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October 25, 2013

USC vs. Utah Game Preview

Game 8: 'I Need a Remedy for What Is Ailing Me'

The Trojans return home to host Utah on Saturday. But the biggest question on most USC fans' minds is 'Where do we go from here?' I've got a few ideas.

The USC Trojans (4-3, 1-2 Pac-12 South) jump back into the heart of their Pac-12 schedule, facing the Utah Utes (4-3, 1-3) on Saturday, October 26 at 1 p.m. PDT at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Pac-12 Network cable television audience. It's the 12th meeting between the two schools, with the Trojans holding an 8-3 edge, including wins both contests since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011 - a 23-14 victory at the Coliseum two years ago and a come-from-behind 38-28 decision in Salt Lake City in 2012.

Last Saturday, the Trojans lived a nightmare of injuries and incompetence in a sloppy 14-10 defeat at the hands of rival Notre Dame. The Trojans and Irish both posted all of their points in the first half, before an injury to ND quarterback Tommy Rees helped USC stifle the Irish offense. However, Troy lost more than its share of players during the game, including a reinjured Marqise Lee and second-leading rusher Justin Davis, while committing a series of key penalties on offense that negated consistently great field position. Meanwhile, the Utes struggled early (and late) in a tough 35-24 loss at Arizona. Utah lost quarterback Travis Wilson to a hand injury in the second quarter, but reserve QB Adam Schulz helped put the Utes up 21-20 in the third quarter before the Cats stormed back.

Interim coach Ed Orgeron, who was in his 11th season as a USC assistant (1998-2004; 2010-13), spent three years as a head coach at Mississippi (2005-07), notching a 10-25 mark. With the injury and depth problems facing the Trojans at this point, it will be a tall task for Orgeron to improve on his .500 mark in two games at USC's helm by the end of the season. In Salt Lake City, Utah headman Kyle Whittingham (75-35) is in his ninth season leading the Utes. Not much was expected of Utah this season, as the team was hit hard with graduation among some recent key performers. But Wilson, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, has been fantastic both passing and running for the Utes. Utah played both Oregon State and UCLA to the wire in Salt Lake City earlier in the season before finally breaking through to upset then-No. 5 Stanford, 27-21, on Oct. 5. Wilson's availability Saturday will be a key for the Utes offense - if he can't go, it will make the task of winning in the Coliseum that much tougher.

This week - as the 2013 season turns the corner and heads down the home stretch - I'm going to step away from my normal preview format to share my thoughts on the turmoil surrounding the Trojan football program.

With the firing of Lane Kiffin on Sept. 29, it seemed that the chaos around USC would begin to clear up. The Trojans would begin a coaching search leading to the next era of USC football tradition. In the meantime, the rah-rah Orgeron - ever the good soldier - would make football fun again for a team in need of a jolt of energy. Perhaps, even, the Trojans could finish out 2013 on a solid run and put Coach O in position to contend for the full-time gig?

However, it's this week, now, that feels like (hopefully) rock bottom. Coming off the loss to the Irish, with the team facing incredible injury and depth issues, the Trojan Family was then hit with another NCAA ignominy on Tuesday, as the sport's "governing body" (cough, cough) winked and nodded at the misdeeds of the Miami program during the bulk of the last decade. Once again, USC alums, fans, supporters, staff and players were reminded of the absolute travesty the NCAA perpetrated on the university in 2010 - just at the very moment where those draconian scholarship reductions are having their most visible effect.

Plenty have looked back at these issues during the past few years - and even more so, the past few days. But raging at or wallowing in the past is only healthy for so long. Trust me - I'm with you. I, too, want vengeance. But what could ever be better than the eventual vengeance the Trojans will have on the field once the program finally begins to regain its bearings. And - though many outside will say that the USC program will "never" be what it once was - as Trojans, we know (and have 125 years of history of proof about) what is to come.

Here are the five ways that USC can begin to set the table for its return to prominence (and help the now popular movement to change or end the NCAA) prior to the beginning of spring football 2014:

Finish the regular season above .500. On Tuesday, the Trojans were only able to field 39 of the 53 players who saw time at Notre Dame during practice. USC. On offense, the story was even worse, with seven walk-ons among the 22 players running through drills on the two-deep. And if it seems to you that there's been at least one player ruled out for the season due to injury each day during this practice week, well, you're right. Things look dire, indeed - especially with games at Oregon State (6-1) and against No. 6 Stanford (6-1) and No. 12 UCLA (5-1) remaining. However, the schedule also kindly offers up opportunity, with a so-so Utah team visiting Saturday and road trips to the dregs of the conference (1-6 California and 3-3 Colorado) in November. If the Trojans stand at 7-6 and bowl bound on the morning of Dec. 1 - with everything that's gone against them - it would be a great emotional boost for the players, many of whom will be on the 2014 roster.

Go on a truly national coaching search. No matter how these next six games play out, however, Pat Haden and his search team must leave no stone unturned in their coaching search. Guys like Nick Saban, David Shaw and Chris Petersen are pipe dreams? Okay, but make them listen and make them tell you no. I've seen many a search for talent in my business turn up someone who's surprisingly ready to move on. At the other end of the spectrum, do not rule out coaches like Pep Hamilton (no head coaching experience), Art Briles (too tied to Texas) or James Franklin (it's only Vanderbilt). USC ties shouldn't matter - nor should they be seen as a negative. All that matters is that the Trojans find a coach with his own plan, a strong personality and a willingness to adjust on the fly to a changing sport. Remember, Pete Carroll was no one's favorite choice in 2001. Haden and Co. need to be willing to look at every possibility before narrowing it down and making the offer.

Keep Orgeron on board and let him lead all recruiting efforts in the meantime. Coach O may be Louisiana-born and bred, but he's become a Trojan through and through. If USC is going to weather this storm with key recruits in the 2014 class (a big "if" at this point), it will be Orgeron who plays the biggest role. Just take a look at Thursday morning's news that wideout Shay Fields Jr. committed to USC - Orgeron's third verbal commitment since taking over. His passion makes him the Trojans' best salesman - at least until a new head coach is selected. And whoever that coach is would be wise to keep Orgeron around. His knowledge of the university, the fan base and its selling points to recruits - not to mention his unsurpassed acumen as a defensive line coach - will be sorely missed should Coach O leave campus in early 2014.

Consider challenging the NCAA's final year of scholarship reductions by going after a full 25-man class. Speaking of recruiting, what's one way to put the NCAA back on the spot without USC taking legal action? Turn the tables and force the NCAA to do so - in a media and fan environment that, nationwide, has finally caught up to USC fans in their overall disdain for the association. What would happen if the Trojans chose to ignore the final year of recruiting sanctions and signed a full class of 25 players, rather than the 15 (plus early enrollees) demanded by the NCAA's ruling? Would the organization declare the wishes of those high schoolers that signed a letter of intent (LOI) with the Trojans null-and-void - thereby risking legal action from those student-athletes and their families? And which 10 LOIs would be voided? Who would decide? Would the NCAA actually have the guts to turn around and sue USC when it's already entangled in the Ed O'Bannon videogame lawsuit and the Todd McNair lawsuit stemming from the NCAA's claims in the USC case? Put them on the spot. What is there to lose? Would they cancel the 2014 season? Could they cancel the 2014 season? Or would this create yet another storm that pushes the rising tide for reforming - or wholly scrapping the NCAA even higher?

The nuclear option: filing suit; or the ground war option: helping the push to open the McNair case files. It's extremely unlikely that Max Nikias, the university's board of trustees and/or Haden will eventually decide that USC should file suit against the NCAA. If they haven't done it yet, why - pray tell - now? The merits of suing the organization have been discussed ad nauseum by just about every Trojan fan and alum I know. Certainly, it's still a possibility, however unlikely. But, one thing the university can - and clearly should - do is publicly throw its weight behind the McNair lawsuit that appears to have a real chance of busting open the inner workings of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. Can USC make a statement about McNair's case? Why the heck not? Is it possible for the school to file an amicus brief in the McNair case? If so, do it. If USC can help McNair's case along in any way - either through public support or actual legal maneuvering - it should absolutely get involved.

The Pick
What about this week, you ask? Well, that's like asking who's going to play receiver or tight end for the Trojans. It's rather tough to say. Wilson's injury is a huge factor for Utah. He's been the key to the Utes entire offense, which averages more than 35 points a game. If he's capable of playing and throwing against USC's questionable secondary, the Utes should be able to put up some points on USC. If he gives it a go but the hand causes some struggles, he could be prone to the interception woes that plagued him, when healthy, against UCLA.

Utah's defense - on the other hand - has shown up well at times (against BYU and Stanford), but also been exposed at others. The Utes are in the bottom half of the conference in every single defensive category, ranking ninth in total defense. Utah State racked up 487 total yards, Oregon State 491 and Arizona 468 (including 300 on the ground). If the Trojans are able to suit up Nelson Agholor, Darreus Rogers and tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick - at the very least - to give Cody Kessler some viable options to throw to, there might be enough firepower to complement what I expect to be a run-heavy attack.

Don't expect a thing of beauty this Saturday afternoon (or really, the rest of the season), but if the Trojan defense can stay stout against the run and force some turnovers by the Utah signal caller, whoever he may be, USC should have just enough on offense to pull out a home win. That's a lot of "ifs," I know. Until the Trojans get through the mess of 2013, however, those "ifs" will remain prevalent.

USC 20, Utah 16

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 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@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants


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