USC: Andre Heidari
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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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.
Team of the week: USC started with a great plan against Stanford. Then it played smart, disciplined football and executed that plan. And when Stanford looked like it was asserting itself, the Trojans persevered, making clutch plays at the end to beat the Cardinal 20-17. USC is now 5-1 under interim coach Ed Orgeron, looking nothing like the sloppy, uninterested team from the beginning of the season.
Biggest play: Was it the athletic interception from freshman Su'a Cravens that set up the final USC drive? Or was it the fourth-and-2 completion from Cody Kessler to Marqise Lee for 13 yards to the Stanford 35-yard line on the game-winning drive? Or the 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari? Each was critical in the final turn toward USC in the fourth quarter.
Offensive standout: Colorado WR Paul Richardson caught 11 passes for 140 yards in the Buffaloes' 41-24 win over California, which gave them their first Pac-12 win since September 2012. Richardson broke the school’s single-season receiving record, eclipsing the record previously held by Charles E. Johnson. He sits at 1,201 receiving yards, which ranks second in the Pac-12.
Defensive standout: Stanford OLB Trent Murphy had eight tackles, with four coming for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble against USC. The Cardinal lost, but it sure wasn't Murphy's fault. He now leads the Pac-12 in both sacks (12) and tackles for a loss (18).
Defensive standout 2: Arizona State safety Robert Nelson had two interceptions -- one he returned 23 yards for a touchdown -- and a fumble recovery in the Sun Devils' 30-17 win over Oregon State. He also had five tackles.
Special teams standout: It has been a long season for Heidari, but he was the difference for the Trojans in their upset win over Stanford. He kicked a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds to play that provided the winning margin. He also kicked a 23-yard field goal and was 2-for-2 on PATs.
Smiley face: We'd gush more about Orgeron's leadership at USC, but there at least needs to be a hat tip to Washington State and coach Mike Leach going to Tucson and grabbing a much-needed victory with some late-game heroics from QB Connor Halliday. His 25-yard TD pass to Isiah Myers for the tiebreaking touchdown with 2:15 to play gave the Cougars a 24-17 win, keeping their bowl hopes alive.
Frowny face: As impressive as USC's win over Stanford was, it probably wasn't very popular among 10 other Pac-12 teams. Oregon, of course, is thrilled. The Ducks now control their North Division destiny and Rose Bowl hopes. But Stanford's losing makes it unlikely the conference will have two BCS bowl teams, which means every conference team lost about $500,000 when the Cardinal went down. It will be the first time since 2009 conference ADs won't enrich their coffers with that extra check.
Thought of the week: Arizona State and UCLA have a recent history of disappointing their fans and falling short of expectations. But guess what? Both teams are 8-2 and ranked heading into their critical showdown Saturday. They are about where optimistic preseason expectations placed them after 10 games. Both have showed resolve under second-year head coaches. No matter who wins Saturday, both programs seem to be on a decided uptick.
Questions for the week: Who salvages their season? Several Pac-12 teams' seasons are on the brink, and two games in particular are of note: Washington visits Oregon State and Washington State plays host to Utah. As far as the Huskies and Beavers, the loser of that game will officially be able to call its season a disappointment. The Huskies would then face the specter of another 7-6 season -- or worse -- and that could make Steve Sarkisian's seat pretty hot. The Beavers would be set up to lose their final five regular-season games after a 6-1 start, pending the result of the Civil War against Oregon. Utah needs to win in order to keep its bowl hopes alive, and failing to reach a bowl game for a second consecutive year would have folks getting chippy in Salt Lake. The game is not a must-win for the Cougars' bowl hopes, but they'd probably rather not hang their hopes on the Apple Cup the following week.
Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State: Halliday completed 36 of 53 passes for 319 yards, none more important than a 25-yard strike to Isiah Myers for a touchdown with 2:15 left. The score stood as the game-winner as WSU improved to 5-5 -- one game shy of bowl eligibility.
Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA: After running for four touchdowns in the Bruins’ 41-31 win against UCLA, Jack maintained he’s “still defense all the way.” Could have fooled us. Jack became the first UCLA player since Maurice Jones-Drew to pull off the feat and is now tied with Jordan James for second on the team with five rushing scores despite playing offense in just two games.
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: Carey cracked the 100-yard mark for the 13th straight game, running for 132 yards on 26 carries and a score. The Doak Walker Award semifinalist came into the game No. 2 in the nation, averaging 152.6 yards per game.
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado: Richardson caught 11 passes for 140 yards and broke the school’s single-season receiving record in the process. He surpassed the record previously held by Charles E. Johnson and sits at 1,201 receiving yards on the year.
Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State: Grice ran for 118 yards on 24 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns in the Sun Devils’ win against Oregon State. ASU remains in control in the Pac-12 South with an important showdown with UCLA looming next week.
Andre Heidari, K, USC: Heidari’s day didn’t start too well when he missed the PAT following USC’s first touchdown of the game. But he redeemed himself with a 47-yard field goal in the final minute to lift USC over No. 4 Stanford, 20-17.
Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford: Stanford’s loss won’t fall on Gaffney’s shoulders. The senior carried 24 times for 158 yards and a pair of scores, including a highlight-reel quality 35-yarder in the first quarter.
Typical Stanford: Stanford’s offense survived on the strength of tough running by Tyler Gaffney and a defense that sacked Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion eight times. But it was Gaffney’s late-game fumble that should serve as a reminder that Stanford hasn’t been scoring many points of late. So, not unlike last year’s Stanford team, white knuckles will likely be required down the stretch. But credit the defense for creating pressure on Mannion, who was 41-of-57 for 271 yards and a touchdown. His partner in crime, Brandin Cooks, had nine catches for 80 yards and a score. Sans the late-game fumble, Gaffney was stellar again, this time going for 145 yards and three touchdowns. The Beavers saw their six-game winning streak come to an end. But there’s little time to wallow with USC coming into town before a bye and then going on the road for two of their last three. The next time Stanford takes the field will be when Oregon comes to town. And despite the one Cardinal loss, that game still has all the fun subplots and polish we were hoping for.
Where’s the offense? The Utes are reeling after failing to win on the road for the second straight week. And the once-potent offense managed just three points and 201 yards, and it turned the ball over four times. Remember, this is the team that put up 410 yards on Stanford. But this was the worst offensive output by far. A lot of that has to do with the health of Travis Wilson, who sat out the second half for the second straight week. The offensive line looked leaky and the explosive attack we’d come to know the first half of the season looked flat. The defense did what it could, but the offense left it in bad spots. Which leads us to the Trojans. Not a particularly great offensive showing for them, either, so a game ball to Andre Heidari and his four field goals. Cody Kessler looked pretty good, taking care of the ball and completing 21 of 32 passes for 230 yards with a touchdown. But minus-30 yards in sacks left the Trojans with just 30 total rushing yards for the game. Credit USC’s defense for being opportunistic and big ups to the Trojans for continuing to persevere despite a depleted roster. They did what they had to do to win. But now Utah’s signature win a couple of weeks ago is starting to look more and more like a one-week-wonder.
Carey keeps rolling: The leading rusher against Colorado was not Ka’Deem Carey, surprisingly enough. But Carey did rush for 119 yards and four touchdowns, giving him 10 straight games of at least 100 yards dating back to last year’s game against Colorado. It was quarterback B.J. Denker who carried 15 times for 192 yards. The Buffs played this one tough for a while, even leading 13-10 with five minutes left in the half. But the Wildcats struck hard and fast with two late-half touchdowns, and it was game over from there. You can get the sense that this is a different Colorado team than last season. And Paul Richardson is simply outstanding (seven catches, 132 yards, one score). The results just aren’t showing up in the win column. Arizona broke through with its second straight conference win and will look to become bowl eligible next week against Cal.
Huskies bounce back: Washington got exactly what it needed: a win, and a convincing win at that. Cal continues to be everyone’s slump buster. And the Huskies busted their three-game slump with a monster 241-yard, two-touchdown performance from Bishop Sankey. This win won’t get the Huskies back in the Top 25. And beating Colorado next week probably won’t, either. But the Huskies are one step closer to another year of bowl eligibility, and with back-to-back road games at UCLA and Oregon State before the Apple Cup, Washington has an opportunity to finish very strong and break the seven-win curse. For Cal, it’s about finding the little positives. But the Bears have now dropped 10 straight Pac-12 contests dating back to last year. And after another blowout loss, you have to wonder if that streak will end this season.
Last week the Trojans were unable to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them in the loss to Notre Dame, but there were no such troubles against the Utes. In fact, Utah was able to drive for a field goal on its opening possession but that was it.
“It was an outstanding performance by our players,” USC interim coach Ed Orgeron said. “They had a good mindset throughout the week to pull together through adversity and the result is a happy locker room right now.”
It was the USC defense that set the tone by forcing four Utah turnovers -- three interceptions and a fumble -- and converting all of them into points to go into the locker room at halftime with a 16-3 lead.
First it was Josh Shaw, who had been moved back to corner after spending the past three games at safety. Shaw was able to intercept a ball that had been tipped by a Utes receiver, and it set up a 30-yard touchdown pass from Cody Kessler to Nelson Agholor for a 7-3 USC lead.
Leon McQuay III, who got his first start for the Trojans at safety, was able to get an interception after Wilson rolled to his right and threw late, with McQuay moving in for the ball at the right moment. Heidari was able to hit a 38-yard field goal to make it 13-3 and then late in the half, with time running out, the Utes inserted Adam Schulz at quarterback in place of Wilson, who was having trouble throwing the ball with a hand injury. Schulz didn’t fare any better as his first pass was intercepted by Su’a Cravens, who returned it 54 yards to the Utah 10. Heidari added a 28-yard field goal as time expired.
“We had emphasized all week on getting back to our dominant selves,” USC linebacker Hayes Pullard said. “We wanted to give up nothing on the field. We just had to execute the plan the coaches gave us and transfer that to the field during the game.”
About the only things that went wrong for USC were injuries to Cravens and offensive tackle Kevin Graf. Cravens injured his groin on the interception return, while Graf left the game earlier with a left ankle/foot injury. The string of injuries for the Trojans is long right now with players such as Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Morgan Breslin being forced to sit out the game. In fact, once Cravens went down, the Trojans were forced to suit up Dion Bailey, who had been on the sidelines in street clothes during the first half.
“We knew that at the nickel position we only had one guy to play,” Orgeron said. “He [Bailey] knew that and he told us he wanted to play so he put on his uniform and went out there. It shows that these guys believe in each other and are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team.”
For the Trojans offensively, it wasn’t exactly a banner day either. USC gained only 30 yards rushing when factoring in sack totals. Tre Madden led the way with 60 yards on 12 carries. Kessler had a solid day with 21 completions in 32 attempts for 230 yards and one touchdown with no picks, but he was also sacked five times. The Trojans did not turn the ball over, but third-down conversions (3 of 15) continue to be an issue.
A special mention needs to be made of Heidari, who saw his job put open for competition this week after he missed two critical field goals against Notre Dame. Heidari admitted at practice earlier in the week that he was in “a funk,” but he appeared to get out of it by hitting on 4 of 5 field goals in a nice rebound performance.
“Andre is money,” Kessler said. “He’s a great kicker. Unfortunately he missed some kicks last week, but he’s one of the best kickers in the nation in my opinion. I have 100 percent confidence in him. When he’s focused and locked in, he is spot on.”
The Trojans travel to Oregon State next Friday to face a Beavers team that will not likely struggle on offense the way the Utes did. Orgeron will be looking to get his team as healthy as possible on a short week in order to play at a place that has not been kind to the Trojans in recent memory and against a team that is more than capable of providing a much stiffer test.
Injuries: The long list of injuries for the Trojans is mind-numbing these days and three more players were lost for the season this week; linebacker Lamar Dawson (knee), tailback Justin Davis (ankle) and offensive guard Jordan Simmons (knee). These are not inconsequential losses as Dawson was fourth on the team in tackles and Davis was second on the team in rushing. At the end of Tuesday’s practice, only one scholarship receiver was available -- Darreus Rogers -- and there were no scholarship tight ends. How the USC injury list stands on Saturday may be as important to the outcome of the game as anything.
USC O-line vs Utah D-line: It was a rough night for the Trojans O-line against the Irish and it doesn’t figure to get a whole lot easier this week against a defensive line that paves the way for the conference lead in sacks. The Utes have 22 sacks on the year and 16 come from the line. They are a strong and aggressive group, led by a pair of outside pass rushers in Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard. Under normal circumstances the Trojans would use the tight ends to help with blocking assignments so this is yet another area where injuries could come into play.
USC corners vs. Utah pass game: The Trojans pass defense has been a struggle for the past three games and interim coach Ed Orgeron has decided to address things with a position change. Josh Shaw will move from safety to corner, the position he played earlier in the season. Orgeron is confident that the presence of Shaw will help to correct things, noting that the problems were not there earlier when Shaw was at corner. The ability of Utah to attack USC is the passing game will depend largely on the health of Utes quarterback Travis Wilson, who suffered a hand injury last week against Arizona but is expected to play on Saturday.
Kicking competition: After Andre Heidari missed two of three field goals against Notre Dame, Orgeron announced that the place-kicker job would be open for competition this week. Heidari, who has been the starter since his freshman year, admitted after Wednesday’s practice that he is in “a funk” with his kicking but he is confident he can work out of it. Alex Wood and Craig McMahon are being given longer looks in practice with a decision expected Friday after Orgeron meets with special teams coach John Baxter.
How do Trojans respond: It was an emotional scene in the USC locker room after the game in South Bend and it was obvious that was a game the players really wanted. They had fought hard but just weren’t able to pull it out. What made it even more interesting is how many players talked about how they wanted to win it for Orgeron. The interim coach has put a much-needed focus on the players, on keeping their spirits up, and that energy will need to continue because there is no time for a letup against Utah. Don’t forget that the Utes are the one team this year that has defeated Stanford.
It wasn’t that fans pinned the loss on Orgeron but the general consensus was that the loss did great damage to his long-term hopes of getting the permanent job. There were some who thought the damage was too much to overcome while others thought there was still a chance Orgeron could go a run to keep the job. There is still time to compete for a spot in the Pac-12 title game although there is very little wiggle room left. The Trojans would simply have to go on an amazing run through the rest of the season and there couldn’t be a repeat of what was seen on Saturday.
It’s not like the Trojans got blown out or embarrassed in any way. They lost a tough game on the road where the realities of this particular team were on full display -- injuries, penalties, key mistakes, etc. at the wrong time.
One of the consistent praises you heard after the game, however, was for the effort from the team. Even in the face of one of those nights where so many bounces of the ball went against them, the Trojans fought to the end. And that’s where Orgeron wants to keep them. He wants to build upon the good energy he has brought during his tenure and not let one defeat put a halt to that momentum.
Kicking open the door of competition
Orgeron announced on Monday that he would be opening up the kicking competition this week in practice after Andre Heidari -- for the second time this year -- missed two field goals that could have provided the margin of victory in a game.
Other candidates in the competition will include Alex Wood and Craig McMahon, both of whom have seen action with extra points and kickoffs but have yet to attempt a field goal for the Trojans. The odds are that Heidari will end up keeping his job at the end of this week but it doesn’t hurt to have a little competition to get things kick-started, no pun intended.
There isn’t any way to sugarcoat what is going on with the Trojans and injuries right now. A look at the offensive side of the ball during the Tuesday practice showed a veritable MASH unit of sidelined players and a whole lot of walk-ons sprinkled among the active players.
At wide receiver, the Trojans ended the practice with only one scholarship receiver -- Darreus Rogers -- but that must have seemed like a bonus to the tight end spot, where no scholarship players were available. Add to that a running back position that is dealing with the news that freshman sensation Justin Davis will be out for the remainder of the regular season with an ankle injury and you have the makings of a real depletion of talent at the skill positions.
It appears as if Josh Shaw is on the move again. After beginning his USC career at safety in 2012, Shaw got moved to corner midway through last season and played well. In spring 2013, however, he moved back to safety and seemed to have found a home in a spot where he was comfortable. But injuries and inconsistent play have reversed that course and this week Shaw finds himself back at corner.
It’s no secret that the cornerback position has been hit-and-miss this year and for the last three weeks it has been mostly a miss. Opposing offenses have found a recipe for success with attacking the Trojans cornerback spot no matter who was there from Kevon Seymour to Torin Harris to Anthony Brown. No matter how much the coaches preferred to keep Shaw at safety, this latest move is one that makes sense because the other options weren’t working. With Shaw now out of the safety rotation, look for Leon McQuay III to steadily get more time. McQuay has looked solid lately on the practice field, particularly on special teams as a kick blocker.
USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron announced that they will open up the kicking competition in practice this week.— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) October 21, 2013
Heidari has been successful on 6 of 11 field-goal attempts this year, with two key misses in the loss to Washington State as well.
As a freshman in 2011, Heidari was named All Pac-12 first team after hitting 15 of 17 field goals and all 50 extra points. An early season knee injury in 2012 slowed him a bit and he ended the year by connecting on 10 of 16 field goals and 39 of 41 extra points.
There was hope within the USC program that the knee injury would be behind Heidari in 2013 and that he would get back to the form he showed in 2011. With the news that his job will now be open for competition, other candidates will include junior Craig McMahon -- who has 39 kickoffs in his USC career -- and sophomore Alex Wood, who connected on all eight extra points while subbing for the injured Heidari last season in games against Syracuse and Stanford.
“After reviewing the film, there were some outstanding efforts by our guys. ... We felt that the penalties hurt us at the end, and put us in a bad position on third down ... too many penalties and too many mistakes put us in crucial situations.
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The focus of the Trojans’ immediate future will be off the field, not on it. The only thing left to look forward to at this point is the athletic director’s eventual choice of a new head coach.
But on a chilly Saturday night in South Bend, Ind., the Trojans' season quickly plunged back into the depths of mediocrity.
The cold reality is that right now, at this sad point in its history, USC isn’t really USC anymore.
Trojans’ offensive linemen aren’t supposed to get overpowered the way they were by Stephon Tuitt and friends at Notre Dame. USC’s secondary isn’t supposed to be more leaky than your average TMZ report. And USC's overall composure isn’t supposed to wilt the way it did in a penalty-infested fourth quarter in Indiana.
The crumbling of the foundation under Kiffin cannot be immediately repaired by Orgeron’s gifts of cookies and loud music in the locker room. The cracks run too deep. The ensuing holes are about to grow too wide.
The scary part of what happened in South Bend is that Notre Dame is a decent team, but hardly a great one. The Irish already had lost to two opponents ranked outside the Top 10 in Michigan and Oklahoma. And then, with nine minutes left to play in the third quarter on Saturday, they lost starting quarterback Tommy Rees to injury.
When backup Andrew Hendrix entered the game, it was clear coach Brian Kelly’s team wouldn’t score again. All USC had to do was cobble together one touchdown drive, or two field goals, in the final 24 minutes. But the Trojans couldn’t do it and lost, 14-10.
When USC quarterback Cody Kessler wasn’t under fierce pressure, he played like the redshirt freshman he is, appearing tentative after his one interception and limiting himself to check down passes instead of confidently throwing downfield.
It didn’t help that star receiver Marqise Lee, continuing his strange, injury-marred season, dropped a potential touchdown pass in the second quarter, or that slumping kicker Andre Heidari missed two makeable field goals that would have won the game. Or that Silas Redd, the night’s most effective tailback, didn’t seem to get as many carries as he should have in the second half.
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1. Nelson Agholor: Agholor stepped up for the second consecutive game, showcasing the unique playmaking skills that have had USC coaches and fans buzzing about the sophomore receiver’s potential since last season. He hauled in six passes for 89 yards against Notre Dame, while also making a huge impact on special teams, returning four punts for 100 yards. One of those returns, a 48-yarder in the second quarter, set up an Andre Heidari field goal.
2. Silas Redd: For a player who just returned to practice full-time a couple of weeks ago, Redd’s outing was more than impressive. Finishing with 112 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, the senior running back was particularly effective in the first half. Unfortunately for the Trojans, he was left standing on the sidelines for large stretches of time during the final two quarters, his role having been inexplicably diminished.
3. Su’a Cravens: Cravens has been one of the most consistent performers on defense throughout the season -- a trend that continued on Saturday. He came up clutch early when he stopped running back Cam McDaniel on a fourth-down play as the fighting Irish were knocking on the door from inside the USC 1-yard line, and then again in the fourth quarter when he forced a McDaniel fumble and recovered it, returning it to the Notre Dame 34-yard line. Cravens finished with six tackles, including two for a loss.
1. Second-half offensive line play: The Trojans offense had every opportunity to put this game away in the second half, beginning four-straight drives inside the Notre Dame 50-yard line, but they just couldn’t move the ball, and the primary reason was the play up front. When members of the offensive line weren’t committing penalties -- including two crucial holding infractions each by Aundrey Walker and Max Tuerk -- they were being out-muscled by the physical Fighting Irish defensive line. As a whole, USC was flagged 11 times, and offensive coordinator Clay Helton didn’t appear to help matters on this night, executing a game-plan that appeared to be conservative, while also hiding Redd in the second half.
2. USC pass defense: Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, who came into the matchup with USC having completed just 41.7 percent of his passes over his last three games, looked like a world-beater against the Trojans, going 14 of 21 (67 percent) for 166 yards and two touchdowns in just a little over two quarters of play. Tight end Troy Niklas was a particular thorn in the side of the secondary, which struggled tremendously in pass coverage for the third game in a row. The USC defense did improve in the second half, but that likely had more to do with the ineffectiveness of Fighting Irish backup signal-caller Andrew Hendrix than anything else.
3. Andre Heidari: Heidari finished 1 of 3 on field goal attempts, with his two misses serving as the difference between USC and a victory over their intersectional rival. What made those failed attempts -- which both sailed wide-right -- especially disheartening was the fact that each of them were from what most would consider a makeable distance – 40 and 46 yards. Having lost faith in Heidari late, the Trojans completely abandoned the kicking option, choosing instead to go for it on fourth down.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin
Opening statement: “We knew it was a really good team we were going to play. Anytime you have a great player at quarterback (Chuckie Keeton) like they do, it’s going to be hard to take him out of the game. Their defense has played really tough and really physical.”
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LOS ANGELES -- USC was hoping to use the game against Utah State as a way to build some positive momentum, but the 17-14 victory over the Aggies showed that the Trojans still have a long way to go.
Make no mistake, it’s always nice to get the win but this is a game where the Trojans had a huge advantage in field position and also got the usual solid game from the defense. Unfortunately, the USC offense couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities to put the game away in the second half and, if not for some special teams miscues by Utah State, the result could have been very different.
“It was a very hard fought game today,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Very much like what we anticipated. I felt like there was a rhythm early on when we were able to run the ball, but obviously we wanted to finish better in the second half.”
USC started off strong with a Tre Madden touchdown run on the second series of the game to go up 7-0. The Trojans defense put good pressure early on Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton, primarily with defensive linemen Leonard Williams and George Uko as well as outside linebackers Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin. USC dodged a bullet when Utah State clanged a first-quarter field goal off the upright, a miss that would loom large.
The Trojans had their chances with the Aggies playing an eight-man front, leaving the USC receivers against man coverage. Normally, that would spell a big day for Marqise Lee and/or Nelson Agholor, but there were some dropped passes and some pressure on Cody Kessler which prevented the Trojans from capitalizing. Lee ended the day with six catches for 72 yards, while Agholor had two catches for 38 yards. Neither player reached the end zone.
“I missed some throws and we had some drops, but they are things we can fix,” Kessler said. “Thanks for the job our defense did, we were able to come away with the win.”
The USC defense is rapidly becoming known as the side of the ball which will win games for this team. Williams led the team in tackles with eight and added three tackles for loss. Uko had five tackles and a sack, Breslin had two sacks and Kennard added a sack. They did a terrific job of limiting Keeton -- who came into the game completing 78 percent of his passes -- to a rather pedestrian stat line of 21-of-39 passing for 179 yards and a pair of scores. Good numbers to be sure, but not enough to get it done against the Trojans.
“We had a good game plan from Coach O (Orgreon) the whole week,” Uko said. “We just wanted to angle in and rush tight and keep them in the box”
The battle for field position really started to impact the game in the second half, as the Trojans’ average starting field position was the Utah State 45, while Utah State started at its own 16. It didn’t help the Aggies that their punter had a shanked 12-yard kick at the end of the third quarter that led directly to a 25-yard Andre Heidari field goal, which proved to be the winning margin. There was also a strange fake punt from the Aggies on a fourth-and-11 from their own 34-yard line in the fourth quarter, resulting in an incomplete pass from tight end D.J. Tialavea.
If you’re looking for bright spots for the Trojans, look no further than punter Kris Albarado, who pinned five punts inside the Aggies’ 20-yard line to help win the field position battle. Little things like that are big on a day when the two teams are basically even in total yards (285 for USU to 282 for USC).
Madden fell short in his bid for a fourth-straight 100-yard rushing day but did run for 93 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown. Kessler completed 13 of 27 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown, but he was also sacked three times and took several big hits.
Now the Trojans turn their attention to a big road game next week in Tempe against Arizona State. There was hope that things would be clicking after a four-game opening stretch that included three games at home but at this point the offense can best be described as a work in progress. Thankfully the Trojans have their defense, a unit which once again put the team on their shoulders to come away with a tougher-than-expected win.