Perhaps redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler summed up the feelings around USC’s Tuesday practice best.
“It sucks we had those losses, but we’ve all come out to practice and worked really hard, you know,” Kessler said. “We’re in first place now … We’re all behind coach Helton and ready to keep rolling.”
Kessler had one of his best performances of the season last Friday. Though USC was down at the half, Kessler showed tremendous poise when he rallied his team on a 24-0 run to a comeback victory. USC scored 27 points against Colorado, and Kessler threw three touchdowns in one half, and the offense will again be under incredible pressure this weekend to score and keep scoring if they want a win against notoriously high scoring Oregon, which is playing their best football of the season after having just beaten Stanford on Saturday.
Interim head coach Clay Helton said that scoring touchdowns will be the Men of Troy’s number one priority on Saturday. He echoed Kessler’s sentiment saying that the offense needs to “step up,” if they are forced to have to keep responding to an Oregon score. Helton added that the banged-up USC defense will have to be ready to make stops, create turnovers and do a lot running. With news that Cameron Smith and Lamar Dawson will be out for the remainder of the year, adding to an already long list of injuries, USC coaches experimented rotating Anthony Sarao, Olajuwon Tucker, Uchenna Nwpsu, Osa Masina and Michael Hutchings at the inside linebacker position on Tuesday.
“This is going to be about points,” Helton said. “I think that it always is with Oregon.”
Helton said that the focuses on offense this week are finishing each drive with six points and not three, and teachings the receivers to win their one on one matchups down the field for more explosive players.
“I don’t think you can go in there and have three and outs,” he said. “I don’t think you can get stopped in the red zone, because they are going to put some points on the board. They are leading our conference in scoring.”
Tuesday’s practice was largely focused on the running game on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Though Helton acknowledge that quarterback Vernon Adams is Oregon’s greatest threat, he said that his main defensive priority is to stop Royce Freeman and the Oregon running attack. Though it seems paradoxical, Helton said the same thing before USC’s game against Cal and their NFL quarterback, Jared Goff. His reasoning is this: stop the run, make the team pass a lot and get more sacks on the quarterback — which Helton said worked out for the Trojans, the winners of four straight games.
“I think that we need to shut down the run to put it on the quarterback to win the game by passing. When that happens, just as you see we have done over these past five games, you see 19 sacks,” Helton said. “When you are getting to the quarterback you are getting him off of his spot, you are sacking him. Then he is more worried about the rush than he is about the receiver down the field. That has really been a key for us and it is a huge part of our success.”
Being part of the Pac-12, wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster says that USC has seemingly faced great opponents every week. In such a talented division, winning often boils down to the team who shows up to play. Smith-Schuster explained that though Stanford might have been expected to beat Oregon on Saturday because they were at home, Oregon won because they were hungrier and better prepared. Schuster confessed that he nearly chose to play college football at Oregon when he was playing safety in high school and that it has always been a dream of his to play in Autzen stadium, except in cardinal and gold.
“It is going to be a lot of fun,” Smith-Schuster said. “I have been wanting to play in this stadium for a while as a Trojan. I took a visit there and, at the time, I was a defensive back, so all of the guys that I saw (and practiced with) up there, I’m going against this Saturday. It will be a lot of fun playing them, but more importantly, we need this win.”
Smith says that USC’s three division losses and tough schedule have a silver lining in that battling against such talented teams every weekend could result in USC being the better prepared team on Saturday. Helton added to this idea — that USC has improved throughout the season as a result of their Pac-12 schedule — when he noted that the Oregon running backs were similar to the Arizona’s backs because they can spread it out and run it just about anywhere.
Helton said that he has told his players in every game since becoming the interim head coach that every game was a playoff game. Though his team has responded with an impressive string of wins that has resulted in their first place title in the South, USC knows that the rest of their games are all still essentially playoff games in that if they lose again, they’ll most likely be disqualified from any chance at the Pac-12 championship.
Because of injuries, USC coaches said that the team will be relying on significant contributions from younger players who have not seen the field much this season.
Outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu changed his position and practiced as an inside linebacker on Tuesday, and freshman Chris Brown will make his first start at USC at offensive guard. Brown said offensive line coach Bob Connelly has rotated him into most of the games this season for 10 to 20 plays. This week, Connelly said that the line will be practicing both silent and loud communication skills in an attempt to combat the crowd noise at Oregon.
“We have been practicing being super clear. Making the calls super loud. Making sure that we are all on the same page,” Brown said. “I don’t think it will be difficult. I feel prepared and confident in the way I am playing now.”
The spotlight will surely be on USC’s offensive line this week, as USC coaches said they want to maintain control of the ball and the time of possession in an attempt to limit Oregon’s scoring opportunities.
Consequently, expect Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis, who combined for 146 yards against Colorado, to have large amounts of carries on Saturday. Injuries to significant starters have caused players like Chris Brown to exemplify the “next-man-up” mentality Helton has unfortunately had to preach all season, which Connelly said leads to a lot of confusion among the line on the field. Though Connelly said that the success of an offensive line is largely defined by the relationship between its players, he admitted he is proud of how young players like Khaliel Rodgers, and Chris Brown, have stepped in and played well in key situations.
Additionally, Kessler said it’s been great to see this young line improve after every game.
“I just have to stay confident in them and really just let them know that I believe in them and I trust them,” Kessler said. “I will get on them a little bit and yell at them sometimes. But they are so young, they are working so hard and I see the effort that they put in. I never want to get down on them. I love those guys.”