The USC Trojans have lifted the monkey off their back, defeating the Oregon State Beavers, 35-10, two weeks after dropping a horrendous contest to the Boston College Eagles, who have since lost to Colorado State. Players talked all week about getting back out there and having fun again, and the Trojans did just that -- but it took a little while to get the party started at the Coliseum.
What changed you may ask? Players understand the formula of staying hungry and playing with absolute focus during this three-game stretch of strong Pac-12 foes.
"Just getting back to the basics and playing SC Football," said sophomore Su'a Cravens. "We came in here not worrying about the other team, but focusing on ourselves."
The Secondary's Cooking
As the nation's only squad yet to allow a passing touchdown, the Trojans were arguably put to their toughest test against the Oregon State Beavers. Senior quarterback Sean Mannion struggled to find his rhythm all night long, throwing for just 123 yards (a career low in a start) on 15-of-32 passing. Without the likes of former All-Conference wideout Brandin Cooks (Saints) and injured Victor Bolden (broken finger), Oregon State couldn't get anything going. The Trojans showcased a blend of physical, elusive and ball-hawking cornerback play against a strong group of enormous tight ends.
Highlighted by an incredible tipped interception featuring Adoree' Jackson perfectly knocking the ball away from intended receiver Jordan Villamin, then flipping it back to Leon McQuay III, who stayed in bounds for the catch, this unit can really play the football in the air.
Resurrecting memories of Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, who led the Trojans out of the tunnel along with Seattle Seahawks' teammate Mike Morgan, the secondary held its own in coverage against a formidable Oregon State offense. Bravo coach Heyward, excellent work.
Kessler The Distributor
In another normal, mundane start filled with solid accomplishments, quarterback Cody Kessler continued to spread out the rock while not turning the football over. Joining Marcus Mariota as one of two quarterbacks to throw for 1,000 yards, 10 TD and 0 INT this season, Kessler is building quite the reputation among the Pac-12.
Not only did Kessler move the football on third down, converting 7-of-17 attempts when he was under center, he passed the ball to his tight ends on four occasions after keeping the play alive with his feet. While his most memorable play may have come on the 48-yard Hail Mary Full of Grace Darreus Rogers save the day, the rest of his performance was right up to par with what we've come to expect from one confident quarterback.
Admittingly the first half was a struggle, but thanks in large part to a great defensive performance and the Trojans' ability to win on first and second down in the next half, Cody Kessler found his groove picking apart the Oregon State pass defense on the perimeter. The strangest part, or greatest blessing for the long-term aspirations of the passing game, was that Nelson Agholor (USC's best wideout) only had three catches all night.
Beast Mode Su'a Cravens
Highlighted by an instinctual pick-six, sparking an otherwise lackluster first half offense, Su'a Cravens epitomized the hard-hitting, free-flowing, confident swagger of USC's play against Oregon State. Holding the Stanford game in close company, this was Cravens' best, and most impactful game as a Trojan.
Cravens led the defense with six tackles, two of which were for loss (15 total yards), had the all-important interception and sacked Sean Mannion once on an overall dominant night. After struggling to cover the read-option against Boston College, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox shifted the tables on Cravens allowing him more flexibility to do what he does best, get after the quarterback and shut down the inside rushing attack.
The "Dollar" role made fans salivate earlier in the season, but it has become clear that the Trojans are a much more solid defense when sophomore Su'a Cravens can roam the line of scrimmage as a ball-hawking playmaker.
The quick-firing Cravens made the Beavers life miserable in the backfield, complementing a solid pass rush up the middle. When Cravens can impact a game like he did Saturday night, with Trojan nation anxiously awaiting a breakout performance from the defense, USC can really hang their hat on dominating one side of the ball.
Running The Rock
After being highly criticized for pounding the rock to little success, the Trojans stuck with the running game after struggling right from the start. USC pushed the football forward 48 times for 200 yards. While the average was just over four yards per carry, the persistent attack allowed Buck Allen (20 for 115) and Justin Davis (15 for 82) to control the second half wearing down Oregon State's rush defense.
It was really promising to see Justin Davis pound the football, especially with his quick feet and strong running ability, provide a nice spark to complement the versatile Buck Allen. Speaking of Allen, Buck led the Trojans with five receptions as an all-too-familiar safety blanket for Cody Kessler in the passing game.
The Trojans faced a physical Oregon State front, but the second-half adjustments allowed USC to overcome a first half filled with weird false start penalties and somewhat questionable play calling. Tre Madden did not suit up again, but this rushing attack might be set to overcome the short-term loss with Davis, Allen and fullback Soma Vainuku pounding the rock.
Freshmen Come Full Circle
Highly regarded for his ability to break open across the middle through much of Fall Camp, the Trojans finally got a chance to see what Ajene Harris could do as a wide receiver. He provided another dimension to the Trojans third-down passing game, catching three balls for 30 yards, sliding his way in and out of coverage. The only real knock was when the former high school quarterback fired a double pass with a just tad too much mustard across the field, sailing high and just out of bounds for his intended target.
Viane Talamaivao was solid on the offensive line, and Toa Lobendahn (despite some early penalties) provided great pass protection in the second half. As we've come to expect, Adoree' Jackson was special in the backend and JuJu Smith returned to the Coliseum, following a record-setting first home game, emerging back into the fold.
And one of the biggest catches of the night came from tight end Bryce Dixon on a seam route up the middle. Dixon leaped over the defender to snag the ball at its highest point and came down in traffic with a 31-yard reception