USC Trojans: Devon Kennard
The amount of player position movement in the spring could also have an impact on the position options of the incoming freshman class. A case in point would be the highly anticipated arrival this summer of enormously skilled defensive back/wide receiver Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra). Jackson, however, might not be the only entering freshman whose position could be decided by what happens this spring.
If you don’t think that correct player evaluation and placement doesn’t make a difference, just look back on the recently concluded career of Devon Kennard, who came to USC as a highly touted defensive end. In his five years at Troy, Kennard seemed to be constantly changing defensive positions and responsibilities.
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Here’s an alphabetical look at the former USC players and where they stand heading into the combine:
S Dion Bailey: The combine probably isn’t going to do much to drastically alter Bailey’s draft status one way or the other. He’s not going to grow and he’s not going to wow with his speed, but one area in which he can look to impress is with his pass-coverage skills. Bailey is viewed as a “tweener” by NFL standards, stuck between ideal measurables at safety and linebacker. The good news for Dion is that he played both at USC, and he produced at both spots as well. That always looks good on the resume. He could also be the kind of guy who shines on special teams. Mel Kiper from ESPN currently ranks him as the No. 5 safety, a very good showing that could translate to a mid-round draft status once teams factor in the intangibles he brings.
LB Devon Kennard: It’s interesting to see that there isn’t a lot of buzz about Kennard heading into the draft process. You would think Kennard would be someone that would fit the type of player every team would be looking for -- a solid citizen and dependable player who is coming off a senior season in which he was named a finalist for the Lott Trophy. Kennard is also the son of a former NFL player. His time at USC was filled with position changes and a critical injury that could have derailed him, but instead he responded by coming back stronger than ever. Look for Kennard to get more teams taking notice at the combine, on his way to a long and successful NFL career.
WR Marqise Lee: Lee could end up being one of the more high-profile players at the combine with a lot of anticipation to see how he compares with some of the other top wideouts. It’s a very good year at the position, and Lee can stake his claim at the head of the group. One area to watch will be the 40-yard dash. Lee is known for being fast, but he can really open some eyes if he puts up a low number. Right now Kiper has him as the No. 2 wide receiver, and both Kiper (No. 18 to the Jets) and Todd McShay (No. 13 to the Rams) have him going in the first round.
OL Marcus Martin: Martin has seen his stock rise since declaring for the draft. Kiper currently ranks him No. 1 at the center position. That’s impressive for a player who has played only one year at the position after starting for his first two years at USC at left guard. That versatility definitely helps him in the eyes of NFL scouts, as does the fact he stepped into the starting lineup three games into his true freshman season and never left. The combine will be the first opportunity for Martin to show his athleticism and strength against the other center prospects while likely securing a mid-round draft projection.
TB Silas Redd: The combine setting isn’t going to show the real value of a player like Redd. Sure, it will be nice to test him in shorts and T-shirts in the 40, but you aren’t going to see what Redd brings to a team until you put on the pads and ask him to run the football. That’s when you’ll find an extremely tough guy who knows how to pound the rock. In the meantime, Silas will interview well, teams will test his knee to make sure it is sound, and he will hope for a late-round selection.
DL George Uko: Outside of Grimble, Uko is the USC player with the most to gain from the combine. Uko had flashes of good play in his career but not nearly enough to warrant an early to mid-round selection at this point. The good news for Uko, however, is that there are only a certain amount of men with the combination of size and ability to play on the defensive line, and he is one of them. The combine will offer him a chance to do something special to start moving up the defensive line depth chart because, as of right now, Uko does not crack Kiper's top 10 at the position.
This past season, however, everything came together as the fifth-year senior co-captain found his niche lining up at SAM linebacker in Clancy Pendergast’s "52" defensive scheme. Racking up a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks, Kennard was a key piece of the puzzle for a Trojans defense that allowed just 335.2 yards per game -- the No. 13 mark in the FBS.
A 2013 second-team All-Pac-12 selection and Lott IMPACT Trophy finalist, the Phoenix (Ariz.) Desert Vista product also excelled inside the classroom at USC, while also taking part in a number of charitable activities off campus.
WeAreSC: What were you able to take away from the recent East-West Shrine Game experience?
Devon Kennard: Just being able to be rewarded with that kind of opportunity to go to an all-star game like that was an honor for me. And what the East-West Shrine Game stands for with the Shriners Hospitals and being able to have fun with some kids that are in some really tough situations, that was awesome. So I loved everything that it stood for, and the football aspect of it, it was great to just get the opportunity to compete against some of the best players from all over the country. And then getting to know some of these guys from all over the place, it was a really cool dynamic.
WeAreSC: What else have you been up to since the season ended?
Kennard: I’m training in Sherman Oaks (Calif.) at a place called Athletic Gains, and I’m just training every day, getting ready for pro day and the NFL combine.
WeAreSC: You played all over the place in your first four years at USC from defensive end to middle linebacker before really taking off in Clancy Pendergast’s defense at outside linebacker. How gratifying was it for you to find so much success in your final season?
Kennard: It was a great opportunity to play in Coach Pendergast’s defense, and my injury turned out to be a big blessing for me. It was a great year to be a part of. We had an awesome year on defense, and although we didn’t do as well as we wanted to, to end the season 10-4 with all of the adversity that we faced, I’m really proud to have been a captain of that team.
WeAreSC: You arrived at USC in 2009, so you saw a lot of coaches come and go. Can you pick one or two who had an especially profound impact on you?
Kennard: Most definitely Coach [Ed] Orgeron because he was my position coach for a good amount of time, but also Coach Joe Barry. The year I played middle linebacker he was my coach, and I learned so much from him in getting ready to play that position, and that was a good experience as well. I’ve had a lot of coaches, but I’ve also been fortunate to play for some very good coaches. I’ve had Coach Jethro Franklin, Coach [Ken] Norton, Coach Barry, Coach Orgeron, Coach Pete Jenkins ... so I’d like to argue that I’ve had some of the best position coaches at every position that I’ve played throughout my career, and I think it’s prepared me for the next level.
WeAreSC: You were able to not only earn an undergraduate degree in communication in your time at USC, but also a master’s in communication management. How big was that for you?
Kennard: It was a goal of mine going into college. I wanted to graduate as fast as I could and get into a master’s program and start that. I was going to have to be at school for at least three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years regardless, so I wanted to get as much done as possible. Being able to knock out two degrees, and for it to be completely paid for, I just really took advantage of the opportunities placed before me, and I encourage other guys to do the same.
WeAreSC: What was your favorite class at USC?
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Those decisions will obviously have a huge impact on the fortunes of the 2014 USC defense as all of those players had prominent roles in the success this season. But there is another important cog in the defensive machine that is also unclear in terms of being back: defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
New USC coach Steve Sarkisian has filled six spots on his staff -- including the news over the weekend that Trojans offensive coordinator Clay Helton would be retained -- but there has been no confirmed news as far as his plans for the defensive coordinator spot.
There is a lot of speculation that Justin Wilcox -- who served for the past two seasons as defensive coordinator for Sarkisian at Washington – would be coming down to join the staff at USC. The Huskies play in the Fight Hunger Bowl on December 27 so any update on Wilcox will likely come after that game.
Wilcox has certainly developed a reputation as an up-and-coming coach who bolstered the Huskies' defense and received consideration for the Boise State head coaching job after Chris Petersen left the Broncos to replace Sarkisian at Washington.
A quick check of Pendergast’s one-season body of work, however, has many USC fans wondering why Pendergast wouldn’t be a natural option to keep on the staff as well.
Pendergast took over a USC defense that gave up 394 yards per game in 2012, the second highest total in school history, and over 24 points per game, the fourth highest mark. In 2013 under Pendergast, the Trojans led the conference in passing defense and red zone defense and were No. 2 in total defense, run defense and scoring defense.
That improvement was seen with many of the same players that were on the team in 2012, except for a few key losses in current NFL players T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey. There was a change in scheme, from the 4-3 to the 5-2. There were depth issues, coaching changes and double duty for Pendergast, who also served as secondary coach. And there was success against both ends of the offensive spectrum -- his defense held up against the physical power running attack of Stanford and against the highest-ranked passing game in the country with Fresno State.
There was improvement with many individual players. Devon Kennard had spent three years playing out of position and was coming off a missed season due to injury, but he ended up leading the team in sacks and was a Lott IMPACT Trophy finalist. Leonard Williams was named an ESPN All-American. Pendergast took a safety in Shaw and made him a valuable corner, J.R. Tavai moved from an interior D-lineman to a stand-up OLB and Bailey made the effortless switch from linebacker to safety.
Pendergast isn’t flashy, but he’s a relatively quiet coach on the field who holds his players accountable and gets obvious results. Players like Shaw have been quick to praise him for the work that was done this year. Oh, and if you want NFL swag, he’s also got Super Bowl experience from a stint with the Arizona Cardinals.
There is a lot on Sarkisian’s plate in terms of filling out his staff but one of his best options might just be to find a way to keep Pendergast around if at all possible.
The award winners:
- Most Valuable Player: Allen
- Most Inspirational Player: outside linebacker Devon Kennard
- Trojan Way Leadership Award: Kennard, linebacker Hayes Pullard
- Linemen of the Year: center Marcus Martin (offense), defensive end Leonard Williams (defense)
- Perimeter Players of the Year: Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor (offense), cornerback Josh Shaw and safety Dion Bailey (defense)
- Special Teams Player of the Year: fullback Soma Vainuku
- Service Team Players of the Year: quarterback Conner Sullivan (offense), linebacker Nick Schlossberg (defense)
- Jack Oakie Rise and Shine Award (longest run): Allen (80 yards vs. California)
- Howard Jones/Football Alumni Club Academic Award (overall academic achievement): Kennard
- Bob Chandler Award (underclassman with outstanding athletic ability, academic achievement and character): quarterback Cody Kessler
- John McKay Award (underclassman with the most competitive spirit): Agholor
- Joe Collins Walk-on Award: tailback Taylor Ross
- Courage Award: tight end Randall Telfer, wide receiver Marqise Lee
- Lifters Award: Kennard, offensive tackle Chad Wheeler
- Team Captains: Lee, Pullard, Kennard, Martin
Garry Paskwietz: Leonard Williams
Johnny Curren: Leonard Williams
Greg Katz: Leonard Williams
Top offensive player
GP: Javorius "Buck" Allen
JC: Marcus Martin
GK: Cody Kessler
Top defensive player
GP: Devon Kennard
JC: Devon Kennard
GK: Devon Kennard
Most impactful freshman
GP: Su'a Cravens
JC: Su’a Cravens
GK: Su’a Cravens
GP: Buck Allen
JC: Buck Allen
GK: J.R. Tavai
Tough guy of the year
GP: Dion Bailey
JC: Soma Vainuku
GK: Hayes Pullard
Biggest one-game performance
GP: Hayes Pullard vs Stanford
JC: Soma Vainuku vs Colorado
GK: Buck Allen vs Cal
GP: Justin Davis
JC: Justin Davis
GK: Darreus Rogers
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.
Take back the City: This one is for the bragging rights of Los Angeles and, after the UCLA victory in 2012, the Bruins have talked a lot this week about how this game is an opportunity to show that they run the town now. The Trojans, of course, will point to 12 USC victories in the last 14 matchups, and the fact that the Bruins have not won in the Coliseum since 1997. The USC players know that the best way to put a stop to any talk of UCLA momentum is a win Saturday.
Real ball: When UCLA coach Jim Mora talked about facing the USC offense this week, he clearly relished the challenge of going against a “physical, downhill” offense, as opposed to so many of the spread offenses that are prevalent in the conference today. Mora called it “real ball” and he can expect to see plenty of it in this game. The Trojans have been running the ball well lately, with 240 or more rushing yards in three of the past four games. Buck Allen has nine rushing touchdowns in those four games and the USC offensive line has played particularly well.
Contain Hundley: It’s no secret that UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is one of the top dual-threat players in the country. He ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and the ball gets spread around, as 26 Bruins have caught passes this year. But where Hundley can often be most dangerous is when he takes off to run. He has more than 500 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground this year. The biggest issue for UCLA is that their offensive line will start three freshmen who will be attempting to block Leonard Williams, Devon Kennard & Co.
Senior Day: Among the USC seniors who be playing their final game at the Coliseum are a group of eight players who were a part of the final recruiting class of Pete Carroll at USC: De’Von Flournoy, Kevin Graf, Kevin Greene, Torin Harris, Devon Kennard, John Martinez, Marquis Simmons and Simi Vehikite. Those players signed up for what they thought would be a continuation of the Carroll dynasty but they were subjected instead to harsh NCAA penalties for violations that took place long before they arrived. They were also part of a resurgence at end of their final USC season that helped restore a great sense of pride to the program.
Finish the script: The last seven weeks has brought an amazing turnaround and nothing could finish it better than a win over the Bruins in the Coliseum. All the feel-good emotion around the Trojans right now would reach a crescendo if USC can find a way to avenge the loss last season in the Rose Bowl. Of course, a Trojans victory on Saturday would also result in a landslide of public opinion in favor of retaining interim coach Ed Orgeron.
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.
“This is gonna be a line of scrimmage game,” the interim head coach said after the Trojans practice on Tuesday.
There’s no secret about what the Cardinal are looking to do these days. They are going to line up on offense and run the football behind a talented and aggressive offensive line, while often employing additional linemen or tight ends to supplement their blocking efforts. The Stanford defense is particularly strong against the run, as it gives up less than 100 rushing yards per game.
On offense, the Cardinal are very efficient, if not overwhelming. They average 32 points per game (No. 7 in the Pac-12) and are No. 11 in the conference with 388 total yards per game. They do average 205 yards on the ground each game -- No. 4 in the conference -- and only give up a nation-leading three tackles for loss per game. The Cardinal have only given up nine sacks on the season.
The Trojans will counter with a strong defensive front that is among the top 25 nationally in sacks (3.1 per game) and tackles for loss (7.1 per game). One of the keys for USC all season has been the play of defensive end Leonard Williams along the interior of the line. Williams is second on the team in tackles (56) and leads the Trojans in tackles for loss with 11 but has been hampered by a shoulder injury that caused him to sit out the California game last week.
USC is already without the services of Morgan Breslin, one of the leading pass rushers in the nation, who is out for the season with a hip injury, so depth could be a concern in such a physical contest. J.R. Tavai has proven to be a versatile reserve who could sub in for either Breslin or Williams as needed. Devon Kennard has been a steady force all year at the OLB spot opposite Breslin, leading the Trojans with eight sacks.
Things don’t get any easier for the Trojans on offense when facing the Cardinal defensive line. Stanford leads the Pac-12 in giving up only 98.7 rushing yards on the ground per game and is also stingy in scoring defense (19.4 points per game) and total defense (348.8 yards per game), ranking in the top 20 of the nation in both categories.
Stanford is also missing a key defender, as defensive end Ben Gardner is out for the season with an arm injury, but there is still plenty of talent. OLB Trent Murphy leads the Pac-12 in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (14), while defensive end Henry Anderson returned last week after missing six weeks with an injury.
While Stanford is very tough to run against, the Trojans will look to get balance while relying on Javorius Allen and Ty Isaac, as Silas Redd and Tre Madden are questionable due to injury. What is known is that all the scholarship wide receivers are available and all the tight ends got practice time this week. Look for the Trojans to keep the tight ends in a lot to help with pass protection while taking some shots with Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor in the passing game.
There might be some big plays with Lee and Agholor, or with Stanford WR Ty Montgomery, but that’s not where this game will be won. It will be won in the trenches, at the line of scrimmage. The Trojans know that and Stanford knows that. Now it’s just a matter of hitting the field on Saturday to see who can get the job done.
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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And now, all of a sudden, maybe Ed Orgeron doesn’t, either.
Javorius “Buck” Allen, the sophomore who’d been the forgotten tailback in the first few weeks of this weird, emotional season, rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns to lead USC to its most impressive and complete victory in at least two years on Friday night.
Allen and Silas Redd rumbled through Oregon State’s bright orange at will, Marqise Lee returned to revitalize the passing game and Devon Kennard and the defense shut down Sean Mannion and one of the country’s most prolific passing attacks on their way to a 31-14 upset over the Beavers.
So much for the pit that Reser Stadium is supposed to be, huh?
Give most of the credit to Orgeron, the huge, teddy bear of an interim head coach who is doing everything in his power to wipe the word ‘interim’ off his title. He has re-energized a team that was spiraling down the depths toward a full-blown depression after Arizona State dropped 62 in what turned out to be Lane Kiffin’s last game.
Look around, the Trojans are having fun again. They’re playing loose on the field and flashing some frisky dance moves on the sidelines.
They’ve earned the right. And maybe Orgeron is earning something, too. He is 3-1 since taking over, only a couple of makeable field goals against Notre Dame away from being 4-0. He is 3-0 in the Pac-12 and, suddenly, USC (6-3 overall, 3-2 Pac-12) is a legitimate contender to win the South Division and get to the conference title game.
The 6-3 Trojans have undermanned California and shaky Colorado still left on the schedule. Oh yeah, then there are those two home games against Stanford and UCLA.
Well, let’s say Orgeron wins the two games in which he’ll be heavily favored and somehow manages to split the Stanford/UCLA duo. Considering the circumstances, that would give USC a more than respectable 9-4 record and mean that “Coach O,” as the kids like to call him, would be 6-2 as the head guy.
If you’re a real Trojans optimist and want to fantasize victories over both Stanford and UCLA, then suddenly the record gets to 10-3, 7-1 for Orgeron.
If that somehow happened, USC athletic director Pat Haden would be hard pressed to overlook Orgeron for the full-time job, even over a coach with a more glamorous name.
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1. Figuring out Reser: The reason there is so much being made about the recent USC struggles in Corvallis is because the Trojans have struggled a lot in Corvallis. The Beavers have beaten the Trojans in the last three meetings at Reser Stadium, including some dramatic upset victories over highly ranked USC teams. The Trojans come in as the underdog in this matchup as they try to reverse recent history in a hostile environment.
2. Slow down Mannion: OSU quarterback Sean Mannion leads the nation’s top-ranked passing attack and he is going to be throwing the ball a lot. Mannion averages nearly 50 pass attempts a game and many of them go to Brandin Cooks, the nation’s leading receiver. The Trojans will need to get pressure up front, something the Stanford Cardinal did in their victory over the Beavers last week. USC will be without leading sack-man Morgan Breslin but look for Leonard Williams, Devon Kennard and J.R. Tavai to pick up the slack.
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That is exactly what awaits the USC defense on Friday night as Sean Mannion and the Oregon State offense come into the game averaging a nation-leading 420.8 yards per game. If guys such as Taylor Kelly from Arizona State and Tommy Rees from Notre Dame can have success throwing the ball against the Trojans, what will Mannion and company be expected to do?
One is the move of Josh Shaw from safety back to cornerback. Shaw has seen time at both spots in his USC career, but the defense seems to perform better when he lines up at corner. Shaw will be joined in the starting lineup by Kevon Seymour, who has been playing well after battling injuries early in the season.
It will be important to watch how the move of Shaw impacts the rotation at safety, especially since the Trojans will be in nickel package for much of the game. The normal starters would be Dion Bailey and Su'a Cravens. Both are likely to play, but they have missed practice time this week due to injuries. USC fans can expect to see a lot of Demetrius Wright and Leon McQuay III after both played well last week against Utah.
The second key will be to get pressure on Mannion to disrupt his timing. That’s easy to say, but not always easy to do. Mannion averages nearly 50 pass attempts a game and completes close to 70 percent of them, throwing 30 touchdown passes to only three interceptions.
The Beavers’ offensive line had done a solid job protecting Mannion for the most part by allowing only nine sacks through the first seven games before allowing eight sacks to Stanford last week. The Trojans are No. 10 nationally in sacks but will be without their sack leader, as Morgan Breslin will miss the game with a hip injury. The Trojans will look to J.R. Tavai to fill in for Breslin. In the two games that Tavai has started for Breslin he has totaled 21 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Leonard Williams and Devon Kennard will also look to play big roles for the USC front seven.
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