Everything seemed to be going along as it usually does for Oregon State -- another cold start, another roaring finish -- until James Rodgers heard a pop in his left knee.
Rodgers’ season-ending injury last month has sent the Beavers’ season spiraling down, down, down. Oregon State is 1-3 since the game when their best receiver was hurt, coming off back-to-back losses at UCLA and at home to Washington State. The latter was the most baffling. It broke the Cougars’ 16-game conference losing streak.
It’s hard to know where to start. The defense has been porous, the offense inconsistent and even special teams were a major problem against Washington State. The Beavers missed a field-goal attempt and fumbled twice on kickoff returns.
“In every phase we had breakdowns,” OSU coach Mike Riley said on his Sunday conference call. “Basically, we all have responsibility for it and we all have to be responsible for pulling us out of this thing.”
It’s looking as if the Beavers (4-5, 3-3 in the Pac-10) will be home for bowl season, much like USC, but for different reasons. They need to win two of their final three games to qualify and they’re facing No. 20 USC (at 5 p.m. Saturday on ABC), No. 7 Stanford and No. 1 Oregon.
Oregon State’s down season is part of a quandary for the Pac-10, which might end up with only three bowl-eligible teams. How embarrassing would that be?
USC coaches, of course, are trying their best not to let their players see this upcoming game as a shoo-in. The Trojans probably aren’t good enough yet to take that kind of attitude. Besides, they generally don’t play well in Corvallis, Ore. They’ve lost their last two games there, including a crushing one in 2008 that was their only loss and cost them a shot at the national title.
Lane Kiffin said he picked up a copy of the Tucson Citizen on Saturday morning and was reminded why no Pac-10 game seems to be easy for USC.
“On the front it says, ‘No motivation needed, USC is coming to town.’ That’s just a reminder that it doesn’t matter what teams’ records are, SC is everyone’s big game,” Kiffin said. “Because of how dominant we’ve been here over the years, everyone gets up for this game. They’ll be ready to play and the crowd will be into it.”
Mobile quarterbacks have been Oregon State’s main bugaboo. Washington State’s Jeff Tuel ran for more than half as many yards (79) as he passed for (157).
While USC quarterback Matt Barkley won’t be a running threat, he’s mobile enough to get outside the pocket and complete deep balls on the run. Bigger threats loom beyond this week. Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Oregon’s Darron Thomas can pick up big yardage on foot.
USC’s task this week is about as straightforward as it could be. They need to keep Jacquizz Rodgers from running wild, but they rarely do. He and the OSU offensive line practically beat them by themselves when Jacquizz was a freshman. Then, he had 113 yards on 20 carries last year.
The Trojans outlasted the Beavers, 42-36, last year in the Coliseum, but it wasn’t easy. The teams traded scores, with Oregon State actually outscoring USC 27-21 in the second half. Allen Bradford, who didn’t have a carry in Saturday’s win over Arizona, carried the load. He rushed 15 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns.