When the Trojans run out of the tunnel to take on the Arizona Wildcats tonight, it’ll be a much different team than the group that took the field for USC’s most recent game 12 days ago.
Gone is former head coach Lane Kiffin. Junior wide receiver Marqise Lee (knee) and senior linebacker Morgan Breslin (hip), arguably USC’s best offensive and defensive players, respectively, aren’t expected to take the field, either.
Interim head coach Ed Orgeron will lead the Trojans from their locker room down the tunnel in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, past the images of dozens of renowned players and coaches who have established the prestigious tradition associated with USC football.
“It’s really an honor to go down the tunnel,” Orgeron said. “[To see] the tradition, to look up on the wall with all those great players there, hear the cleats go ‘click clack’ … I really enjoy it.”
Those Trojans overcame adversity to have their likenesses enshrined in that tunnel. The question every USC fan wants to know now is: Will Orgeron and his players, who have certainly seen their fair share of hardship this season, follow in those legends’ footsteps by overcoming the Wildcats to restore faith in this year’s squad?
Orgeron, who will complete the first part of his eight-game audition for the USC coaching job against Arizona, is confident they will.
“I’m prepared for this,” Orgeron said. “Obviously we have to go and perform well, but I really feel that they’re gonna perform well and give it their best shot.”
Tonight marks the first non-Thanksgiving Thursday night game in the regular season ever hosted by USC, a quaint storyline that has since taken a backseat to the more pressing issue – can the Trojans inspire belief through their play in Athletic Director Pat Haden that Orgeron can act as a permanent replacement for Kiffin? Or will they come out with another lackluster performance, convincing Haden that USC needs to wipe its hands clean of all aspects of the Kiffin regime?
The players themselves remain confident in Orgeron, who was the Trojans’ emotional leader as defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator even while Kiffin still reigned o’er Troy.
“We really like Coach O, and even the offensive guys like Coach O as the head coach,” sophomore defensive end Leonard Williams said. “It kind of pushes us to play as hard as we can for him to make sure he stays around… We all want Coach O to stay here.”
If the Trojans do want to keep Orgeron at USC, they’ll have to stop Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, the unquestioned focal point of the Wildcats’ offense.
Carey led the nation in rushing yards per game (148.4) last season and is ranked fifth (143.7) in the same category this year.
“He’s a very aggressive running back,” Williams said. “If he gets hit, he’s always gonna try to get that extra yard.”
But Carey isn’t the only threat in the Wildcats’ running attack, which ranks second in the Pac-12 (291.5 yards per game) behind only Oregon. Quarterback B.J. Denker has 280 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground, and tailback Daniel Jenkins has 252 rushing yards, including a 91-yard touchdown dash.
“Coach O’s really been emphasizing wrapping up this week and working on spin tackles, because we’ve seen on film [Carey] likes to spin out of tackles a lot,” Williams said. “And the quarterback’s a pretty good scrambler as well.”
Arizona’s aerial attack, on the other hand, has been essentially nonexistent. Denker has only completed 50 percent of his attempts while averaging just 111.3 passing yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats rank last in the Pac-12 in passing offense.
Arizona’s defense has been surprisingly solid, ranking second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (14.2 points per game) and fourth in total defense (335.0 yards per game).
But that could be a result of the Wildcats’ exceedingly soft schedule — Arizona defeated Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA before being throttled by Washington, 31-13, in their most recent matchup.
Junior wide receiver Marqise Lee would surely like to get a second crack at the Wildcats’ defense after gashing Arizona for 345 receiving yards last year in his signature performance as a Trojan. But Orgeron has not been optimistic about Lee’s chances of suiting up tonight, stating his star receiver as “very questionable” for the showdown against Arizona.
Though one offensive star is expected to sit on the sideline, another will suit up for USC for the first time this season.
Senior running back Silas Redd is expected to make his return against the Wildcats, though junior tailback Tre Madden will continue to start after impressing in Redd’s absence. Freshman tailback Justin Davis will also continue to get touches, and Orgeron even mentioned after practice on Tuesday that he was impressed with fellow freshman back Ty Isaac.
“Ample group of tailbacks that do a good job,” Orgeron said. “We have not discussed a rotation yet but I’m sure all those guys will get some snaps.”
Orgeron has attempted to bring his squad closer by injecting much-needed doses of fun and energy into the program in Kiffin’s wake, adding desserts to the team’s buffet line and taking the team to a movie on Wednesday night ahead of his debut as USC head coach.
“There’s a lot of new energy around here, everybody’s excited and we just can’t wait for Thursday,” redshirt junior cornerback Josh Shaw said. “I think you’re gonna see a lot of guys just flying around and just out there having fun.”
That’s exactly what Orgeron wants to see, and he hopes that the pressure-free atmosphere he’s instituted will translate to better results on the field.
“Obviously there’s probably gonna be some ups and downs that were have to go through,” Orgeron said. “But I want them to fight and compete and play with energy. That I do feel like we’re gonna do well.”