September 23, 2008

Game 3: Breaking Down the Dam

After obliterating Ohio State on a national stage, USC travels to face another OSU in the Pac-10 opener. The question is: Can the Beavers pull off another shocker against Troy?

The No. 1-ranked USC Trojans (2-0) open their 2008 Pac-10 schedule Thursday, September 25, against the Oregon State Beavers at 6 p.m. (PDT) in Corvallis' Reser Stadium and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It is the 72nd meeting between the Trojans and Beavers, with USC holding a commanding 58-9-4 edge. USC pulverized Oregon State with a dominant defensive effort, 24-3, in Los Angeles last Nov. 3. However, when the Trojans last visited Reser Stadium, it was the Beavers who pulled off a stunning 33-31 upset of an undefeated, third-ranked USC team in 2006.

Both teams enjoyed a bye last weekend after overwhelming victories on Sept. 13 - the Trojans rode Mark Sanchez's four touchdown passes and a stellar defensive effort to a 35-3 demolition of then No. 5 Ohio State at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, while the Beavers used true freshman running back Jacquizz Rodgers' 110 yards and two scores to a 45-7 victory over Hawaii in Oregon State's home opener.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season at USC (78-14, 49-9 in the Pac-10) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Oregon State headman Mike Riley (48-40) is in his eighth season in Corvallis (1997-98, 2003-current). Riley's teams have qualified for (and won) bowls in four of the past five seasons, and have won more Pac-10 games the past two seasons than anyone not known by the initials USC. However, a young front seven on defense, along with an inability to produce a consistent rushing attack thus far has the Beavers off to yet another slow start, with road losses to Stanford and Penn State preceding the win over Hawaii.

Oregon State Offense
The Beavers, under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, remain a three-receiver, single-back attack. However, with a green group at running back trying to fill the shoes of the accomplished, but graduated, Yvenson Bernard, more pressure has been placed on junior quarterback Lyle Moevao. Moevao is 5-2 in seven starts since taking over for Sean Canfield, who was injured in the USC game last season. Moevao is a more mobile quarterback, and he's thrown for 922 yards and six TDs so far in 2008. He's also tossed four interceptions, while completing more than 61 percent of his passes. Canfield, who's been slow to recover from the shoulder injury, began throwing recently, but his return is unlikely with Moevao taking on a leadership role for the Beavers.

Seniors Sammie Stroughter and Shane Morales have been fantastic thus far. Stroughter, who battled personal problems and injuries before deciding to sit out the 2007 campaign, has come back as strong as the player who was a force for the Beavers in 2006. He has caught 21 passes for an average of 12.1 yards and three scores so far. Morales, has one-upped him from the slot position, with 22 grabs (12.9 yards per) and two scores. Sophomore James Rodgers, older brother of frosh RB Jacquizz, has picked up where he left off in 2007 as a dual threat. He's caught 13 passes, including a touchdown, and has rushed off the Beavers' favored flanker sweep 10 times for 70 yards. Sophomore Darrell Catchings and senior Chris Johnson are decent reserves. John Reese and Brady Camp are pass-catching options from the TE/H-back spots, while junior Howard Croom is a solid blocking tight end.

After a pair of anemic efforts left the Beavers averaging 89 yards per game on the ground, small-but-quick freshman Jacquizz Rodgers broke free for 110 yards against Hawaii, and the Beavers totaled 229 rushing yards overall against the Rainbow Warriors. Rodgers has taken the mantle as top rusher immediately at OSU, carrying 62 times in the first three games, and averaging more than 80 yards per outing. Redshirt freshman Ryan McCants is next in line, and is averaging more than 5.3 yards-per-carry on 22 attempts.

The left side of the Beaver front-five is solid, with seniors Andy Levitre (LT) and Adam Speer (LG) combining for 43 career starts between them. Sophomore center Alex Linnenkohl is green - making just his fourth start - but has performed reasonably well for a new line captain. The right side of the line has struggled, with junior Gregg Peat still subbing for senior Jeremy Perry at RG. Perry was a big-time pro prospect before injuring his knee in 2007 and has yet to make it all the way back. His return would be a huge boost for the Beavers. Redshirt freshman Mike Remmers has struggled a bit at right tackle, expected for someone with little experience at the top level of college football. Oregon State has allowed four sacks, and can only hope the rushing attack's performance against Hawaii was a sign of things to come.

Oregon State Defense
On the other side of the ball, the Beavers' attacking 4-3 defense is undergoing one of its most strenuous tests of the past decade. Ever since Oregon State's resurgence began about a decade ago, followers of Pac-10 football have almost always been able to count on the Beavers to have a solid-to-stellar defense. But defensive coordinator Mark Banker's group had to replace its entire starting front seven this season, and has suffered the expected growing pains, especially against the run. While the Beavers held pass happy Hawaii to 57 yards on the ground, Stanford and Penn State ran all over the Beavers, averaging nearly 225 yards on the ground in those two games. A more veteran secondary has played well, but the Beavers have forced just four turnovers in three games and have recorded just four sacks.

Up front, Oregon State is blessed with a pair of experienced - if not prior starters - defensive ends in seniors Slade Norris and Victor Butler. The duo teamed for nearly 20 sacks in 2007, but has only one between them so far in 2008. The Beavers' depth at end remains generally untested as Norris and Butler get the lion's share of snaps. Inside, senior Pernnell Booth, sophomores Stephen Paea and Brennan Olander, and junior Latu Moala appear to be in a rotation at the two tackle spots. Not one has distinguished himself as yet.

After years of pushing through one solid linebacker prospect after another on to the NFL, the Beavers are a little lighter in the talent category here this season. Still, while untested, this is a solid, workmanlike group. MLB Bryant Cornell, a senior, has 13 stops, while strong-side junior Keaton Kristick has 15 and sophomore Keith Pankey has picked up 11 on the weak side. None are what you'd call athletic freaks, but if they can get a little more support from the foursome in front, they can be a solid group. Two reserves at the outside spots, sophomore Dwight Roberson and senior Isaiah Cook, are also in the rotation. Roberson forced two fumbles at Penn State, while Trojan fans will recall Cook for his two fumble recoveries in the 2006 loss at OSU.

The secondary features the Beavers' three returning defensive starters - senior cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Brandon Hughes, and senior strong safety Al Aflava. Aflava has come on strong since sitting out the opener, but fellow senior and lone new starter, free safety Greg Laybourn, has established himself by leading Oregon State with 25 tackles, an interception and fumble recovery. Junior Tim Clark and redshirt freshman Lance Mitchell may see time in nickel formations, while sophomore Suasei Tuimaunei filled in admirably for Aflava, notching five tackles in the opener at Stanford.

Oregon State Special Teams
Sophomore kicker Justin Kahut has struggled in his first year as the Beavers' placekicker. He's 3-of-6 on field goals and has missed all three attempts longer than 32 yards. He's also handling most kickoffs, but has failed to notch a touchback in 13 tries. Freshman punter Johnny Hekker has struggled as well, averaging just 31.3 yards on nine efforts so far. The news is better on the return side as the dangerous Stroughter (who had a 70-yard TD punt return against USC in 2006) is averaging more than 12 yards per punt return, including a 43-yarder against Hawaii. James Rodgers is averaging 24 yards on 12 kickoff returns, while junior Patrick Henderson is averaging 33 yards in just two tries.

USC Offensive Gameplan
In two games, Sanchez has gone from a question mark as the new full-time starting quarterback battling a knee injury to a Heisman Trophy candidate. His four touchdown passes against Ohio State each showed off a different facet of his skillset, and his leadership skills have become apparent through his drive to battle back from injury and, even, his willingness to block for Trojan ball carriers.

Sanchez has been helped by an ever-growing cast of playmakers - 10 different Trojans have scored offensive touchdowns in two games, with only wideout Damian Williams accounting for more than one score. At the same time, Joe McKnight has made it clear that - barring injury or more migraine headaches - he plans on being a major force for the Trojans this season. He's averaging more than nine yards per carry and is a constant threat in the running or passing game.

Against Oregon State's green front seven, I expect the Trojans to, again use the pass first to establish the run. The Beavers have struggled to get a consistent pass rush and may have to sell out their linebackers to try to create one. USC can also expose the Beavers' linebackers in the passing attack, using clear-out patterns for short passes over the middle, as well as seam routes through the heart of the Beaver defense. At the same time, expect the Trojans stable of tailbacks to put the Beavers' so-far questionable run defense to the test. Stanford and Penn State ran all over Oregon State - and neither has the offensive line or running back talent of USC.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Facing the Oregon State offense is always an interesting challenge, but it's one that USC, under Carroll, has been up to in most seasons. The Beavers love to spread out defenses, hit their trio of receivers - especially slot man Morales - on various mid-length patterns, and then hit you with misdirection (draws, traps, screens) with their running backs. They also love using the flanker sweep with James Rodgers - either as a decoy to cut Jacquizz Rodgers loose from the RB spot, or to try to bust James Rodgers to the outside.

Moevao presents a bigger challenge to USC than Canfield did a year ago. He's a more physical quarterback and is more mobile than Canfield - at least in his maneuverability around the pocket. His completion percentage is actually quite respectable for a quarterback in the Oregon State system, and he's been able to utilize the array of weapons in his offense well - when they don't make mistakes. In the first two games, the Beavers were -4 in turnovers, before playing a little takeaway from Hawaii. If OSU is to have a chance to pull off the upset, they cannot have interceptions or fumbles from their offense.

The problem there is that USC's defense looks like it's back to the old ballhawking ways of USC teams from 2002-05 that consistently ranked at or near the top of national rankings in turnovers forced and turnover margin. USC has seen the Oregon State offense before and knows that if it can slow down the Beavers' trickeration-filled rushing attack, it'll eventually put serious heat on Moevao. The Trojans will get after the Beaver QB early and often, looking to put him into the ground or force bad decisions. This will be the first serious test for USC's secondary in 2008. How it performs is likely to decide whether the Beavers have any chance on Thursday night.

The Pick
After the pair of season opening victories vaulted the Trojans into the media hype stratosphere they enjoyed through much of 2004-05, it appears USC's biggest foes at this point are a loss of focus and the potential injury bug. Still, the Trojans have traditionally struggled in their conference road opener under Carroll - and a hungry Beaver team in a Thursday night setting on national TV will be emotionally primed for the upset opportunity.

Will it be a 2006 déjà vu for the Trojans? Well, that's one of the things actually working against the Beavers. If a loss of focus is one of the things other teams will be counting on to have a shot against USC, the Trojans' loss in Corvallis two years ago should help ensure that they are primed and ready. At the same time, Carroll has been expert at selling the team the idea that a Thursday night outing presents a special national stage for the Trojans to shine on.

After the Beavers have expended the initial emotion that comes with facing the No. 1 team, do they have enough to hang with USC? Offensively, Oregon State could have some success in spots - but not nearly enough to make up for what the Trojans should be able to inflict on its defense. Expect another stellar performance from Sanchez, McKnight and Co. - and another resounding Trojan victory.

USC 41, Oregon State 13

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight 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. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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