Saturday's Pac-12 matchup in Corvallis between USC and Oregon State features teams experiencing a bit of a role reversal. Just as soon as the Trojans seemingly got things headed in the right direction, it's all come to a crashing halt with back-to-back losses to Utah and Arizona State. Meanwhile, the Beavers are riding high after their 41-34 overtime victory at Colorado, which snapped a 13-game conference losing streak.
For USC (4-4, 3-3 Pac-12), as disappointing as the 41-28 loss two weeks ago to Utah was, the 38-35 setback to the Sun Devils was even more so, if not discouraging, because of where (the loss ended a 19-game home winning streak) and how it happened. The Trojans only lost by three, but the score doesn't tell the true story as the Men of Troy were out-coached, out-physicaled, and out-worked by Arizona State.
USC was without starting quarterback JT Daniels (and backup Matt Fink), and injuries have been an issue on both side of the ball, but third-stringer Jack Sears acquitted himself well given the circumstances. The injuries aren't the only thing that ails the Trojans, however, as the offense has been inconsistent overall and has really struggled against conference opponents, while penalties and a general lack of discipline on both sides of the ball have plagued this team throughout the season.
With USC at a crossroads, head coach Clay Helton announced some changes to his staff. Offensive line coach Neil Callaway was fired and offensive coordinator Tee Martin was relieved of his play-calling duties. Running backs coach Tim Drevno will replace Callaway while Helton will take over calling the plays. Whether either change sparks the Trojans remains to be seen, but it's no secret that Helton himself also is on the hot seat. With word coming out on Tuesday that Helton is interested in calling plays beyond the rest of the 2018 season, the potential discontent with Martin will be something to follow in the weeks to come.
On the other side, Oregon State enters this game feeling good and with little to no fear. The Beavers came back from a 31-3 third-quarter deficit and survived their own missed extra point that would have won it late in regulation, but in the end they did what was necessary to get the victory. The win marked the third-largest comeback in Pac-12 history, snapped a 22-game road losing streak for Oregon State, and gives first-year head coach Jonathan Smith and his team confidence as they enter the final month of the season.
This is definitely a trap game for USC with Cal, Notre Dame and UCLA remaining on the schedule. The Trojans will be heavily favored and should win this game, as there will be calls to fire Helton and the rest of his staff if they lose it; but don't expect the Beavers to just roll over let USC find its footing on their home turf.
USC at Oregon State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 3 at 10 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -14
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Clay Helton improve upon USC’s offense as primary play-caller?
Despite the fact that Helton removed Tee Martin as the primary play-caller and will replace him in that role, he remained on staff as the wide receivers coach and will assist in the game planning on a week-to-week basis. How this strategy will work out remains to be seen. Helton may be no better at play-calling than the man he hired to do the job. Either way, it’s always curious when schools choose to neuter a coordinator’s ability to do their job rather than outright firing them. This isn’t to suggest that Martin should be fired, just that it’s curious that they chose to take away his primary duties but kept him on staff. It’s like hiring a driver and then taking away their license.
Jack Sears was really hampered by a limited playbook early in last week's game against Arizona State. As such, it really made it difficult for him and the USC offense to find any sort of rhythm. Once the coaching staff began to trust Sears’ ability to make good decisions, the play book opened up a little more and the Trojans moved the ball relatively easily. Once Sears got outside the pocket where he could use his legs a little more, he became a handful for the Sun Devils defense. Had USC trusted him a little earlier, who knows what could have happened?
The Trojans need to find some spark on offense and if Helton can deliver that then maybe this offense will be able to fully capitalize on the talent and potential that exists on that side of the ball. Regardless of who is at quarterback, the first step is to put together an effective game plan that utilizes the strengths of their playmakers. Instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, the coaching staff should allow these naturally gifted young men to do what they do best by scheming around their individual talents.
Sears reminds a bit of Mark Sanchez, and how he was at his best when he escaped the pocked, bought extra time, and allowed his wide receivers with superior talent time to gain an advantage over their defender. Hopefully Helton shows a degree of trust in his quarterbacks that Martin seemed to lack.
2. Beavers need to build on last week's performance
Jake Luton didn’t start last week against Colorado, but once he entered the game for an ineffective Jack Colletto, he was fantastic. Luton finished the game with 310 passing yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers. Luton, who was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week, will get the start against USC even though he's still dealing with an ankle injury.
Knowing that it will be Luton under center, USC will have to find a way to shut down his connection to Isaiah Hodgins, who had 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns last week. He's not quite N'Keal Harry but the Trojans need to be aware of Hodgins' abilities because he is the type of guy that can disrupt defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's plans.
There's also the one-man dynamo that is Jermar Jefferson, who is the Pac-12's leading rusher (and third in the FBS) with 1,034 yards. Given that Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin had 185 yards last week against USC, the Trojans better account for Jefferson, who is tied for fourth nationally with 12 rushing touchdowns. Similar to the Sun Devils, Oregon State has a quarterback, running back and wide receiver capable of making plays and giving opposing defenses fits.
3. The penalties have to stop
It is staggering how undisciplined the Trojans are as a football team. USC managed to keep it under 100 penalty yards last week, but still averaged more than 10 yards per penalty assessed (seven for 73 yards). The Trojans are not just the worst team in the Pac-12 when it comes to penalty yards per game, they rank 123rd nationally at 80.25. That's nearly the length of a football field that USC is spotting opponents every game.
The personal fouls are another problem for the Trojans. When they do commit penalties, they’re often getting nailed for 10 or more yards. Unsportsmanlike conduct flags have become common place for this team. Late hits, holding, targeting fouls and other silly and pointless self-inflicted mistakes have become staples of a defense that isn't exactly shutting down opponents in the first place. It’s hard to win games when you gift the opposition so many free yards or extra downs on top of those you are surrendering when no flag is thrown.
Oregon State also has issues with penalties at least from a yards standpoint , The Beaver are ninth in the conference at 61 penalty yards per game. They were the worst team earlier in the season, but USC has gone out of its way to take that title from them. Technically Arizona is the most penalized team in the Pac-12 with 69 (nice!), but USC is tied with the Wildcats at 642 penalty yards and has played one fewer game (eight vs. nine).
There is nothing about USC that screams consistency. The coaching leaves much to be desired, the play execution leaves much to be desired, the discipline leaves... you get the idea. This is a team that goes out of its way to keep opponents in the game. The stunning amount of yardage USC forfeits every week alone on penalties keep teams like Arizona State in the game. Good teams capitalize on these types of mistakes and the Sun Devils showed that the Trojans can be beaten if you punch them in the mouth and play without fear. Oregon State showed last week in its come-from-behind win at Colorado that it still has plenty of fight left and won't roll over for any team.
The Beavers have their own issues, to be sure, but they enter this game riding on the type of a high needed to upset a team like the Trojans. They also possess a bevy of weapons more than capable of conducting their all-out offensive assault on the Trojans. Head coach Jonathan Smith played at Oregon State, understands the culture of what it means to be a Beaver, and has the offensive chops to get this team where it needs to be to compete week in and week out. Some may disagree, but this team has the stuff to upset USC on Saturday. It’s just a question of everything coming together and playing a complete game.
USC should get JT Daniels back at quarterback. How Daniels fares with head coach Clay Helton calling the plays will be everyone's focus, but don't overlook the fact that this is a hungry team looking to make a statement after a tough loss. The Trojans enter this game at a bit of a crossroads and need to rebound in a huge way or the final month of the regular season could be a struggle. In fact, a loss Saturday and USC is staring down the barrel of a losing season. As it stands, one could argue that Oregon State has already exceeded expectations. Either way, the Trojans should be able to take care of business in Corvallis.
Prediction: USC 49, Oregon State 10
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.