The Donte Williams era at USC got off to an interesting start this past Saturday against Washington State. An injury to starting quarterback Kedon Slovis contributed to the Trojans trailing the Cougars by 14 points or more for the first time since 2001. That just set the stage for Jaxson Dart, who entered the game and promptly torched Washington State's defense as USC would go on to overwhelm the Cougars 45-14.
Of course, it wouldn’t be USC if the positives weren’t accompanied by a negative. As well as Dart played, he also tore his meniscus and underwent surgery earlier this week. He is out indefinitely, which means that Slovis will remain the starter as long as he's healthy.
Next up for the Trojans is a Saturday night visit from Oregon State. This will be the first conference game for the Beavers, who have won two in a row since dropping their opener on the road against Purdue. Oregon State is making strides under head coach Jonathan Smith and will try to snap a four-game losing streak to the Trojans.
Oregon State at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -10.5
When Oregon State Has the Ball
The Beavers enter this game with better offensive statistics than USC, thanks to the emergence of running back B.J. Baylor. After seeing limited action behind Jermar Jefferson, who is now with the Detroit Lions, Baylor has made the most of his increased opportunities. Baylor enters this game second in rushing with 264 yards while his seven touchdowns pace the conference.
Chance Nolan also has made the most of his opportunities since taking over at quarterback for initial starter Sam Noyer. Nolan, a former junior college transfer, replaced an ineffective Noyer in the opener against Purdue and hasn't looked back. Nolan carved up both Hawaii and FCS opponent Idaho, throwing five touchdowns with no interceptions, and will look to continue that success against a Trojans defense that's giving up nearly 300 passing yards per game.
Speaking of defense, USC's looked absolutely shook last week against Washington State early until the switch flipped. The secondary continues to be a work in progress, but the front seven has been solid for the most part and features several players capable of turning a game on its head. That's exactly what happened near the end of the third quarter when Drake Jackson sacked Cougars quarterback Victor Gabalis in the end zone and caused a fumble that Tuli Tuipulotu recovered for a touchdown.
The Trojans' focus will be on slowing down Baylor to try and force Nolan to beat them through the air. Purdue limited Baylor to just 24 yards on nine carries and held Oregon State to 78 total rushing yards in the Beavers' season-opening 30-21 loss.
When USC Has the Ball
Dart's breakthrough performance in relief of Slovis could have resulted in a potential quarterback controversy for Williams and the staff. Instead, Dart's injury and subsequent surgery mean that Slovis will remain the starter, assuming he's able to return from the neck injury he suffered against Washington State. Dart's mobility and arm strength gave USC's offense a different look and offered fans a glimpse of the future, but the immediate focus needs to be on doing whatever is necessary to help Slovis rediscover his groove.
Quarterback concerns aside, the Trojans' running game simply has to improve. At this point, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell needs to be held accountable for USC’s inability to run the football in critical moments. It’s gone on long enough and it really does hurt the Trojans' chances of winning when they can’t get the run game going. This issue has been beaten to death, but each week this team seems to find a new way to do so poorly on the ground that it comes up again the following week. What needs to be changed is up for debate, but improvement may not be coming right away considering Oregon State is second in the Pac-12 in rushing defense at 95 yards allowed per game.
It seems that it would make more sense for USC to try and attack the Beavers through the air, especially considering the success the Trojans had last week with Dart throwing for 391 yards and four touchdowns. Slovis would certainly be wise to look for Drake London early and often after his big game (13 rec., 170 yds., 2 TDs) against the Cougars.
Oregon State hasn't beaten USC toppling Matt Barkley and Co. 36-7 in 2010. Why bring up that loss? Because it really does feel like Oregon State is overdue for a victory against USC, even though such a thing does not really exist within statistics. If the Beavers were going to beat the Trojans, it certainly feels like this could be the year. That doesn't mean it will happen, but I don't think anybody would be shocked if USC lost at home on Saturday night.
Prediction: USC 38, Oregon State 23
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— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.