For the first time in a while at USC, people are staring longingly over at Westwood. The Bruins may be trending down with two losses in their last three games, but right now, UCLA has something the Trojans desperately want: a bye week.
People have been harping on USC’s lack of a midseason break since the team released its schedule in January. But what seemed like over-exaggerated preseason speculation has proved true. Injuries have significantly depleted the Trojan ranks four weeks into the season, and most recently, the team has lost senior offensive guard Viane Talamaivao to a year-ending pectoral surgery.
When the team runs onto the field at the Coliseum on Saturday, it will likely be without three of its regular offensive linemen (after losing three starting linemen last spring to the NFL Draft). The Trojans’ top pass-rusher, junior linebacker Porter Gustin, remains without a timetable for return from a bicep injury, and redshirt sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhbhe hasn’t played since the season opener against Western Michigan after emerging as an oft-targeted red-zone threat last year. A host of other significant contributors are on the injury report as well, from freshman running back Stephen Carr to junior defensive lineman Rasheem Green.
Fortunately, Oregon State is in town this week — and the Beavers are the closest USC gets to a bye this season. No disrespect to Gary Andersen’s squad, but Oregon State has only won one game this fall: a 3-point victory over winless FCS outfit Portland State. Most recently, the Beavers took a four-touchdown loss to Washington State, had a bye week and then came back with a seven-touchdown drubbing at the hands of Washington. Under normal circumstances, head coach Clay Helton could take this week as an opportunity to sit any players who could use an extra week of rest. Maybe he would even get a chance to show Trojan fans a glimpse of the future, playing one of his two freshman quarterbacks.
Then again, that’s what many thought against Western Michigan on Week 1. And these aren’t normal circumstances. Not only has USC carried serious championship expectations since the start of the calendar year, but the team is also coming off its first loss of the season last Friday night. The Trojans’ deflating defeat to Washington State leaves them no margin for error over the next seven-plus weeks. They enter Saturday as whopping 34-point favorites over Oregon State, and they will have to come close to covering that spread in order to convince skeptics — undoubtedly including some on the College Football Playoff selection committee — that the loss to the Cougars was a bump in the road, not the collapse of a fatally flawed team.
So as much as Helton and his squad could use a break, they don’t have the luxury of manufacturing one this week. The Trojans may be beat-up, but the starters (especially on offense) haven’t looked fully in-sync all year and were at their worst last Friday. They need the reps on Saturday to generate some confidence and momentum with a key two-game stretch against Utah and at Notre Dame coming up next.
And no one needs a confidence boost more than redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. Though he continues to show glimpses of the one-of-a-kind playmaking ability that catapulted him to the top of NFL draft boards, Darnold has also shown questionable decision-making this season, and he has uncharacteristically missed multiple open receivers.
Darnold’s recent struggles aren’t necessarily entirely his fault: Receivers have had trouble getting open, and the in-flux offensive line is doing him no favors, forcing Darnold to run for his life against Washington State. But no matter what is to blame, this weekend is a ripe opportunity to get back on track. USC’s very green line will have a chance to find some rhythm as a unit against an Oregon State pass rush that has averaged just 1.2 sacks per game this fall — tied for 110th in the nation. Meanwhile, a presumably better-protected Darnold will look to pick apart a unit that ranks 120th in total defense out of 129 FBS programs.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s unit, which ranks sixth in the country with 12 forced turnovers, will be salivating at the prospect of facing the Beavers, who are second-to-last in the FBS with 14 giveaways. Oregon State’s overall offense isn’t very intimidating, either: its mark of 321.6 yards per game ranks 112th nationally, and the team’s 21.2 points per game are good for 110th, behind winless dumpster fires like Baylor and UMass.
The Beavers deserve as much respect as any other opponent, but Saturday is undeniably a soft matchup for the Trojans. The team may not get a bye, but a cupcake conference game is the next best thing. Ideally, USC would flip on cruise control from the start and get to next week healthy and rested. Helton and company desperately need a statement victory, though — and they will need to keep their foot on the gas in order to turn heads. A three-touchdown win will be a nonfactor on the Trojans’ playoff resume. A 40-point demolition job, on the other hand, may just convince doubters to reconsider their stance.
This weekend needs to be a wake-up call, not just to USC but also to the rest of the college football world. The playoff dream is still alive — the Trojans just need to remind everyone before it’s too late.
Ollie Jung is a senior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs Fridays.