After a season mired with disappointments and injuries to several of USC’s top offensive stars, I didn’t think it was cynical of me to think that Oregon State would cover against the Trojans as consensus 5.5 point favorites.
With the Beavers boasting the best passing offense — at least, by statistical measure — in the nation, it was easy for me to imagine quarterback Sean Mannion and receiver Brandin Cooks picking apart USC’s beleaguered secondary.
It also didn’t seem inconceivable that the Trojans’ offense would struggle with junior wideout Marqise Lee, redshirt sophomore tailback Tre Madden and redshirt junior tight end Xavier Grimble not playing at 100 percent.
And without redshirt senior right tackle Kevin Graf available to stabilize the protection of redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, I could picture junior guard/tackle Aundrey Walker desperately grabbing the jersey of an Oregon State player before Kessler was brought down for a back-breaking sack.
With Kessler’s dropback time potentially cut down dramatically, it would be all too easy for offensive coordinator Clay Helton to revert back to the conservative playcalling that yielded unspectacular results for USC when former coach Lane Kiffin was still roaming the sidelines.
But sometime during the Trojans’ first play from scrimmage on offense, all the pessimistic scenarios that had been running through my head vanished.
By hauling in a 71-yard bomb from Kessler, Lee effectively told Cooks that he couldn’t be crowned the best receiver in the Pac-12 just yet, and warned the entire Beaver defense that the Trojans would not be holding back.
It’s difficult to imagine that the ever-cautious Kiffin would have made such a gutsy playcall with Lee still recovering from a nagging knee injury. But Helton showed no such reservations by setting the tone for an evening that was undoubtedly USC’s most impressive performance this season — one that was even more impressive considering the Trojans who filled up the stat sheet.
Redshirt sophomore running back Javorius Allen rushed for a career-high 133 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries, begging the question of why he had rarely found his way onto the field under Kiffin’s supervision.
It wasn’t just the statistics Allen racked up — it was the manner in which he did it. His first score of the night showed his trucking ability, as he bullied through several Beaver defenders before extending over the goal line. Later, he took a stretch handoff and somehow managed to outrun the entire Oregon State defense to the corner before cutting upfield for an 18-yard touchdown.
But the most impressive score was his last — a 52-yard romp that featured the nastiest cutback in cardinal and gold since R—– B— donned the colors of Troy to put the game out of reach.
Allen’s breakout game came with a big assist from USC’s offensive line, which had its best showing of the season even without Graf. The unit opened up holes for Allen and senior tailback Silas Redd (22 carries, 140 yards) while also providing steady protection for Kessler, who completed 17 of 21 passes for 247 yards.
The defense more than held up its end of the bargain, too. Mannion threw three interceptions — equaling his season total — and should have had at least two more. The flurry of turnovers helped cancel out Oregon State’s big advantage in penalty yards (68-15).
Cooks was held to six receptions, his lowest total this season, and 88 yards, his second-lowest output this year.
But the statistic that’s most surprising is the one that is the simplest measure of a team’s success — wins and losses. The Trojans are now 3-0 in the Pac-12 under Orgeron.
It’s doubtful that this unblemished conference record will hold up through the rest of the season — but if it does, even the most cynical of USC supporters will have to admit that the best candidate for the permanent head coaching job might already be on staff.
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