When you're competing for the national title, the stakes are high in every game, even the games where your opponents are 1-2 with a loss to Stanford. In fact, when you're USC, these are the games that should be focused on the most, especially when they are on the road. The Trojans have struggled mightily in their first conference road game every season.
In 2001, it was a 24-22 last second loss to Oregon (although the Ducks were favored in Joey Harrington's senior season).
In 2002, it was an 30-27 overtime loss to eventual conference champ Washington State.
In 2003, it was a 34-31 OT loss to a 2-3 Cal team who had lost to Colorado State and Utah. USC was a 13 point favorite in that game.
In 2004, the Trojans trailed Stanford going into the fourth quarter, but managed to come from behind to win 31-28 in a game where they were a 22 point favorites.
In 2005, USC annihilated Oregon 45-13, but trailed at one point 13-0.
In 2006, the Trojans flailed to a 20-3 win over an Arizona team that finished 5-7. The Trojans led 3-0 at the half, and were a 21 point favorite.
In 2007, thanks to some injuries, turnovers, and penalties, USC eked out a 27-24 win over a terrible Washington team as a 20 point favorite.
Oregon State comes into this game 1-2, with a win over Hawaii and losses to Stanford and Penn State. At this point in time, they are not one of the 40 best teams in the country, and in their first two games, they looked terrible. But that hasn't stopped the Trojans before from struggling on the road against some bad teams (Stanford, Arizona, Washington). Can they buck that trend as the 2005 team did? Here's a look at the match-up.
Oregon State Offense vs. USC Defense
The Beaver offense is not complicated, but when they get in a rhythm, they can be tough. They are a one back spread team. They will employ multiple tight ends at times. They are almost exclusively a zone block team, and they run very few sweeps or misdirection plays. They run inside and outside zone runs, with some twists with the wide outs, which I'll talk about below.
QB Lyle Moevao seems to have found a comfort zone now that he isn't fighting for the job any more. The injury that Sean Canfield sustained in the USC game last season has kept him out of the mix. Moevao has a good arm and some athletic ability. He is off to a decent start this season when it comes to completion percentage and yards, but in the first two games, he made some bad decisions that cost the Beavers. Still, he is the kind of QB who can hurt you if he gets hot. He threw for over 400 yards against Stanford, and played a flawless game against Hawaii.
The Beaver passing attack is an intermediate, "clear out" approach. When I say clear out, I mean that it features receivers running fly routes deep, and tight ends or other receivers running curls, outs, or ins behind those fly routes. By running flies, the receivers take corners or linebackers out of a zone, and then other pass catchers fill in that empty zone and make plays. With the amount of intermediate routes that OSU runs, the offense can be a little on the high risk side. This season though, the Beavers have some weapons at wide receiver. We've seen firsthand what Sammie Stroughter can do. Shane Morales has become a go to guy for the Beavers as a guy who gets first downs, and James Rodgers is definitely a threat, although more so in the running game, believe it or not.
In the past, OSU has featured tight ends that make a lot of catches. This has not been the case so far. The Trojans can definitely pay a lot of attention to the three wide outs as a result. At the same time, the Beavers will throw screen passes and swings to RB Jacquizz Rodgers, the little brother of James. He has not made much of an impact on the passing game yet, but he can be dangerous in space.
Jacquizz is definitely a good running back. I think it's only a matter of time before he becomes and upgrade over Yvenson Bernard, who was a good college player. Jacquizz is tiny at 5-6, but he's stronger than given credit for, and he's a very quick and decisive back. He's not afraid to mix it up between the tackles, but it better in the outside zone game. One play that we will see a few times is the "fly sweep," when a WR goes in motion next to the QB, and takes the handoff right after the snap. Usually that WR is James Rodgers, who has actually been more dangerous taking handoffs than catching passes. They will also run the fly sweep with Stroughter although he is not as good at it.
This team is a good offensive football team. They have a talented QB, a good skill position group, and a solid offensive line. If the Trojans turn the ball over a bunch of times like they did in their last trip to Corvallis, this team can and will put up points.
Oregon State Defense vs. USC Offense
In the past five years or so, the Beavers have put some outstanding defense on the field. They have been at solid on the DL, and aggressive in the back seven. This year's defense is a very young group, and so far, it has showed. The group played well against Hawaii, but got blitzed by a good Penn State, and was mediocre against a Stanford offense that isn't very good. They have been brutal against the running game, giving up almost 170 yards per game despite playing a Hawaii team that didn't even try to run.
You'd be hard pressed to find a USC opponent that blitzes as infrequently as the Beavers. They are a base defense team, period. They will do some end/tackle stunting on the line, and will move their CBs up and back. But in general, what you see is what you get. In that way, they are like last year's ASU team. They run what my high school coaches used to call a 4-3 "mound," with the outside backers right up on the outside legs of the DEs, and the Mike backer four to five yards behind the defensive tackles. When opposing teams go three wide, the outside backer slides over and gets some more depth. But the Beavers do not put safeties in the box, and blitzing is minimal.
When opposing teams run the ball, those backers and the strong safety crash up hard. As a result, this team is very susceptible to play action passing, as the backers have been a little more reckless chasing the run than their predecessors. Keenan Lewis and Brandon Hughes are aggressive corners who play a lot of bump and run, and strong safety Al Afalava is a head hunter. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker will mix up the coverages and do some disguising to try and confuse QBs, but in general, Oregon State's defensive philosophy is to simplify things and for their players just to know their assignments and execute them perfectly. They're not trying to mystify the other team. They just think that their kids can do things better than yours. So far, with such a young front seven, that hasn't been the case. The linebackers especially have really suffered a drop off from last season.
On paper, this is a team that USC should murder. They are a good offensive team, but they don't have great balance. They are turnover and penalty prone. Their defense right now is not very good. USC should be able to control the action with their running game, and play action passing with Mark Sanchez should be child's play. The Trojan defense should be able to control the line of scrimmage, shutting down the running game with just six guys when the Beavers spread things out. USC logged nine sacks in the game last season and six the season before, so you'd have to think they can get some pressure in this game.
Call it the pessimist in me. I think this game is going to be close. I outlined the struggles that USC has had in their first conference road game. The Trojans have not played well in Corvallis either. In the last three trips, the Trojans have two losses, and a national championship team didn't play well in an eight point win when the fog rolled in. Oregon State can move the ball through the air, unlike Ohio State and Virginia. A Thursday night game on ESPN will feature a fired up crowd and an inspired Beaver team. Oregon State has been a far better team at home than on the road, and the environment will be more hostile than it was at UVA.
The key to this game is turnovers. If the Trojans can keep their turnover number down and win turnover margin, they will win this game easily. But strange things happen over the course of a season, and this team will be tested, despite the fact that the Pac-10 looks to be down, and despite the fact that USC looked spectacular in their first two games. Call it a feeling, but I think this game will be tight going into the fourth quarter before USC finally puts it away.
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