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October 31, 2013

USC vs. Oregon State game preview

Game 9: 'We'll Be Watching Out for Trouble, Yeah, All Down the Line'

When USC visits Oregon State Friday, the teams' offensive and defensive fronts likely will decide the outcome.

The USC Trojans (5-3, 2-2 Pac-12 South) head north to face the Oregon State Beavers (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12 North) on Friday, November 1, at 6 p.m. PDT at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore., and in front of a national ESPN2 cable television audience. It's the 75th meeting between the schools, with the Trojans holding a commanding 59-11-4 edge. However, the Beavers have won three of the past five - all of those wins in Corvallis - including a 36-7 drubbing of USC in the last meeting in 2010. The Trojans' last victory at Oregon State was a 28-20 win in foggy conditions in 2004.

Last weekend, a bruised and battered group of Trojans used six sacks and four forced turnovers to throttle visiting Utah, 19-3. USC's injury-riddled lineup featured just 41 scholarship players who saw time, while 10 walk-ons also played. With most of the key injuries affecting the offense, the Trojan attack sputtered, gaining just 260 total yards. But the USC defense held Utah to just 201 total yards and set up all of the Trojans' 16 first-half points with three interceptions and a fumble recovery. Meanwhile, the previously high-flying Beaver offense suffered through its worst game of the 2013 campaign, as then No. 6 Stanford posted eight sacks in a 20-12 victory in Corvallis.

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. He's 2-1 so far in the interim role at USC. In Corvallis, Oregon State headman Mike Riley (87-69) is in his 13th season with the Beavers (over two stints: 1997-98, 2003-present). By now, Oregon State's single-back offense (with extensive use of the fly sweep) and attacking defense under Riley should be familiar to USC fans. However, the Beavers are throwing the football much more often in 2013, thanks to the effectiveness of junior quarterback Sean Mannion, while OSU's pass defense has struggled at times thanks to a lack of a consistent pass rush - something the Beavers have been known for.

Oregon State Offense
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf's group has turned from a balanced attack that sent a number of solid running backs to the NFL in recent seasons into the nation's top passing offense during the first two months of 2013. The Beavers average 420.8 yards through the air as eight different players have notched double-figure receptions, and OSU is No. 15 nationally in scoring, averaging 40 points per game. The 6-foot-5 Mannion, who beat out senior Cody Vaz for the job, has been a revelation in 2013 after suffering from inconsistency and injury in recent years. He's completing 69.1 percent of his passes, with 30 TDs and just three interceptions. Unlike many quarterbacks in this day and age, however, he's not a running threat.

Mannion's top target has been Brandin Cooks. The 5-foot-10 junior plays much bigger than his size and leads the nation in receptions per game (10.6 - 85 total), receiving yards per game (157), total receiving yards (1,256) and TD receptions (13). He's also OSU's top guy on the fly-sweep it's utilized so effectively over the years (21 carries, 146 yards, 2 TDs). The Trojan defense has yet to face a pass-catch duo as locked in as Mannion-to-Cooks this year. Sizeable sophomore split end Richard Mullaney (38 catches, 15.9 average, 3 scores) has been solid, as well, but OSU does have some injury issues here. Senior slotback Kevin Cummings (23 catches), who had been a key playmaker on third down, injured his wrist against Stanford and is out indefinitely. It looks like senior Micah Hatfield (6 catches) and redshirt freshman Malik Gilmore (1 catch) will see time in his stead. At tight end, always a key spot in the Beaver lineup, junior Connor Hamlett (25 catches, 4 TDs) has missed the past two games after knee surgery, but could be available Friday, while sophomore Caleb Smith (17 catches, 3 TDs) is also questionable. If either or both can't make it back, expect to see sophomore Kellen Clute (14 catches, 2 TDs) and junior Tyler Perry (no, not that one).

With all the aerials, the usually dependable Oregon State running game has suffered - the Beavers rank 11th in the conference and 122nd nationally in rushing at the Halloween-spooky number of 66.6 yards per game. Even worse, they're averaging just 2.4 yards per carry. But that's not to say they lack talent in the backfield. Sophomore Storm Woods (214 yards rushing, 4 TDs; 32 receptions, 9.5 yards per catch) and junior Terron Ward (224 yards rushing, 4 scores; 23 receptions, 9.5 yards per catch) are dual threats. Woods missed a couple games earlier this season after suffering a concussion at Utah, but has returned to his starting role.

The Beaver front five has gone through some changes as the season's gone along, thanks to injury and ineffectiveness. OSU has some experienced depth and a few guys who are rather versatile - and until last week's breakdown against Stanford, where Mannion was sacked eight times, the Beavers had allowed just nine sacks. The left side of the line is Oregon State's strength, with four-year starter Michael Philipp at tackle and two-year starter Josh Andrews at guard. Sophomores Isaac Seumalo and Josh Mitchell have split starts at center, though it appears Seumalo (who can also play tackle) has taken over. On the right side, after losing starting guard Roman Sapolu in the season's second game, senior Grant Enger and redshirt freshman Grant Bays have both seen time at the spot (Enger can also shift to tackle), while it appears true freshman Sean Harlow (son of former USC OL Pat Harlow) has grabbed hold of the tackle job.

Oregon State Defense
Under defensive coordinator Mark Banker, who has put together some stellar defenses in Corvallis over the years, the Beavers have been a little all-over-the-map so far in 2013 - looking outstanding some weeks and getting torched in others. Entering the season, the Beavers were excited about their veteran defensive ends and secondary - and concerned about youth in the middle of the line and at linebacker. Those concerns have translated to a mixed bag, as the Beavers rest in the middle of the conference in most defensive rankings, allowing about 140 yards rushing, 240 yards passing and 27 points per game. The Beaver defense remains an aggressive one, notching 46 tackles for loss and forcing 21 turnovers, while leading the conference in third-down conversion defense.

Up front in the Beavers' 4-3 set, junior end Scott Crichton has been stellar, with 11 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks among his 31 stops. At the other end, classmate Dylan Wynn has been solid, with 34 tackles and two fumble recoveries. Senior Devon Kell also spots in behind Wynn and has 11 tackles. In the middle, two new starters at the tackle spots - seniors Mana Rosa and John Braun have been serviceable, combining for 54 stops (5.5 for loss). There's not a ton of quality depth here, so these guys - much like USC's front - see a lot of snaps.

The Beaver defense suffered a huge blow early on, losing senior weakside linebacker Michael Doctor to a foot injury in the second game. Expected to be a leader, Doctor had notched 13 stops in a game-and-a-half. Junior Jabral Johnson has filled in admirably, but while he ranks second on the team with 55 stops, isn't in the same playmaking mold as Doctor. On the strong side, junior D.J. Alexander has become a leader for the group (32 tackles, 2 sacks), but he suffered a stinger against Stanford and his availability on Friday is questionable - and the Beavers don't have a ton of experience behind him. Inexperience also has been an issue at MLB, where redshirt freshman Rommel Mageo (18 tackles) and sophomore Joel Skotte (16 stops) have split time and are often replaced by nickel corners.

As usual, though, OSU features a ball-hawking secondary, led by junior corner Steven Nelson. The transfer's five picks lead the nation, and none was bigger than a game-turning pick-six at San Diego State early in the season. Across the field, senior leader Rashaad Reynolds has four picks, a sack and two forced fumbles. Third corner Sean Martin is a former starter and plays extensively in the nickel (two INTs). The Beavers are also solid at safety, where junior strong safety Tyreque Zimmerman leads the team with 60 tackles and junior free safety Ryan Murphy fills the stat sheet with 44 tackles (5.5 for loss) and two picks.

Oregon State Special Teams
Junior Trevor Romaine handles the Beavers' placekicking duties. He's made 36-of-37 PATs and nine-of-12 field goals, including a 49-yarder at Utah and a 50-yarder against Stanford. He's also notched 20 touchbacks in 57 kickoffs. Junior Keith Kostol averages 41.5 yards on 30 punts, including putting 13 inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Cooks handles punt returns (6.5 yards per attempt), while freshman receiver Victor Bolden returns kickoffs, averaging 18.6 yards on 30 tries.

USC Offensive Gameplan
It wasn't pretty last Saturday against the Utes - but given the Trojans' injury and depth problems, it probably won't be very pretty the rest of the season. With Cody Kessler's targets limited by injury, the Utah defense stacked the box against USC (30 carries for 30 yards in the run game - ugh) and challenged Kessler to beat them through the air. At the same time, Utah had success in the pass rush against a Trojan offensive line that - no matter the combination - struggles to protect the quarterback. The Trojans, though, got enough from receivers Nelson Agholor (a game-time decision) and Darreus Rogers, as well as the return of tailback Tre Madden (12 carries for 60 yards), to get the job done.

With both wide receiver Marqise Lee and tight end Xavier Grimble both probable for Friday night's game, it appears Kessler will have a few more weapons at his disposal - which will make it tougher for the Beaver defense to emulate the Utah gameplan. And that will be crucial, as the Oregon State defense's toughest struggles in 2013 have been when the opponent was able to establish the run.

Eastern Washington, Utah and Stanford - albeit with different styles - all ran the ball effectively at the Beavers. For USC to have a chance in this game, it needs to be able to get tough yards on the ground. Otherwise, the attacking OSU defense will be in Kessler's face all night long. Though Oregon State has struggled to rush the passer consistently in 2013, they still attack - and the Trojan offensive line cannot be trusted to slow them down on their own. If USC can notch the 4.2 yards per carry that the Beavers give up on average, it will give the offensive line and Kessler that much better an opportunity to make plays in the passing game - especially underneath, where Oregon State's young linebackers have struggled.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Talk about a team effort: the Trojans' six sacks and four forced turnovers did not come without a price. Already missing Morgan Breslin and Lamar Dawson from the starting lineup, USC also appeared to be without the services of playmaker Dion Bailey in the secondary. However, when freshman safety Su'a Cravens went down with an upper leg injury at the end of a long interception return right before the half (he's unlikely to play at OSU), Bailey suited up at halftime and played the entire second half. Holding Utah's stat-happy offense to 201 yards and three points was quite an accomplishment for a group that - just four weeks prior - was torched for 62 points by Arizona State.

But, as it often is in the Pac-12, moving on from Utah to Oregon State is a clichéd case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. It appears the Trojans will again be without Breslin, but J.R. Tavai and Jabari Ruffin continue to make their presence known in his absence. And sophomore Anthony Sarao also performed well in Dawson's stead. USC's front seven will be put to a heavy test this week - can they get enough pressure on Mannion to upset the Beaver passing attack?

That is the absolute key to this game for the Trojan defense - while it's unlikely USC will match Stanford's eight sacks, the Trojan front seven needs to speed the game up for Mannion. While the Trojan secondary has played well (aside from about six quarters) this season, Mannion, Cooks and the rest of the Beaver pass-catchers (along with their scheme) present the toughest test it has faced yet. In order to allow the secondary to make plays against Oregon State's receivers, Leonard Williams, George Uko and Devon Kennard, among others, must be in Mannion's face from the get-go.

The Pick
Before the season, I saw this as one of the Trojans' toughest matchups. USC has played poorly in Corvallis the past three times it's visited - and two of those teams were Rose Bowl squads. The atmosphere on a Friday night also promises to be challenging.

Nothing that's happened since the season began has changed that opinion. The Beavers rebounded from an opening game face-plant to win six in a row and then battled No. 5 Stanford to the wire a week ago. OSU's offense is high-powered and its defense, as usual, forces turnovers at key moments. With USC's injury and depth problems on both sides of the ball, as well as its offensive line's growing inability to protect Kessler consistently, this game is likely to be tough sledding for the Trojans.

That's not to say the Trojans cannot win. The Beavers have some injury troubles of their own, are coming off the physical pounding of a Stanford game, and have some exploitable holes on defense. In the end, though, this game will come down to line play. If USC's front five can create a serviceable running attack and protect Kessler - and if the Trojan defensive front seven can disrupt Mannion - then the Trojans will compete well in this game. The problem is that if either group struggles, the Beavers will take full advantage - creating turnovers on defense and/or exploiting the USC secondary. This week, there are just too many "ifs" floating around out there to call for a Trojan victory.

Oregon State 34, USC 23

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 (@THrants)

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