, Sr., USC
DL Hau'oli Kikaha, Jr., Washington
DL Tenny Palepoi, Sr., Utah
LB Carl Bradford, Jr., Arizona State
LB Myles Jack, Fr., UCLA
LB Hayes Pullard, Jr., USC
LB Chris Young, Sr., Arizona State
DB Dion Bailey, Jr., USC
DB Osahon Irabor, Grad., Arizona State
DB Marcus Peters, So., Washington
DB Rashaad Reynolds, Sr., Oregon State
Second team specialists
PK Vincenzo D'Amato, Sr., California
P Travis Coons, Sr., Washington
RS Nelson Agholor, So., USC
ST Erick Dargan, Jr., Oregon
ST Joe Hemschoot, Sr., Stanford
ST Ryan Hofmeister, Jr., UCLA
RS: Return Specialist
ST: special teams player (not a kicker or returner)
(2): Two-time first-team selection
Arizona: LB Marquis Flowers, Sr.; DL Tevin Hood, Sr.; WR Nate Phillips, Fr.; DB Jared Tevis, Jr.; LB Scooby Wright, Fr.
Arizona State: DL Davon Coleman, Grad.; Gannon Conway, Sr.; ST D.J. Foster, So.; ST De'Marieya Nelson, Jr.
California: DL Deandre Coleman, Sr.; QB Jared Goff, Fr.; WR Bryce Treggs, So.
Colorado: RB Mike Adkins, Fr.; LB Addison Gillam, Fr.; PK Will Oliver, Jr.
Oregon: WR/RS Bralon Addison, So.; WR Josh Huff, Sr.; OL Tyler Johnstone, So.; DL Wade Keliikipi, Sr.; LB Derrick Malone, Jr.; RB Byron Marshall, So.; DL Tony Washington, Jr.
Oregon State: OL Grant Enger, Sr.; TE Connor Hamlett, JR.; QB Sean Mannion, Jr.; DB Ryan Murphy, Jr.; DB Steven Nelson, Jr.; ST Terron Ward, Jr.
Stanford: DL Henry Anderson, Sr.; DB Alex Carter, So.; OL Kevin Danser, Sr.; DL Josh Mauro, Sr.; P Ben Rhyne, Sr.; DB Jordan Richards, Jr.; LB A.J. Tarpley, Sr.
UCLA: OL Jake Brendel, So.; ST Jayon Brown, Fr.; P Sean Covington, Fr.; TE Thomas Duarte, Fr.; WR Shaq Evans, Sr.; WR Devin Fuller, So.; DB Randall Goforth, So.; QB Brett Hundley, So.; DB Anthony Jefferson, Jr.; LB Eric Kendricks, Jr.; DL Cassius Marsh, Sr.; DL Ellis McCarthy, So.; DB Fabian Moreau, So.; OL Alex Redmond, Fr.; DL Eddie Vanderdoes, Fr.; LB Jordan Zumwalt, Sr.
USC: P Kris Albarado, So.; RB Javorius Allen, So.; WR Nelson Agholor, So.; DB Su'a Cravens, Fr.; OL Kevin Graf, Sr.; TE Xavier Grimble, Jr.; QB Cody Kessler, So.; WR Marqise Lee, Jr.; DB Josh Shaw, Jr.; DL J.R. Tavai, Jr.; OL Max Turek, So.; DL George Uko, Jr.
Utah: WR Dres Anderson, Jr.; OL Vyncent Jones, Sr.; DB Keith McGill, Sr.; PK Andy Phillips, Fr.; LB Jason Whittingham, So.
Washington: OL Dexter Charles, So.; PK Travis Coons, Sr.; OL Mike Criste, Jr.; OL Micah Hatchie, Jr.; DB Sean Parker, Sr.; QB Keith Price, Sr.; DL Danny Shelton, Jr.; LB Shaq Thompson, So.
Washington State: OL Elliott Bosch, Sr.; WR River Cracraft, Fr.; PK Andrew Furney, Sr.; DB Damante Horton, Sr.;
Some notes on the teams:
By School: Arizona State and Stanford placed the most players on the first team with six selections each.
By Class: Of the 27 first-team selections, two are graduate students, 11 are seniors, nine are juniors, four are sophomores and one freshman.
Unanimous: Only one player was named on the first-team ballot of all 12 head coaches -- RB Ka'Deem Carey of Arizona.
Two-time Selections: Ten players are repeat first-team selections from last year.
All-Academic: Two first team All-Pac-12 performers also were named to the Pac-12 All Academic second team -- RB Bishop Sankey of Washington and DB Ed Reynolds of Stanford, while Washington defensive lineman Hau'oli Kikaha was named to the All-Pac-12 second team and Pac-12 All-Academic first team. Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly earned second-team honors on both the Pac-12 All-Conference and All-Academic teams.
That was the lingering question among those USC fans suffering through a massive hangover in the aftermath of Saturday night’s 35-14 loss to UCLA.
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LOS ANGELES -- Two years a monopoly does not make. But let’s just say UCLA is off of lowly Baltic Avenue and working its way toward Mora, err, Marvin Gardens.
We of course pay playful homage to the disastrous UCLA marketing campaign of a half-decade ago declaring that USC’s monopoly on Los Angeles football was over. Perhaps it didn’t fail. Maybe it was just ahead of its time.
For the second consecutive year, the Bruins posted a double-digit victory over their crosstown rival. Saturday night, they did it at the Coliseum, Traveler’s stomping grounds, for the first time since 1997. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley rushed for a pair of touchdowns in the 35-14 win. Inch by inch, yard by yard, the Bruins are blanketing this angelic city in blue.
“You get into the old ‘We own this town' stuff. We've got it right now, but we have to play them in 12 months, so it’s temporary,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “I’ll tell you what -- it’s nice to have it now for two years in a row. It tells you what’s going on at UCLA. It’s an exciting time at UCLA. It’s an exciting time to be a UCLA Bruin. You want to play for a fun, tough, hard-nosed football team that can go and win games everywhere, come to UCLA.”
"You win two in a row in this town, things start to change,” Mora said. “That’s going to help us in recruiting. If I’m a high school player, I want to play at UCLA right now.”
Case in point: two-way threat Myles Jack, who has splashed onto the national stage over the past month for his exploits on both sides of the ball. As a running back, he scored another short-yardage touchdown Saturday night, his seventh of the season. As a linebacker, he added three tackles and recovered a fumble. It’s wins like this that Mora promised Jack during the recruiting process, and a major reason why he opted to come to UCLA.
“I saw the first year with them beating ’SC, beating Nebraska, going to the Pac-12 championship,” Jack said. “When they were recruiting me, everything [Mora] said, he backed it up with numbers. They won big games. They went to the Pac-12 championship. They went to the Holiday Bowl. I saw the change and I wanted to be a part of that.
“If they are telling [recruits] the same thing they are telling me, it’s true. They aren’t lying. Everything they told me came true. They told me I could come in and compete for a spot, and came in and won the spot. They told me we were going to win big games. We beat ’SC, we were going to do big things, beat Nebraska. And we’ve done it. Coach is a man of his word and his track record proves it.”
In the other locker room, the coaching situation is questionable, at best. Interim coach Ed Orgeron had been on a stellar 6-1 run since taking over for the fired Lane Kiffin. But Saturday night, his team had no answers for its rival -- specifically Hundley, who was 18-of-27 for 208 yards passing to go with 80 yards and two scores on the ground. Protection issues also plagued the Trojans and quarterback Cody Kessler, who was sacked six times, including two each by Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh.
USC’s loss adds another wrinkle to its coaching search.
“I will take it one day at a time,” said Orgeron, who hasn’t made it a secret that he wants the job. “Right now I am hurting for these guys and our coaches. Tomorrow will be a new day, the sun will shine and we are going to get up and get after it again. We are going to look at film and correct it.”
Since the start of the 1990s, the USC-UCLA rivalry has been defined by streaks. UCLA won eight straight from 1991-98. The Trojans then went on to win 12 of the next 13 (two were vacated, but come on). As far as the rest of the country is concerned, this rivalry doesn’t have the same bite as, say, an Iron Bowl or Ohio State-Michigan. No one opted to boycott the letter “U” in the week leading up to the game. The CLA-SC showdown just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
But it means plenty in a recruiting-rich environment like Southern California. And plenty to a city that’s thirsty for football but doesn’t have an NFL team.
“What a great night for L.A. to have competitive teams going at it like that,” Mora said. “I’m so proud of our kids, our young men for the way they fight and the way they come back every week; their resilience and their toughness. There is something growing there that is pretty special. And to come in here on a Saturday night like this and get a win, it tells you where this program is headed.”
Three wins, or even four, in a row might not make it a monopoly. But every victory brings Mora and the Bruins one step closer to Boardwalk.
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.”
What is the key matchup for USC vs. UCLA?
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.
Coming off a satisfying 49-27 victory over Colorado, USC extended its win streak to five games and an overall 6-1 record under interim coach Ed Orgeron. It might not have been enough to get the Trojans into the Pac-12 title game -- ASU clinched the berth from the south on Saturday night -- but that bit of news will do little to dampen the enthusiasm of the players and coaches.
Not only do the Trojans have a chance to put the finishing touches on an amazing in-season turnaround with a victory over UCLA, they also have a chance to right a painful memory from last year. In their first season under coach Jim Mora, the Bruins got the upper hand in 2012 with a 38-28 victory in the Rose Bowl, a win that was all the more notable considering USC had beaten UCLA 50-0 the previous year.
The Bruins have tried to use the momentum from last year to lay claim to ownership of Los Angeles, on the field and on the recruiting trail. The slow start to the USC season appeared to give credence to those efforts, all while UCLA got a big road win over Nebraska and had high-profile stars such as Brett Hundley and Anthony Barr.
Then came the coaching switch for USC and tides of change have swung local momentum back in favor of the Trojans. While USC has been thriving under Orgeron, the Bruins are 3-3 in their last six games. While the Bruins were once ranked in the top 10 and the Trojans were unranked, the two teams now stand right next to each other in the rankings at No. 22 (UCLA) and 23 (USC).
The USC players are certainly going to want revenge for last year. Trojans safety Dion Bailey said in the locker room following the Colorado game that he and his teammates needed to “remind the Bruins” of who runs the town. That bit of chatter about ownership rights of the city is always part of this rivalry so that’s nothing new, but it doesn't figure to be the overriding storyline of this game.
The ongoing saga of Orgeron and his pursuit of the full-time USC job will dominate the discussions leading up to Saturday night, but what shouldn't get lost in the shuffle is the fact his team is playing well right now, as good as he could have hoped for in such an important matchup.
USC has a quarterback in Cody Kessler who has thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games while growing into a clear leader of the offense. The running game has received a huge boost from the play of Buck Allen, with his nine rushing touchdowns in the last four games and the splash of explosiveness he adds on the ground. There is also the thought in opponents' minds now of a 260-pound fullback in Soma Vainuku who can move pretty well, too.
On the outside there is still the reality that Marqise Lee is bothered by injuries but Nelson Agholor has stepped up to help pick up some of the slack. Lee would love to be back on the field against UCLA to help make up for 2012 in what will likely be his final home game at the Coliseum. At tight end, Xavier Grimble showed on Saturday what can happen when the tight ends are healthy and utilized the right way as he led the team with six catches.
The development of the offensive line has to be considered one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It’s no accident when a team has four different running backs go for over 100 yards in a game, at some point the line is doing something right.
On defense, the USC front seven is starting to get recognition as one of the best units in college football. Leonard Williams is playing like an All-American and Devon Kennard isn’t far behind. It makes it all the more impressive to think the Trojans are doing this lately without leading sacker Morgan Breslin, primarily due to the fine play of J.R. Tavai.
There has been the dependable leadership from Hayes Pullard while Anthony Sarao stepped in for an injured Lamar Dawson without missing a beat. And what was once the biggest weakness on the team, the secondary play and coverage at the corner spot, has been stabilized by the physical presence of Josh Shaw while Bailey has been a playmaker at safety.
On top of all that, kicker Andre Heidari battled through his job being put up for grabs to nail the biggest kick of his career in the win over Stanford.
Those are a lot of positives for the Trojans, players who are rising up and playing well, and by no means are these the only players getting it done. Orgeron has provided substance to the loose atmosphere he has fostered with the Trojans and now he and his team have a chance to finish this magnificent regular season run in style.
Yes, we’re talking about the same guy who was an All-America wide receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner for USC a year ago, the same player who was expected to challenge the Trojans’ all-time pass catching records as a strong Heisman Trophy candidate this season.
Unfortunately, fate and injuries have dictated otherwise. Lee not only has been hobbled for much of the fall with a painful knee, he had to absorb the firing of a head coach who was closer to him than probably any other player. Put all that together, and most kids would be walking around campus in a deep funk.
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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.
Here’s some more info on the trio per the Pac-12’s release:
Kessler, a sophomore from Bakersfield, Calif., was 25-of-37 for 288 yards and a touchdown in a 20-17 upset win over No. 5 Stanford on Saturday night in the Coliseum. He produced a season-best for both completions and attempts while connecting on 10 in a row as the Trojans held on to a seven point lead entering the third quarter. With the score tied 17-17 and 1:23 left on the clock in the fourth quarter, Kessler completed a 13-yard pass to Marqise Lee on fourth and two to keep a drive alive that ended with a game-winning field goal.
Nelson, a senior from Lakeland, Fla., led an Arizona State defense that forced four interceptions from the nation’s leading passer in a 30-17 win over Oregon State in Tempe on Saturday night. Nelson collected two interceptions, returning the second one 23 yards for a game-sealing touchdown late in the fourth quarter, while adding five tackles and a fumble recovery on the night. Nelson now has six interceptions on the year, which is tied for fourth in the nation and is the most for a Sun Devil cornerback in a single season since 1987.
Heidari, junior from Bakersfield, Calif., hit the game-winning 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds to seal the upset victory over Stanford. The game-winner helped the Trojans snap a four-game losing streak to the Cardinal while it was their first game-winning field goal since 2000. Heidari now has 38 field goals in his career.
Also nominated for offensive player of the week honors were quarterbacks Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Connor Halliday of Washington State; running back Marion Grice of Arizona State and running back/linebacker Myles Jack of UCLA; and Colorado wide receiver Nelson Spruce. Also nominated for defensive player of the week honors were linebackers Addison Gillam of Colorado, Erik Kendricks of UCLA and Justin Sagote of Washington State; and USC safety Dion Bailey. Also nominated for special teams player of the week honors was punter Sean Covington of UCLA and Oregon running back/kick returner De’Anthony Thomas.
Orgeron on the fact that a total of just 13 players saw time on defense for USC against Stanford, and whether or not that was the plan going into the contest:
On the report that came out on Sunday that USC athletic director Pat Haden recently interviewed Denver Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio as a potential candidate for the USC head coaching position:
“That’s the first that I’ve heard about that, and I really don’t care. I know he has a job to do, and I know he’s going to go out there and interview the best guys available for USC. My focus today is really celebrating our big win against Stanford, being with our coaches, doing the best job I can for USC and focusing on Colorado. That’s all I can do, and that’s really important to me. I’d rather be in this position … being with the Trojans, than being in any other position.”
On how the Trojans performed up front on defense, as well as on offense, against the Cardinal:
“I think the defensive line did a very good job … probably the best defensive line performance we’ve had since I’ve been here. I thought it was a great defensive performance, although we [allowed] a couple of long runs … that third-down run. But as far as technique and being physical, I’m really pleased with the way our whole defense played. On the offensive side, their defense was the best defense we’ve seen in a long time. I thought our guys did a very good job in pass protection. We struggled a little bit in the run game, and we knew going in that it was going to be tough, but we got the job done.”
On the status of Leonard Williams, who fought through a shoulder injury to play the entire game versus Stanford, recording seven tackles:
“Leonard played excellent. He really did a tremendous job [for being] limited in practice for two weeks, I thought he played very, very well … I’ll talk about injuries on Tuesday. I don’t have a report from Russ [Romano], but I thought we came out of that game pretty well.”
On the performance of quarterback Cody Kessler, and how he’s progressed since Orgeron took over as interim coach:
“The thing I like about Cody … I see all the intangibles. Those are the things that impress me most. Clay [Helton] handles all of the mechanical stuff, all of the plays, and all of the checks and stuff like that, and he does a great job with it. I see him as a quarterback with moxie, a quarterback with leadership skills, a quarterback that’s close to everybody on the team, and that the team is growing in confidence with. I really think that’s important, and for him and Marqise [Lee] to make that play on fourth-and-2 really said a lot about what we think about him as a man and as a player.”
On who has reached out to Orgeron over the course of the last 24 hours to offer congratulatory messages:
“I got a text from Coach [Pete] Carroll, Rocky Seto … the guys from Seattle were really fired up about the win, and that meant a lot. Obviously, a lot of people back home, Dwayne Johnson -- The Rock … that was pretty good, on Twitter. I hadn’t heard from him in a while but he was very supportive. Just guys are coming up … Warren Sapp, Cortez Kennedy … all of the ex-players … Brian Cushing today, Kenechi Udeze, Ryan Nielsen, Marcus Allen, Anthony Munoz, on and on and on … just proud of the Trojan Family.”
On how USC has been able to overcome the team’s deficiency in terms of numbers and depth as of late -- an issue that was pointed to with great frequency earlier in the season:
“It’s a mindset. It’s who we are. We’re Trojans. I’m in for dealing with what we have, and making the best of it. Our guys have done that. They’ve stepped up. You can only put 11 on the field at one time, so we’re going to put 11 out there, and we’re going to fight, and we’re going to put the best 11 that we can … they’re going to be trained and ready to go. We have a lot of great players and great young men on this team, and they’re coming to the forefront. But you know what? They just needed to play as a team and to believe in themselves, and they’ve done that.”
On how it felt to lead the USC marching band -- The Spirit of Troy -- from atop the ladder last night following the Trojans’ victory, and what the band means to him, as well as to the team:
“It was great. When I first came here Marv Goux, the great Trojan assistant, told me, ‘Son, the band is part of the football team. They’re our heartbeat, and you treat them as such.’ And Art Bartner is just like an assistant coach here on the team. And I love that. We love the band, we love the cheerleaders, we love the crowd, we love everybody … they’re part of our family.”
Ed Orgeron, Andre Heidari and the football gods have conspired to make his decision for him. Barring a complete meltdown in Colorado or an uncharacteristic lopsided loss against UCLA, the USC athletic director has to remove the interim title from Orgeron and name him the Trojans’ new coach.
Heidari’s clutch 48-yard field goal in the pulsating 20-17 upset of fourth-ranked Stanford was the clincher. It released a torrent of USC emotion matched only by the thousands of giddy fans who stormed the floor of the Coliseum on Saturday night, making it look like New Year’s Eve in November.
It was an unabashed Orgeron love-fest. The fans love him. The student body loves him. The players love him. And maybe most importantly, all those star-struck recruits who were standing on the sidelines seemed ready to fall in love with him.
What has happened here is that Orgeron has ignited some kind of visceral reaction from USC supporters, exacerbated perhaps because he has become, in so many ways, the anti Lane Kiffin.
Orgeron doesn’t stand there impassively on the sidelines staring down at a laminated play card that looks more like a restaurant menu. He waves his arms and punches the air and wildly interacts with all the players. The same team that once reflected Kiffin’s introverted personality now has taken on Orgeron’s bounding, extroverted enthusiasm.
And the people who jammed the Coliseum for the first sellout in a couple of seasons love it. If they hadn’t fully embraced this large bear of a man with the Cajun accent before Saturday night, they certainly do now.
It’s impossible to not be won over by a coach who stared down at his own big decision, the biggest decision of his career, in the waning minutes of that game. USC had a fourth-and-two at the Stanford 48-yard line with 1:23 remaining, and Orgeron had to decide if he wanted to gamble.
The stakes couldn’t have been any higher. The game, the Trojans’ season and Orgeron’s future all hung in the balance. Would he try for the first down and play for the win in regulation, or punt and hope for a tie and overtime?
Orgeron went for it. Cody Kessler, who played his best game of the season, threw a dart to a limping, but courageous Marqise Lee for the first down that led to Heidari’s dramatic kick.
John McKay would have been proud. I remember a Rose Bowl game against Purdue when McKay went for a two-point conversion and missed, losing the game by one point. Asked about it afterwards, the Hall of Fame coach snapped: “I didn’t come here for a tie. I came to win.”
Same with Orgeron. How different was his bold gamble for the win compared to Kiffin’s reticent play-calling that led to a still hard-to-believe 10-7 loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 opener?
That’s why so many people have fallen for Coach O. He has brought old-fashioned USC football back. He wants to play the tough, physical style that made this program so unique under McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll. He might not have all the components yet, as you may have noticed as Stanford dominated the line of scrimmage most of the night, but he fully intends to get the kind of players to make it happen.
One thing that seems to have been forgotten through the early weeks of the USC coaching search is that Orgeron long has been recognized as one of the top recruiters in the country. And if he could carve out that kind of recruiting reputation as an assistant, there is no telling how good he could be as the head guy.
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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.
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.
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