- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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While USC was dealing with the cold mountain weather and holding off a scrappy Colorado team, 47-29, Saturday night, UCLA was guaranteeing that the ultimate prize wouldn’t be at stake in this Saturday’s renewal of the great rivalry. Arizona State held on, beat the Bruins and locked up the Pac-12 south. That slammed the door on both teams’ paths to the Rose Bowl, but such stakes aren’t required when USC and UCLA meet.
Many projections place USC in the Las Vegas bowl next month. The last time USC played in that game, 12 years ago, it was beginning to rebuild under a new coach. You begin to wonder if Ed Orgeron will be given the same opportunity Pete Carroll once was.
Could Marqise Lee’s injury-ravaged season, which undoubtedly has caused him to slide on some NFL draft boards, convince him to return for his senior year? Even if it doesn’t, there have been some benefits to Lee’s sporadic availability. The ball is getting to receivers Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers and they have proven capable of making big plays. Quarterback Cody Kessler also has been more and more comfortable getting the ball to tight end Xavier Grimble, another talented player. Most people expect Lee to play Saturday, which will give Kessler as diverse an array of targets as he has ever enjoyed. Kessler didn’t have spectacular numbers, but he didn’t throw an interception and was sacked just once. This phase of the offense is beginning to click.
Javorius Allen injured his shoulder in the first half and the Trojans couldn’t move the ball effectively on the ground, but they regrouped at halftime and Allen rushed for 112 yards in the second half alone. Allen rushed for 137 yards total in the team’s first eight games and he has rushed for 100 yards or more in each of their past three games. Allen had a fumble, but ran with toughness and determination after that. He has rushed for nine touchdowns in the past four games. He and the offensive line are giving USC’s offense some hammering ability.
IN THE TRENCHES
Early in the game, the USC offensive line seemed to be regressing. The Trojans eked out just 37 rushing yards in the first half. It’s not what you would have expected considering Colorado ranked 103rd in the NCAA against the run. On the other hand, the line got its act together at halftime -- allowing Allen to put the game away -- and it ably protected Kessler.
USC’s front seven is the strength of the team, plain and simple. Colorado didn’t score when USC’s first-team defense was completely intact. In the first half, Colorado could manage just 30 rushing yards and quarterback Sefo Liufau was 4-of-15 for 43 yards, a fumble and an interception. There was really nowhere the Buffaloes could turn against a fast, increasingly disciplined unit. Cornerback Josh Shaw largely shut down star receiver Paul Richardson, who didn’t have a catch until the third quarter. On the other hand, USC’s lack of depth was exposed again. The second unit allowed 22 fourth-quarter points. Barring another series of injuries this week, it’s not worth being overly concerned about.
Soma Vainuku, who ripped off a 52-yard run, is becoming a bigger part of the offense, but his real impact is often made on special teams. He blocked a Colorado punt through the end zone for a safety in the first quarter. It was Vainuku’s third blocked punt of the season. One of the best things Lane Kiffin ever did for this program was to hire special teams coach John Baxter, who has continued to find ways for his groups to make an impact. The low point for special teams Saturday was punting. Kris Albarado averaged 30.2 yards per punt, including a shanked 17-yarder that led to a Colorado touchdown late in the game.
This next game is the kind of thing Ed Orgeron was born for. He’s a fiery motivator who loves to talk about USC tradition and will find the right emotional buttons to push to have his team excited about Saturday’s game. Of course, it could come down to whether USC’s defense can manage UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley and avenge last year’s 10-point loss at the Rose Bowl. This week could play a large part in determining whether Orgeron will remain as USC’s coach following the bowl game. Athletic director Pat Haden has already said he’ll give him serious consideration and that’s about as much as you could ask this early in the process.
While USC was dealing with the cold mountain weather and holding off a scrappy Colorado team, 47-29, Saturday night, UCLA was guaranteeing that the ultimate prize wouldn’t be at stake in this Saturday’s renewal of the great rivalry.