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October 31, 2013

First Look: Southern Cal

Fittingly, the USC Trojans will venture into their own House of Horrors on the night after Halloween.

The Men of Troy dominate the all-time series with Oregon State, but the Beavers have risen up over the past decade by knocking off the Trojans three straight times at Reser Stadium, including the stunning 27-21 Thursday night victory in 2008 when USC was the virtually unanimous No. 1 team in the country.

Two years earlier, third-ranked USC arrived in Corvallis on October 28, 2006, proudly carrying a 27-game Pac-12 winning streak and a 38-game overall winning streak.

The Beavers won, 33-31.

Three years ago, Oregon State trounced USC, 36-7, at Reser Stadium in the last meeting between the two cross-division schools in the new look Pac-12.

USC's current three-game losing streak in Corvallis is the longest for the Trojans at any opposing Pac-12 venue. The two teams have split the last six meetings with the home team at present owning a five-game winning streak heading into Friday night's clash at Reser Stadium (6 p.m. PT, ESPN2).

"You have to give Mike Riley and Oregon State credit," USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron said when asked earlier this week about his program's three-game losing streak in Corvallis. "Those guys do a tremendous job when the Trojans get up there. He always seems to have his team ready to play us with a great game plan. Obviously, the crowd is electric up there. Those guys get up for us."

Indeed, USC's last five losses to Oregon State have all come in Corvallis. Orgeron has utilized a noise simulator during practice this week in order to assimilate his players to the ear-splitting environment they will encounter on Friday night.

"We need to do a better job preparing our team to play in a hostile environment and get ready for the speed of the game," Orgeron said. "It seems they play awfully fast up there. It will be an exciting night on Friday. We've tried to prepare as much as we can for the snap counts. And it gets the guys fired up too.

"We feel like we had a good formula going into the week. Hopefully, it pays off on Friday."

Following a disappointing 7-6 record in 2012, USC eyed a bounce back year under fourth-year head coach Lane Kiffin, even though the scholarship restrictions (no more than 15 signees per year) from severe penalties handed down by the NCAA had noticeably begun to take effect.

Because of the lack of numbers, USC doesn't expect to bring a roster containing more than 58 recruited scholarship players to Corvallis. However, because some of those players are true freshmen redshirting, that total dwindles to about 52, which is how many recruited scholarship players were available for last week's home victory over Utah.

Expectations, though, are always sky high at USC, and Kiffin was axed five games into the season in the wake of a nightmarish 62-41 road loss at Arizona State on Sept. 28 that dropped the Trojans to 3-2 (0-2 in Pac-12 play), and Orgeron, formerly the head coach at Ole Miss, was given the interim tag.

The high-strung Orgeron has guided the Trojans to a 2-1 record since taking the head coaching reins, and with remaining games against lowly California and Colorado, USC should attain bowl eligibility.

In addition to scholarship reductions, injuries have taken their costly toll on the Trojans with 11 scholarship players sidelined for the season. The best known name on the injured list is wide receiver Marqise Lee, who missed last weekend's 19-3 win over Utah and is questionable for Friday night's clash in Corvallis, according to Orgeron.

If Lee, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, plays for USC he will bring an impressive career resume to Corvallis: 232 catches for 3,267 yards and 26 touchdowns. He is second on USC all-time receptions list behind Robert Woods and owns or shares 24 school records.

Lee suffered a sprained knee on a late game punt return against Arizona State in Kiffin's final game as USC head coach on September 28, and has only played one half of football since then. He aggravated the injury at Notre Dame two weekends ago in USC's frustrating 14-10 loss.

Adequately replacing former standout quarterback Matt Barkley topped USC's offensive 'to-do' list entering the 2013 season, but the Trojans have encountered numerous potholes on the road towards fulfilling that goal.

After experiencing a meltdown in the disastrous Week 2 home loss to Washington State (a shocking defeat that accelerated Kiffin's exit), the offense has begun to exhibit signs of stabilizing under quarterback Cody Kessler, who has completed 61 percent (122-of-200) of his passes for 1,560 yards and nine touchdowns this season.

Kessler was 21-of-32 (season high in completions) for 230 yards in last weekend's win over Utah. The previous week, he was 20-of-34 for 201 yards at Notre Dame.

However, USC is 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense (379.8 yards per game) and scoring offense (24.6 points per game) and a distant 12th in third down conversions (27.6 percent), a major problem for the Trojans all season.

Bad news for USC: Oregon State has the best third down defense in the Pac-12, allowing opponents to convert just 32.0 percent of their opportunities (33-of-103) on the make or break down.

In Lee's absence, Nelson Agholor led the Trojans with six catches for 97 yards against Utah. His 30-yard touchdown catch from Kessler was the lone touchdown for either team. However, Agholor did not practice on Monday.

Wide receiver Xavier Grimble is expected back this week, so he could add valuable depth.

Even though USC's offense has struggled for consistency most of the season, the Trojans defense has thrived, and currently ranks among the best units in the country. USC is first or second in the Pac-12 in three of the four major statistical categories (No. 1 in total defense; No. 2 in scoring defense and rushing defense).

Additionally, USC is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in passing defense, allowing 211.9 yards per game, which is approximately one-half of what Oregon State is averaging in passing yards per game (420.8).

Intriguing matchup, to say the least.

"(Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion) is a great player. Number 7 (Brandin Cooks) is a great player," Orgeron said. "These guys have a very, very good offense. It's one of the best we've seen this year. It's the number one passing offense in the country."

Orgeron and the Trojans defensive staff have likely analyzed the video of last weekend's Stanford-OSU game in great detail since the Beavers were limited to 271 passing yards (64 percent of their current season average) and surrendered eight sacks to the aggressive Cardinal defense.

"Stanford did a tremendous job pressuring the passer and covering (the receivers)," Orgeron said. "Their defensive line plays with great technique. It seems like they gave the (OSU) offensive line some problems. Looking at the film, I think there were a couple of missed assignments that gave Stanford some sacks and a few times they got beat. Stanford made Oregon State hold the ball a little bit longer than they wanted to."

First-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast brought a 5-2-4 base scheme with him to Los Angeles from Cal, where he was the Golden Bears' defensive coordinator for three seasons (2010-12). However, the Trojans employ multiple defensive looks and have run a 3-4 alignment at times along with the standard 4-3.

Six-foot-5, 290-pound sophomore defensive end Leonard Williams leads the Trojans with 54 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss and five sacks. USC is tied with Stanford and Utah for most sacks in the Pac-12 with 27 in eight games.

"He's probably one of the best athletes that we've had here on the defensive line as far as size-speed ratio and he has great awareness," Orgeron said of Williams. "He has the ability to get off blocks and he plays hard. He is a great kid and very coachable. He is getting better every game. He plays sideline to sideline. He is a highly unusual football player with a combination of size, speed and quickness. We think he's going to be a first-round (NFL Draft) pick."


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