This week will be the greatest challenge for an SC team in quite some time, at least since 2001.
National title hopes disappeared in October, which hasn't happened to these players. The chances of winning the Pac-10 are very, very small. A BCS bowl berth is still a decent possibility, but not the way the offense is playing.
The Trojans have to pick up the pieces to a season where they were ranked preseason #1 by just about everyone. They have to do it against a dangerous football team who has won three games in a row, who has a better chance at winning the conference than SC does, and a team who beat Cal on the road in dramatic fashion. The Beavers are the most underrated team in the conference. Here's a look at them.
Oregon State Offense vs. USC Defense
The Beavers offense is pretty simple by college standards. They run a few different formations, but with the exception of goalline and short yardage situations, they are always in one back sets. Their basic idea on offense is to clear out underneath by running lots of deep and intermediate routes with the receivers, and run their tight ends and their back underneath. Then the quarterback has a decision. He reads upfield first, and if it's not there, he checks down. As a result, they throw the ball to the tailback a lot. Yvenson Bernard is the team's leading receiver with 32 catches. He has got the bulk of the work because OSU checks down a lot, and they do utilize the screen game.
The problem with this style of play is that young quarterbacks have a tendency to be gamblers, and the intermediate balls especially can lead to turnovers. Oregon State has turned the ball over more than any team in the conference, and only North Texas and Baylor have thrown more interceptions. Sean Canfield is a talented quarterback, but he has made a ton of mistakes this season. In OSU's three losses against Cincinnati, ASU, and UCLA, Canfield has thrown ten INTs. He has only thrown three in their six wins. It has not helped him that playmaking WR Sammie Stroughter has been out for the season with injury and personal problems.
As a result, the Beavers have been mediocre offensively by their standards. They are seventh in the conference in rushing, passing, total, and scoring offense. They have relied a lot on Bernard, who at this point looks unlikely to play because of a bum shoulder. Matt Sieverson will get the start at RB, but don't be surprised to see some of speedy WR James Rodgers at tailback. The Beavers have used him extensively on motion sweeps and reverses this season, and he worked some at tailback against Stanford. At this point in his career, he is more runner than receiver, as he has 16 carries and only six catches.
When the Beavers get into a groove offensively, they can be tough, as the Trojans found out last season. The best tact in this game might not to be blitz a lot, because that can be dangerous against all the seam routes that OSU uses. What might be best is to mix up the intermediate coverages and confuse Canfield. He has only taken five sacks in the Beavers three losses. It's not pressure that has hurt him. It has been his inexperience.
Oregon State Defense vs. USC Offense
This is the centerpiece of the team, and it is the best defense that USC will face during the regular season. The funny thing about the Beavers is that they don't do many crazy or special things on defense. They rarely blitz. They play a base 4-3, and keep their linebackers on the field against multiple WR sets.
They will move the linebackers around a little, and do some stunting, but no more than SC does. They just try to play disciplined gap control football. They play their corners up on a lot of plays, but it's not bump and run coverage. The CBs backpedal off the snap.
However, the way they play their linebackers and their corners, and at times, their strong safety, is why they are so tough against the run. They are the #1 team in the country in rush defense and in yards per carry. Their linebackers read the offensive line so as not to fall for play action, and they are very aggressive when they read run.
They also lead the country in sacks per game, which contributes to those numbers. The amazing thing is that they get sacks without blitzing much. Some of this has to do with their rotation of defensive linemen. They will run ten guys in and out of the game, and they bring certain guys in by situation. They have got good end play from Dorian Smith and Victor Butler.
They have also got some strong play in their back seven from Will backer Joey LaRocque and safety Al Afalava. These guys are the playmakers of the group, and they are good in coverage.
This defense presents a lot of problems for USC. They are disciplined and physical, and they have the confidence to get after it against a Trojan team who struggled on offense for quite a while.
This is a tough match-up for USC. It's a strength on weakness match-up. The Trojans have not ran the ball well for the past month, and now they face a team who makes it a priority to stop the run. They are bringing back John David Booty this week, but going up against a team who rushes the passer very well. The receivers have not played well this season, and the Beaver secondary is physical. They take away the three step drop stuff a great deal.
If the Trojans are going to be successful offensively, they need to come out gunning. The Beavers can be hurt with the passing game. They are a mere fifth in the conference in pass efficiency defense, mostly because they give up a ton of yards per catch. If Booty is healthy for the most part, he can attack them with some of the intermediate routes as he did last season. Booty threw for 406 yards against Oregon State. Part of it was because the Trojans got way behind, but he had thrown the ball well with the exception of a first quarter INT in the end zone.
Cal was able to run the ball against OSU, but in my opinion Cal is a better running team at this point than USC. The Trojans did most of their damage in the first four games. Since then, they have only run the ball well against Notre Dame. It's hard to believe that will change this week unless USC has success early with the passing game.
Still, I like the Trojans in this game. USC still has the best defense in the conference by far, and the Beavers are not good enough offensively to exploit it. Oregon State has had some nightmarish days with turnovers on the road this season and in the past at the Coliseum.
The Trojans will mix up zone coverages, and they will get a couple of interceptions this week. From there, they will take advantage of short fields from turnovers and the worst punting in America, which the Beavers have because their punter left school just before the season.
This is not going to be a pretty game by any stretch of the imagination. But the Trojans will dominate defensively and do enough with the passing game on offense to beat a pretty good football team.