Last December, USC couldn’t have seemed less happy to be playing in the Sun Bowl, the team’s national title hopes having devolved into a grim afternoon in a windstorm in El Paso. Given everything that has gone on around the program this season -- headlined by the firing of coach Lane Kiffin and including one punishing injury after another -- reaching a lesser bowl game would be a nice sign of progress. Saturday’s 19-3 win over Utah was a vital step. The Trojans (5-3) need two more wins to become bowl eligible. It’s far from a lock with the remaining home games against Stanford and UCLA and a road game to Corvallis, always a nightmare venue for the Trojans. But a young, injury-ravaged team at least kept alive some hope.
Cody Kessler is making progress. The sophomore quarterback avoided pressure and spread the ball around, so that -- despite a rough afternoon from his offensive line -- he had a surprisingly productive day. He completed 21 of his 32 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown. And that was with his receiver corps reduced to three scholarship players and no scholarship tight ends. On the other hand, the Trojans went 3-for-15 on third down, continuing a grim season-long trend. Presuming Kessler gets some weapons back in the coming weeks, there’s hope he can continue to provide a glimmer of a return to USC’s high-flying days. Seems like a while ago.
No fumbles! Coach Ed Orgeron, ever the optimist, chose to talk about that on his Sunday evening conference call when somebody asked him about his team’s rushing game. On the other hand, the Trojans netted just 30 yards on the ground, a pretty sad state of affairs for a program that used to be able to exert itself on defenses with a powerful, dangerous run game. It’s not as if Utah has an impermeable front seven either. A week earlier, Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey rushed for 236 yards all by himself against the Utes.
IN THE TRENCHES
The skill positions are ravaged with injuries, but no unit on the team has sunk deeper than the offensive line. Typically, USC has at least one All-American on its offensive line and at least two or three future NFL players. This group is either short of talent or struggling to work as a unit. Not only did USC ball carriers find the going tough, but Kessler was sacked five times and seemingly always on the move. Defensive tackle Antwaun Woods, a redshirt sophomore, had his finest collegiate game, with a sack and a batted ball.
One of the reasons Monte Kiffin’s defenses didn’t seem to be a good fit at USC was that they struggled to produce turnovers. That hasn’t been the case under the more aggressive schemes of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, one of the reasons USC is at least offering hopes of becoming a competitive, entertaining team to watch. The Trojans forced four turnovers and held Utah to just 201 total yards of offense. They also came up with six sacks and held the Utes to 71 rushing yards. The secondary looked dynamic at times.
Orgeron opened the place kicking job to competition last week after Andre Heidari went 1 for 3 on field goal attemps against Notre Dame. Heidari held off a couple of challengers and made four of his five attempts Saturday, a career day. Orgeron wasn’t happy with his punt coverage unit.
Orgeron might be the perfect man to coach a young team dealing with constant turmoil. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and insists on tough, no-excuses play from his team. The inconsistency week-to-week is alarming at times, but it’s also probably par for the course given everything that has happened. The talent level is as low as it has been in generations. Aside from Marqise Lee, who has been in and out of the lineup with a knee injury, nobody else springs to mind as a difference-maker on the field. If Orgeron can get the Trojans into a bowl game, athletic director Pat Haden should give some serious thought to removing the interim label.