No. 23 USC travels to Boulder, Colo. riding its biggest wave of momentum of the season after pulling off an upset over then-No. 5 Stanford. In the days leading up to the team’s matchup with Colorado, two distractions have been identified as potentially detrimental to the players’ focus — the possibility of a letdown after the big win, and the sub-30 degree temperature that is expected at kickoff.
Players and coaches have insisted, though, that they are focused on the task at hand and are not prepared to let outside influences affect their approach to the game.
“[The cold weather] is what it is,” interim head coach Ed Orgeron said. “Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. No matter who we play, where we play, it’s about us and what we can control. Whatever it is, Saturday night, come 7:30 [p.m. Mountain Standard Time], we’re gonna be ready to go.”
With a roster littered with players from Southern California, not many have played in a cold environment like the one that is expected on Saturday. Those who haven’t insist that the elements will most likely have the same effect on both teams.
“I’ve never played in anything that cold, so I really couldn’t even tell you,” redshirt junior safety Josh Shaw said. “There’s probably disadvantages for both teams — maybe they can’t throw the ball as well. Maybe they have to rely on their run game a little more.”
Many have labeled Colorado as an obvious “trap game” due to the fact that the Buffaloes are in last place in the Pac-12 South and the Trojans’ win last week might lead to a lack of focus. But after being upset earlier in the season by Washington State, the players insist that they’ve learned from past mistakes and that their attention is squarely on the Buffaloes.
“[The WSU loss] still bothers me a little bit, but it’s on to the next week,” redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey said. “After taking that loss, guys have responded well. It’s always about how you respond to adversity. I’m proud of my team.”
Colorado’s main weapon is wide receiver Paul Richardson, a Los Angeles native and high school teammate of USC junior wide receivers Marqise Lee and George Farmer, as well as former receiver Robert Woods. Richardson has caught 71 passes this season with nine touchdowns. His 1,201 receiving yards are the fifth-most in the country.
“He’s a great receiver,” Shaw said. “I know him from high school and worked out with him a little bit this offseason, so he knows me and I know him. It’ll be a great battle.”
The USC secondary, which was heavily criticized at times this season, particularly after the loss to Arizona State, has responded well since then and has done a good job at limiting opponents’ passing attack. USC ranks third in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense and has intercepted opposing quarterbacks 15 times, the third-highest mark in the conference.
The Trojans’ defense as a whole has improved drastically in defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s first season, ranking in the top 25 nationally in nearly every category. USC ranks second in the Pac-12 in total defense this season, allowing just 338.8 yards per game, a vast improvement from last season when the team ranked seventh in the conference in that category with 394 yards allowed per game.
“Everybody’s just believing in what Coach [Pendergast] is teaching us, with technique, fundamentals and everything that he preaches,” Bailey said. “Guys are getting put in the right spots and taking advantage of their opportunities.”
Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau, a freshman who had his redshirt lifted midway through the season, has developed good chemistry with Richardson and the rest of the Buffaloes’ offensive weapons. Liufau has completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 1,350 yards and eight touchdowns in six games this season.
The USC offense will once again be led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, who is coming off of his best game of the season against Stanford, a performance that led to him being named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week.
The Stanford game was a continuation of a hot streak for the first-year starter, who has completed 71.9 percent of his passes for 935 yards, five touchdowns and only one interception in his past four games, which have all been USC wins.
Kessler’s streak has coincided with the Trojans’ inspired play since Orgeron took over, which has led to a growing amount of support for Orgeron to be named USC’s permanent head coach at the end of the season.
Athletic Director Pat Haden told Los Angeles’ KFWB earlier this week that he had received a flood of e-mails from “Coach O” supporters.
“I counted them, actually,” Haden said. “I had 136 pro-Coach O emails today. Those were just emails. That doesn’t count the tweets, letters and phone calls.”
Though many players have also voiced their endorsement of Orgeron, they are not letting the speculation detract from their responsibilities for the rest of the season.
“That’s over my head,” Bailey said of the coaching decision. “We know we’ve got him for three more games, and we’re gonna give everything we’ve got for him these last three games that he’s guaranteed to be here.”
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