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October 22, 2009

Oregon State Preview

Game 7: That Ain't All, I Lost My Mind in Oregon

As the Beavers come calling, the Trojans are out to prove - again - that last season's baffling performance in Corvallis was just one big mistake.

The USC Trojans (5-1, 2-1 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls and No. 7 in the BCS, return home on Saturday, October 24 to face the Oregon State Beavers (4-2, 2-1) at 5 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the 73rd meeting in the series, with the Trojans holding a commanding 58-10-4 edge. However, the Beavers have won two of the past three meetings (after USC had won 30 of the previous 31), including a shocking 27-21 upset of a top-ranked Trojan team a season ago in Corvallis, Ore. In the previous Los Angeles meeting, the Trojans recorded nine sacks in a 24-3 victory in 2007.

While the Beavers enjoyed a bye last weekend, the Trojans had to fight to - and through - the final second in a 34-27 road victory over then-No. 25 Notre Dame. True freshman quarterback Matt Barkley threw for a career-high 380 yards, but a late run by the Irish closed a 34-14 Trojan lead to just seven before USC held on three consecutive Notre Dame pass attempts from the USC four-yard line in the final seconds. In its last outing, on October 10, Oregon State rolled up 463 total yards in a not-as-close-as-it-appeared 38-28 home win against Stanford. Sophomore running back Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 189 yards and four TDs.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (93-16, 60-11 in the Pac-10), having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Oregon State headman Mike Riley (60-44) is in his ninth season in Corvallis (1997-98, 2003-current). Riley's teams have qualified for (and won) bowls in five of the past six seasons, and have won more Pac-10 games the past three seasons than anyone not known by the initials USC. However, the Beavers have not defeated USC in the Coliseum since 1960. What could make this Saturday night in the Coliseum any different? Riley would definitely start with the Rodgers brothers. Jacquizz and his brother James Rodgers, a junior flanker, are the spice in Oregon State's attack. The Beaver defense is - as usual - strong against the run, but has struggled against the pass and ranks dead last in the conference in sacks.

Oregon State Offense
The Beavers, under offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, remain a three-receiver, single-back attack. Senior quarterback Sean Canfield, who was the starter for much of the 2007 season before injuries derailed him a season ago, has flip-flopped with classmate and 2008 starter Lyle Moevao, who has been sidelined by off-season shoulder surgery. Moevao is now healthy and could see action, but Canfield has been incredibly effective thus far in 2009, completing nearly 68 percent of his passes, with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He's done this even though the Beaver offensive line has allowed 19 sacks, second most in the conference.

The Beaver passing attack ranks second in the conference (No. 32 nationally) thanks, of course, to the Rodgers brothers. James has caught a team-leading 43 passes from his flanker spot, including a career-high 11 against Cincinnati on Sept. 19. He's averaging more than 12 yards per grab, and is a threat to take it to the house on every touch (he has scored three times). Jacquizz has 38 catches from his tailback spot. Senior Damola Adeniji has 26 catches, including two scores. It's a major drop off after that trio, with slotback Aaron Nichols and H-back Joe Halahuni next with eight grabs each.

It's somewhat surprising to note that, though Jacquizz Rodgers ranks second in the conference with 697 yards rushing so far in 2009 (with a 5.4 ypc average and 13 touchdowns), Oregon State ranks just seventh in the conference in rushing. Perhaps that's because Rodgers carries nearly the full load at tailback (only freshman Jovan Stevenson, with 15, has more than 10 carries from the spot) and the Beavers have suffered big losses from sacks allowed. James Rodgers remains a popular option for Oregon State on the flanker sweep. He's gained 145 yards on 23 attempts.

One reason for the inconsistent running attack and poor pass protection is a new left side of the offensive line. True freshman Michael Philipp is learning on the job at left tackle, and sophomore walk-on left guard Grant Johnson hadn't started before the 2009 season opener. Returning starters fill the other spots, with junior center Alex Linnenkohl, senior right guard Gregg Peat and sophomore right tackle Mike Remmers all experienced. Depth is an issue, making this the Beavers' weakest offensive line group in a number of seasons.

Oregon State Defense
A season ago, defensive coordinator Mike Banker's unit had to replace its entire starting front seven. So the idea of replacing eight starters from 2008 when this season kicked off couldn't have seemed too daunting. It seems like one thing you can count on from the Beavers during the Riley era is that they will be tough against the run - and that's true again in 2009, as Oregon State ranks third in the Pac-10 (No. 18 nationally), allowing less than 98 yards per game on the ground. However, the Beavers have forced only one turnover per game, are last in the conference with just four sacks, and have allowed more than 275 yards per game through the air, better only than Washington State among Pac-10 teams.

Up front in the Beavers' traditionally pressure-driven 4-3, only junior right tackle Stephen Paea returned as a starter. He's a solid performer, with 15 tackles and a fumble recovery. For years, Oregon State has rotated at least four players regularly at defensive end. The nominal starters are senior Ben Terry and sophomore Kevin Frahm. They've combined for 27 stops, but only one sack. More intriguing have been reserves Matt LaGrone and Gabe Miller, both juniors. LaGrone has 13 tackles, a fumble recovery and forced a safety against Cincinnati. Miller has 10 stops, a sack and two forced fumbles. At the other tackle spot, junior Brennan Olander has overtaken senior Latu Moala.

Senior strong-side LB Keaton Kristick is the defense's emotional and physical leader. He has 50 tackles (4.5 for loss), an interception and a fumble recovery. A heady player, Kristick is an excellent tackler with a knack for big plays. Sophomore middle linebacker David Pa'ahluhi looks like he might be next in the long line of stud Oregon State LBs. He has 36 stops, and outstanding speed and range for an MLB. On the weak side, juniors Dwight Roberson and Keith Pankey split time, with Roberson as the starter, combining for 45 tackles.

Oregon State had to replace its entire starting secondary heading into 2009. Only senior right cornerback Tim Clark, who served as the team's third CB a season ago, had any starting experience. He has 25 stops and, as the season has gone on, has been splitting time with the Beavers' third CB of choice this season, sophomore Brandon Hardin (who has one of Oregon State's three interceptions). Junior James Dockery has returned from a season-ending knee injury a season ago to notch 16 tackles and six pass break-ups from the other corner spot. Three safeties share two spots in the Beaver secondary, as well. Sophomore Cameron Collins has 34 tackles to lead the group, while classmate Lance Mitchell has 31 stops, an interception and five pass break-ups. Junior Suasei Tuimaunei has 26 tackles, including a career-high 10 against Arizona.

Oregon State Special Teams
Junior placekicker Justin Kahut has been much more consistent in 2009, making eight-of-10 field goals and 19-of-20 PATs. Sophomore punter Johnny Hekker's leg is as big as advertised, averaging a solid 42.6 yards per boot. And James Rodgers is one of the conference's biggest threats returning kickoffs and punts. He averages nearly 23 yards per kick return and is second only to USC's Damian Williams in Pac-10 punt returns, averaging 15 yards per chance - part of the reason why he leads the conference in all-purpose yards.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Another week, another few pages of the playbook cracked open by John Morton and Jeremy Bates for Barkley. Oh, how it must kill Jimmy Clausen that his younger friend completely outplayed him on his home field in what was supposed to be the spotlight game of his junior season. However, while USC rolled up 502 total yards against the Irish, they still came up a little short on points, settling for two field goals, struggling for consistency inside the red zone and stalling themselves a few times. So, while the growth has been steady, the positive viewpoint on the remaining issues facing USC's offense has to be that there's no reason for anyone - coaches or players - to rest on their laurels.

This week, against Oregon State, look for Barkley to have even freer reign over the Trojan offense's fortunes. The Beavers are very green in the secondary and the lack of a consistent pass rush has left them extremely vulnerable. Banker has been left to choose between blitzing to try to pressure quarterbacks - and leaving his secondary vulnerable - or dropping seven into coverage and giving opposing quarterbacks all day to throw. He's had little success, as Oregon State's four sacks in six games are embarrassing compared with recent seasons. With USC's solid offensive line - and how the Trojans have slowly been incorporating all of their weapons into the passing attack - this appears to be a recipe for disaster for Oregon State.

At the same time, the Beavers have yet to face a rushing attack like the Trojans'. Expect Joe McKnight to get feature-back carries, with Allen Bradford (as long as the ding on his shoulder suffered Wednesday is minor) serving as a bruising accompaniment. Still, it's Williams, Anthony McCoy, the emerging Brice Butler - and perhaps even D.J. Shoemate, who is in line for his first start at fullback - who should shine in the passing game this weekend if the Trojans are to gain revenge for last season's defeat.

USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan secondary will be looking to bounce back from a difficult second-half performance at Notre Dame a week ago. Clausen and his receivers really heated up, making plays against the USC back four that hadn't been seen so far in 2009. Part of that had to do with the Trojan brain trust sticking with a four-man rush through most of the second half, even though it appeared the defensive line was wearing down a bit as the game dragged on.

Canfield and the Beaver passing attack have performed well, and the way Oregon State mixes up its attack, utilizing receivers as rushers and running backs as receivers, can cause consternation in even the best defensive minds. Just a season ago, the Beavers jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead based simply on the misdirection embedded in their offense and near-perfect execution.

There are two keys to this Saturday's game for the Trojan defense: play assignment football and slow the Rodgers brothers. USC failed miserably at the first a season ago, as freelancing players continually ran themselves out of position, allowing Oregon State's misdirection and zone plays to work over and over again. The Trojans' defensive line and linebackers need to forget chasing the ball and play their lanes properly. If they do so, then the talent differential between them and the Beaver offensive line will become apparent. Regarding the second key: when you watch Oregon State play, it seems like a Rodgers is in on 90 percent of the plays. When you look at their statistics, it becomes clear that it's only slightly less. Jacquizz leads in rushing and is second in receiving. James leads in receiving and is second in rushing. In both categories, no other Beaver skill position player is close to their productivity. Contain the brothers and Canfield becomes much less productive, making his lack of mobility stand out behind the Beavers' so-so offensive line.

The Pick
Though the Beavers have dropped USC twice in the past three years, both of those victories came in Corvallis. The problem is that Oregon State's performance against the Trojans has differed from home to road more than just about any other conference opponent. There's a reason USC is more than a 20-point favorite going into Saturday - and it's not just because the experts know the Trojans will be much more focused against the Beavers than they were a season ago.

Two years ago, USC absolutely stifled the Oregon State offense in the Coliseum. Could it happen again? With Canfield throwing more accurately than many recent Beaver quarterbacks, and a player the quality of Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield, it is unlikely - but not completely out of the question. Canfield can be rattled, and the Beaver front five is one of the weaker ones USC has faced thus far. At the same time, expect the Trojans to have a laser-like focus on slowing Quizz and his older brother - from the looks of things, the Beavers don't have another "go-to" player who could consistently make the Trojans pay for such a plan.

Offensively, I expect USC's growth in the passing game to continue against Oregon State's defense. The Beavers have been wholly unsuccessful in pressuring quarterbacks - something they've been known for in recent seasons - and haven't been able to force many turnovers. They've been forced to become a more passive group than recent Oregon State defenses, and it doesn't fit them. If Barkley continues to make good decisions and his playmakers continue to make plays, the Trojans should have more than enough to gain a measure of revenge for their 2008 defeat.

USC 31, Oregon State 10

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine 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@alumni.usc.edu.


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