With USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron roaming the sidelines and radiating energy, it certainly felt like the dawn of a new, bright era in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night.
Offensive coordinator Clay Helton helped redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler turn in arguably the best game of his young career in cardinal and gold. A wider variety of aggressive downfield plays were called for Kessler to unleash upon an overmatched Wildcat defense that was deftly deconstructed even without the presence of junior wideout Marqise Lee.
The Coliseum was about 30,000 short of its capacity with 64,215 fans in attendance — but the fans who did show up seemed to be buzzing with excitement about the possibility of a rejuvenated USC squad that could play with the best of the Pac-12.
But all the positive vibes that built up through the first three-and-a-half quarters almost came crashing down due to USC’s pass defense, which looked just as bad as it did against Arizona State.
Even though his team lost, Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker had a career night against USC’s beleaguered secondary.
Denker had not shown competence as a pocket passer entering Thursday night, averaging just 111.3 passing yards per game this season. Against UNLV, a lowly team that lost to Minnesota and Arizona by a combined score of 109-36, Denker could only muster 81 passing yards while completing eight of 21 attempts.
But against the Trojans, Denker experienced unprecedented success.
By halftime, Denker had set a new career-high in passing yards (209). By the final whistle, Denker had racked up 363 yards while completing 28 of 44 attempts. He also threw four touchdown passes against the Trojans after he had thrown just two in his first four games combined. Two of those touchdown passes gained 57 and 45 yards even though he entered the game with a career-long pass completion of 31 yards.
Even USC’s run defense wasn’t top-notch against the Wildcats, as running back Ka’Deem Carey averaged 6.6 yards per carry while gaining 138 rushing yards. Arizona’s offense set season highs for total offense (508 yards) and tied its season high with 25 first downs.
Denker partly attributed the team’s success to a fatigued USC defense, which is certainly a possibility considering USC’s depth issues.
“I felt like they were gassed, especially their front four,” Denker said. “And you could see what they were going to do when they were so tired. It was all about tempo and all about them and their conditioning, and we pushed the pace.”
But I believe it’s about more than that. USC did not let Denker rack up the most passing yards in his collegiate career by halftime simply because they were tired.
In fact, USC’s front four performed admirably. Sophomore defensive end Leonard Williams finished with a team-leading 12 tackles, the most any Trojan had made in a game this season. Junior defensive end J.R. Tavai had the best game of his career, finishing with 10 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.
But USC’s secondary showed why it was the team’s biggest question mark heading into the season. Denker was consistently forced out of the pocket by the Trojans’ strong pass rush, but he often improvised and found an open receiver downfield.
“There were some concerns, seems like some easy drives there where we did not play very well,” Orgeron said. “We will make some changes [in] personnel [and] fix things.”
In one particularly egregious mistake late in the second quarter, redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey let Arizona wideout Nate Phillips sneak behind him and reel in a 57-yard touchdown pass just before halftime.
In the fourth quarter, with the Wildcats driving and everyone in the stadium knowing that they’d have to pass to keep their hopes alive, freshman safety Su’a Cravens was beat on a wheel route that let Arizona reduce the deficit to 38-31 with 4:18 remaining.
The unit had temporarily warded off concerns about making costly errors like those by intercepting six passes in the team’s first two games, but the Trojans have recorded just one interception since the loss to Washington State.
“If they’re passing on us, the D-line is not pressuring the quarterback enough, and if the secondary is getting beat, they’re not covering enough,” senior defensive end Devon Kennard said. “We have to fix it. This is the second game in a row this has happened.”
Thankfully for USC, senior tailback Silas Redd closed the door on the Wildcats by running out the clock on the Trojans’ final drive, preventing another heartbreaking loss.
But if that last drive had stalled, every member of the Trojan faithful would have been on the edge of their seats, praying that USC’s suddenly porous secondary wouldn’t give up another lead.
The Trojans haven’t even faced their toughest test of the season in terms of prestigious, pass-heavy offenses. Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion (2,511 passing yards, first in the nation) and California quarterback Jared Goff (2,036, fourth in the nation) still loom on the schedule, as does quarterback Brett Hundley of UCLA. The Bruins are unbeaten and ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll, and Hundley is among the top Heisman Trophy candidates in the country.
So what will the stat sheet look like after the Trojans have to confront those guys? If defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who doubles as USC’s secondary coach, doesn’t figure out how to restore the team’s defensive prowess, we might not have witnessed the worst part of this season just yet. And with all the turmoil that’s already plagued USC’s 2013 campaign, that’s a scary thought.
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