The story goes that when the USC buses pulled up to Reser Stadium on Sept. 25, 2008, just about every member of the No. 1 team in the nation was fast asleep. Perhaps visions of sugar plums were dancing in their heads.
Ah, but they were about to get a rude awakening! For their dreams were going to turn into nightmares! Or, you know, make up your own sleep-related riposte with dramatic voice-over. We all know what happens when the Trojans go to Corvallis, Ore., their football Bermuda Triangle. They seem to underestimate the Beavers, then get whipped. In this case, they were sliced and diced by 186 yards rushing from Jacquizz Rodgers in a 27-21 defeat.
That 2008 team didn't lose again. The nation's most talented collection of players -- probably by a wide margin -- finished No. 3 in the AP poll and second with the coaches. Ah, what could have been in Pete Carroll's penultimate season at USC.
Yet there's a strong case the 2008 team should have known better. In 2006, third-ranked and unbeaten USC went down 33-31 in Corvallis, ending Troy’s 27-game Pac-10 winning streak and 38-game regular-season winning streak.
Most recently, in 2010, with Lane Kiffin leading his first Trojans team, the Beavers dominated in a 36-7 victory.
That was the most recent meeting between these teams, a third consecutive Beavers win in Corvallis. That's USC's longest current road losing streak to a Pac-12 foe. Historically, the Trojans have dominated this series, holding a 59-11-4 advantage, which includes a 26-game winning streak from 1968 to 1999. But Corvallis, USC's destination on Friday, seems to be where the Trojans go to be humbled.
"I think you have to give Mike Riley and Oregon State the credit," USC interim coach Ed Orgeron said. "Those guys do a tremendous job when the Trojans get up there. It seems he always has his team ready to play for us, a great game plan. We need to do a better job of preparing our team for playing in a hostile environment."
OK, credit to Riley. Everyone knows he's a great coach. Often lost in the discussion of these wins over touted USC teams is that the Beavers were pretty darn good in 2006 (10-4) and 2008 (9-4). Still, is there some special Beavers mojo created when the Trojans take Route 34 into Corvallis?
"The only real explanation there is we maximized our playing when we've played them in the past," Riley said. "That's what it's always taken, they've been so good."
Of course, this is all academic, probably nothing more than a curiosity in a conference series. While William Faulkner would tell us "The past is never dead. It's not even past," football coaches don't think that way. What happened last year has little relevance to this year's game, so games that took place three, five and seven years ago are even more irrelevant. None of the prominent names in the 2010 box score will figure in the game Friday. Both programs are in different places, too.
USC, by the very fact of Orgeron's title, is a team in transition. The Trojans are trying to salvage a respectable season after Kiffin's firing, then they'll learn who their next coach will be. They need two more wins on their 13-game schedule to become bowl eligible.
As a team, the Trojans' offense has mostly been woeful, and injuries are making it difficult for it to right itself. The defense, other than hiccups against Arizona State and Arizona, has been mostly stellar. That leads into this game's big matchup: Oregon State QB Sean Mannion and WR Brandin Cooks versus the USC defense.
The Trojans shut down Utah last week in a 19-3 win. They held the Utes to 201 total yards and recorded six sacks, three interceptions and kept them scoreless after a field goal on their first possession. The Beavers have the nation's most potent passing attack, but it was mostly muted by Stanford's defense last weekend. The Cardinal sacked Mannion eight times, and the Beavers had yielded only nine sacks in the previous seven games.
Riley said the protection issues against Stanford were about missed assignments as well as some one-on-one battles that didn't go well.
"We made some assignment mistakes on some stuff Stanford did, and that cost us some sacks, and then physically we'd get beat from time to time," he said. "Sean battled in there. He actually played about as well as he could, considering the circumstances."
USC will try to create the same circumstances, though the Beavers' cause is helped by the fact that Trojans outside linebacker Morgan Breslin (hip) again won't play. Even without Breslin, however, defensive lineman Leonard Williams leads a strong Trojans front seven.
The Beavers need a win to keep themselves in the Pac-12 North Division picture. A victory also might propel them back into the national rankings, and it would certainly boost their bowl prospects with three games to play.
Here's a guess that USC's players won't be fast asleep when their bus pulls up to Reser Stadium on Friday evening.