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November 19, 2010

Oregon State Preview

Game 11: Prophecy Came and We Were Gone, We Would Soon Move From Oregon

USC's final trip outside SoCal is to rainy, cold Corvallis. Can the Trojans whip the downtrodden Beavers?

The AP No. 20 USC Trojans (7-3, 4-3 Pac-10) leave Southern California for the final time in 2010 this Saturday, November 20, to face the Oregon State Beavers (4-5, 3-3) at 5 p.m. (PST) in Corvallis' Reser Stadium and in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the 74th meeting between the two schools, with Troy holding a 59-10-4 edge. The Trojans have won six of the past eight meetings, including a 42-36 victory in the Coliseum a season ago, but have suffered a pair of upset losses to the Beavers in their past two visits to Reser, 33-31 in 2006 (USC was ranked No. 3) and 27-21 in 2008 (the Trojans topped the polls heading in).


A week ago, the Trojans finally knocked off a ranked opponent in 2010, defeating then-No. 18 Arizona, 24-21, in Tucson. The Trojans dominated the Wildcats with their rushing attack, rolling up a massive advantage in time of possession. USC was in control throughout, but failed to pull away and had to survive a late Arizona onside kick after the Cats moved to within three points in the game's final moments. Meanwhile, Oregon State was embarrassed on its home field, 31-14, by Washington State - the Cougars' first conference win in nearly two years. The Beavers' two-game losing streak also includes a last-second field goal loss to UCLA two weeks ago, as Oregon State's offense has stalled since losing wideout James Rodgers to a season-ending knee injury last month.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (14-9 career collegiate head coaching record; 7-3 at USC) is in his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Oregon State headman Mike Riley is in his 10th season in Corvallis (1997-98; 2003-current - 68-52, 42-40 Pac-10). The Beavers have enjoyed unprecedented success under Riley, making six bowl appearances in the past seven seasons and notching the third-most wins in the Pac-10 from 2000-09.

Oregon State Offense
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has seen a promising offense early in the season struggle mightily for consistency, especially since James Rodgers went down in the Beavers' win at Arizona on Oct. 9. Oregon ranks in the lower half of the Pac-10 in nearly every offensive category, averaging just 331 total yards (No. 92 nationally) and 26 points (No. 65 nationally). Part of the problem has been the up-and-down performance of first-year starting QB Ryan Katz, a sophomore, who's been stellar at times, but looked like a first-year guy at key points (he was even benched for a series against WSU last week). He's completed 60 percent of his passes, with 14 TDs against just five interceptions, but his inconsistency downfield and the fact that he's been under plenty of pressure (OSU has allowed 25 sacks, next to last in the Pac-10) have undermined his performance.

When James Rodgers was lost, he was ranked sixth nationally in all-purpose yards and punt returns and No. 18 nationally in kickoff returns. He was a threat catching the ball (16 receptions) and rushing on flanker sweeps (nearly five yards per carry). In his stead, sophomore Markus Wheaton has become the leader of the Beavers' receiving corps, with 35 grabs (three TDs) and a 7.5 yards per carry average on what have become split-end sweeps. Junior tight end/H-back Joe Halahuni should be a familiar name to Trojan fans as he absolutely torched USC last year in L.A. He has 26 catches, including a team-leading five touchdowns. Senior flanker Aaron Nichols has added 22 catches as a possession receiver, while sophomore slot receiver Jordan Bishop has 14 catches.

Junior tailback (and James' younger brother) Jacquizz Rodgers is Oregon State's undisputed offensive star and is having another strong season, totaling 893 yards rushing (13 TDs) and 28 receptions (two TDs) - a virtual one-man whirling dervish of quickness and toughness. He's averaging just less than five yards per carry. The Beavers' two other tailbacks have totaled six carries all season, and the "starting" fullback, junior Will Darkins, is a starter in name only in an offense that favors a single-back set the vast majority of the time.

An experienced offensive line has struggled more than expected in 2010, when you consider the aforementioned sacks allowed and the fact that Jacquizz Rodgers' per-carry average is off from 2008 and 2009. Still, it's a good group that's combined to make every start but one in 2010. Sophomore LT Michael Philipp was out of the starting lineup in game one (senior Wilder McAndrews replaced him) but has started every game since, along with junior LG Grant Johnson, senior center Alex Linnenkohl, junior RG Burke Ellis and junior RT Mike Remmers.

Oregon State Defense
Like his offensive counterpart Langsdorf, defensive coordinator Mark Banker has seen his group struggle to maintain consistency, even with a group that has generally avoided injury and had plenty of time to gel. It's a junior- and senior-laden group (just one starter on this week's two-deep is an underclassman), but the Beavers have been gashed for more than 408 yards per game (169 on the ground) and allowed nearly 27 points per contest, again falling in the bottom half of the Pac-10 rankings in nearly every category. The Beavers do have 25 sacks (tied for 14th nationally) and have forced 16 turnovers (notching a +1.0 turnover margin, ranked eighth nationally).

Up front, Oregon State's leader is senior defensive tackle Stephen Paea, a formidable run stuffer who is also tied for the team lead with four sacks. He's joined in the middle by junior Kevin Frahm, who made his first start of 2010 last weekend after previous starter Brennan Olander suffered a pectoral injury at UCLA (he's out indefinitely). Frahm has 19 stops and two sacks, but the loss of Olander really left the tackle rotation short of experience. At end, senior Gabe Miller is the top tackler on the line with 40 stops, 6.5 for loss (including four sacks). At the other end, junior Dominic Glover and sophomore Taylor Henry have split time. They've combined for 52 stops and 10 tackles for loss.


As usual, the Beaver linebackers are a solid and active group. Senior weakside linebacker Dwight Roberson is Oregon State's leading tackler with 69, and he has 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Obviously, to call him a key playmaker is an understatement. On the strong side, senior Keith Pankey is an emotional leader for the Beavers, and he's third on the team with 55 stops. The weakest link is perhaps in the middle, where sophomores Rueben Robinson and Tony Wilson have split time, combining for 62 tackles. Junior Cameron Collins (30 tackles) is a key reserve at both outside spots.

The Beaver secondary has featured the same four starters each week of 2010: cornerbacks James Dockery, a senior, and Brandon Hardin, a junior; and junior Lance Mitchell and senior Suaesi Tuimaunei at the safety spots. Tuimaunei is second on the team with 61 tackles, while Mitchell has 55 (including a stellar 18-stop game against TCU) and two interceptions. Dockery leads Oregon State with four picks, and has 43 tackles, while Hardin has notched 41 stops. Sophomore Jordan Poyer sees the most time of the reserves when the Beavers go to the nickel.

Oregon State Special Teams
Senior placekicker Justin Kahut has had a season to forget, making just three of seven field goal attempts and notching just a single touchback in 63 kickoffs. Junior punter Johnny Hekker averages 41 yards per boot. Since the loss of James Rodgers, Poyer has done a fine job on kickoff returns, averaging nearly 27 yards per opportunity. He's been less of a gamebreaker with punts, averaging nine yards in eight chances.

USC Offensive Gameplan
For the fourth consecutive week, the Trojans dominated time of possession, holding the ball for a season-high 37:27 at Arizona. Clearly, with USC's defensive deficiencies, the Trojan brain trust has put a premium on ball control - last week even at the expense of taking a couple shots at notching a game-sealing touchdown. Marc Tyler's 31-carry, 160-yard performance called to mind USC tailbacks of yore pounding away at opposing defenses, while Matt Barkley had an efficient performance and ran the offense at just the pace Lane Kiffin wanted.

Against a struggling Oregon State defense that, incidentally, has been unable to get off the field in its two recent losses (UCLA and Washington State combined to average nearly 38 minutes of possession), more of the same appears to be in order - especially with bitter cold, rain and even the possibility of snow in the forecast. With a treacherous field, though, USC cannot rely on its field goal unit and must do more to finish drives with touchdowns.

Look for USC to continue to try to pound the football early and often, and even to use the passing game in a ball control manner - quick outs, flanker screens, etc. However, I also expect the Trojans to look for a big play or two on play action that could help build an early lead - or unlike a week ago - put the finishing touches on the game. USC must use the Beavers' aggressiveness (especially at the linebacker spot) against them to keep drives alive and avoid big turnovers. In their losses, Oregon State has allowed opponents to convert on 55 percent of third downs.

USC Defensive Gameplan
USC's defense stymied the Arizona rushing attack, allowing just 51 yards on the ground, and put the Wildcats in repeated third-and-long situations. However, Arizona repeatedly connected on those, notching 11 conversions in 16 third-down opportunities, consistently carving up the middle of the field at the expense, most notably, of cornerback Torin Harris. Two key turnovers forced by Shareece Wright and Malcolm Smith were game changers, and USC did a nice job keeping Arizona off the scoreboard for the first 29 minutes of the second half.

Turnovers may be hard to come by against the Beavers. Oregon State has lost two fumbles all season (both last week against Washington State) and had only five passes intercepted. But Katz has been on the run much of the season, and bringing the heat on him will be crucial - especially considering how Halahuni dominated the middle of the Trojan defense a season ago.


However, keys No. 1, 2 and 3 are: slow Jacquizz Rodgers on the ground; slow Jacquizz Rodgers as a receiver; and slow Jacquizz Rodgers on the ground. Since losing James Rodgers, every OSU opponent has stuck to that gameplan in an effort to force the young and mercurial Katz to beat them. In those four games, the Beavers have averaged less than four yards per rush, and Katz has struggled more with each passing week. With USC's secondary, putting the game in the hands of the opponent's passing attack is a gamble, but the Beavers' only big playmaker is Jacquizz Rodgers. Time to roll the dice.

The Pick
Lane Kiffin made mention this week that this game is a "trap" game for the Trojans. I could not agree more. Which Oregon State team do you think will show up? The one that beat Arizona on the road and dominated Washington and Cal, or the one that looked brutal the past two weekends? After years of watching USC football, it's foolish for anyone to think that the Trojans will get any less than the best effort from any opponent. While the Beavers are struggling, I fully expect them to put on a much better showing than they have the past two weeks.

Another reason this is a trap game: look at the next two weeks of the schedule. The week before rivalry games is always ripe for a letdown. One more reason: the Trojans finally got over the hump against a ranked opponent last weekend, a big win for this team. And a final reason: a road trip to dank, wet and cold Corvallis is less than inspiring.

However, Lane Kiffin has done a great job keeping this Trojan team motivated throughout one of the most difficult seasons - on and off the field - in the storied history of USC football. What are this week's likely motivators? One last big road trip, one last chance to silence a truly hostile road crowd. A chance to halt a two-game losing skid in Corvallis. A chance to win 10 games in a non-bowl season, and a chance to finish 2010 on a winning streak. Oh, and don't forget what Barkley said this week - a chance to play for the Cardinal-and-Gold. The Trojans should have enough motivation - and definitely have the manpower - to finish off a shaken Oregon State squad.

USC 29, Oregon State 17

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. You can follow him at https://twitter.com/THrants or he can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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