Gold: Trojans have shed the nerves but now face their stiffest test
For 10 of the Pac-12’s football teams, the start of conference play is like hitting the reset button on the season.
Colorado is not 0-3 with 3 embarrassing losses, it is 0-0 with a chance to win the league. A 0.001 percent chance, but a chance nonetheless.
Arizona State is not 1-2 and reeling from the loss of its head coach; it is 0-0 with a new man and a new message. Stranger things have happened.
Conference play breathes new life into teams left for dead. It also helps separate the contenders from the pretenders, and in a league with 5 teams at 5-0 and 4 teams at 2-1, there are plenty of both.
But for Stanford — and more importantly, for No. 7 USC — Saturday does not offer a fresh start. With the teams having played each other in the season’s first 3 weeks every year since 2014, the Trojans already have a taste of the Pac-12. They head into Saturday’s crucial 6:30 p.m. matchup at Oregon State’s Reser Stadium battle-tested and having shed the nerves of that dreaded first conference road tilt.
“With that Stanford game, it’s a Pac-12 road game, and there was a huge emphasis on it,” said USC center Brett Neilon, who has started 32 of his career 37 games, including plenty of conference road matchups. “It’s Week 2 and we’re playing in a place we haven’t really won a lot at the last 14 years. Now we’ve already won a conference road game, so I don’t think it feels different at all.”
In many ways, the Trojans have already cleared several hurdles this season.
- They won Lincoln Riley’s debut against Rice, scoring 7 touchdowns in a 66-14 win over Rice.
- They bumrushed the Cardinal in Week 2, scoring touchdowns on their first 5 drives en route to a 41-28 win.
- More importantly, they saw what happens when they take their foot off the gas pedal, as they were outscored 14-6 in the second half.
- They rebounded from that poor second half to put together 60 minutes of terrific football in a 45-17 home win over Fresno State last week.
- They’ve had a 300-yard passer (Caleb Williams) and multiple 100-yard rushers (Travis Dye and Austin Jones) and a 100-yard receiver (Jordan Addison). They’ve had quick-pick-6s and knocked out quarterbacks.
And, most importantly, they cleared the biggest hurdle of them all: Coming together as a cohesive unit despite a new coaching staff and the arrival of more key transfers in key positions than any other program in the country.
“From my perspective, we’ve gelled pretty well,” said right tackle Jonah Monheim, USC’s starting right tackle and Pro Football Focus’ No. 6-rated tackle in the country “Whether in the locker room hanging out or on the field competing, we’re pretty gelled. Obviously, you can always get closer and learn more about people, be a better friend or teammate. That’s across the board. But playing as a team, we’ve done a good job of supporting each other, offense cheering on defense, defense cheering on offense. I don’t know what my expectations were coming in, but I think we’ve gelled pretty well.”
Now the Trojans face their stiffest test yet, the same Oregon State team that beat USC in Los Angeles last season.
This isn’t just a hurdle, it’s a wall.
Saturday’s matchup is a clash of styles and a contrast in team roster building.
The Trojans were arguably the most active team in the transfer portal this year, adding more offensive firepower than a Howitzer factory. The Beavers signed precisely one transfer, running back Jamious Griffin, who has 12 carries this year for 60 yards and a touchdown. That’s been a good half this year for USC’s Dye and Jones.
And of course, Riley, the biggest transfer of them all.
Oregon State, meanwhile, boasts one of the most stable coaching staffs in the country, led by one of the best quarterbacks in program history, Jonathan Smith. The Beavers have been steadily on the rise, improving from 2-10 and 1-8 in Pac-12 play in Smith’s first year in 2018 to 7-6 and 5-4 a year ago. Now Oregon State is 3-0 with wins over two solid Mountain West teams, Boise State and Fresno State.
That isn’t lost on the Trojans.
“A Pac-12 road game is always super important and Oregon State is an awesome team, and last year they were playing really well,” Neilon said. “This year they’ve been playing awesome. Going into a hostile environment against a 3-0 team, it’s going to be a dog fight. We have to focus on us and our execution.”
USC’s execution on the offensive end has been among the best in the country, but now it faces a good Oregon State defense.
The Trojans’ defense has yielded yards but not many points, but now takes on Chance Nolan and his 9.9 yards per attempt and 7/2 touchdown to interception ratio.
Getting off to a 4-0 start — and a 2-0 start in Pac-12 play — is crucial to USC and its enormous goals.
“There’s no doubt Oregon State is a really good team,” Monheim said. “They’ve got a solid program, off to a good start. But regardless of who we’re playing, we have to have a faceless opponent mindset. It’s all about us.”