Oct 26, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; USC head coach Ed Orgeron celebrates a defensive stop in the fourth quarter against the Utah Utes at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Trojans won 19-3. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

USC Trojans Playing With Heart, But Is It Enough?

Oct 26, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; USC Trojans safety Josh Shaw (6) tries to get the crowd going during the third quarter of the Trojans 19-3 win over the Utah Utes at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Ever wonder why USC adopted the nickname, the Trojans?

A sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times in the early 1900s named Owen R. Bird coined the nickname because as he saw it, “owing to the terrific handicaps under which the athletes, coaches and managers of the university were laboring and against the overwhelming odds of larger and better equipped rivals, the name ‘Trojan’ suitably fitted the players.”

The story, familiar or not, could not be more fitting this season.

Ed Orgeron’s Trojans are laboring, against sanctions, against injuries, against disappointment and disillusion, but they’re fighting too. They fought all the way to a less-than-pretty 19-3 win over Utah in the Coliseum Saturday.

Despite playing just over 40 scholarship players against the Utes, USC didn’t let the injuries or a demoralizing rivalry game loss get the better of them.

Every category of player you could classify showed heart — the healthy, the injured, the back ups, the walk ons.

Su’a Cravens, a true freshman under incredible pressure in an increasingly thin secondary came up with a key interception which helped increase USC’s lead unexpectedly at the half. Leon McQuay III, another true freshman who has been eagerly awaiting his shot, got an opportunity because of injury and didn’t let it pass him by, snagging the first of what Trojan fans hope will be many interceptions in his career.

“Leon is a great example of what we talked about all week,” Orgeron said. “Somebody was going to get their chance to step up, and he stepped up.”

A veteran in the secondary, Dion Bailey sat out the first half because of injury, yet suited up for the second half after Cravens was knocked out with an injury of his own. JR Tavai, filling in once more for the injured Morgan Breslin, led the Trojans in tackles and logged two sacks.

Josh Shaw, the epitome of a team player, left his natural position as a safety for what feels like the thousandth time and took up the mantle of fill-in cornerback because the team needed it. He was rewarded with the interception that set up Nelson Agholor’s acrobatic touchdown.

Agholor himself was playing hurt. A game-time decision, the sophomore wide out toughed it out despite nursing sore ribs. He took his licks, yet still caught his passes and provided the highlight of the game with a stumbling tight-rope step down the sideline complete with flip into the endzone for the score. His counterpart in the receiving corp, Darreus Rogers fought back from a nagging ankle injury to snag five catches and provide Cody Kessler a much needed target to aim for.

Even Kessler, an unsung hero in the game, had the weight of the offense thrown on his shoulders with a struggling offensive line and stifled running game. Utah knew he was going to drop back and pass, and they punished him on more than one occasion for it, but he got back up each and every time, leading the Trojans with a 65% completion rating, 230 yards and a touchdown. After the game he took none of the credit, instead heaping praise on the walk-ons like Chris Willson, the make-shift tight ends like Nate Guertler, the guys who do whatever is asked of them.

“With the circumstances we had, for us to pull out a win and keep working is just awesome,” Kessler said.

Say what you will about this USC team, but they have yet to give up. They’re still going to war.

Unfortunately, many of those same players showed the same heart against Notre Dame, yet they came up short. They fought. And they lost — because of penalties, because of mental mistakes, because the sad truth is, heart will only get them so far.

USC faces a tough stretch to the finish line. Oregon State awaits on Friday and Sean Mannion will present a much stiffer test to the depleted secondary than an injured Travis Wilson. Beyond that Kevin Hogan and Stanford await. Even further down the road, Brett Hundley and the Bruins are eager for a win streak over their crosstown rivals.

Those quarterbacks will make it their mission to exploit the weaknesses in the defense. Those defensive lines will challenge USC’s offensive line. Those teams will make the men of Troy pay for settling for field goals.

For now, with injuries decimating the roster, a win is a win and the Trojans should enjoy every second of it. But they still have plenty to prove. They still have to show that heart isn’t the only weapon in their arsenal.

Tags: Cody Kessler Dion Bailey Ed Orgeron Josh Shaw JR Tavai Leon McQuay III Nelson Agholor Su'a Cravens USC Trojans

  • http://fansided.com/ Michael Castillo

    This wasn’t a total redemption win for SC by any means. Wilson was hurt, the SC offense still looked inept at times, the OL was borderline terrible and injuries were worsened when you take Graf and Cravens into account. But given how weird the south is and how easily SC could have crumbled after the loss to Notre Dame, there’s definitely plenty of good vibes to take out of this win, if only for confidence’s sake. This team surely needs it going to Mannion’s den, given the secondary’s struggles.

  • Ben Factor

    Coach Orgeron spoke of simplifying the OL assignments and of Kessler’s need to make better decisions.

    Maybe the OL will improve with more simplicity. That may not be a pipe dream.

    I’m not sure if Kessler’s errors were before the snap (not enough audibles) or after the snap. Alicia, do you have any thoughts about what specifically Orgeron was referring to?

    It’s hard to succeed with a weak OL. Nonetheless, Helton doesn’t come across as a guy who is proactively trying all the work-around possibilities. I heard him interviewed, and he sounded sort of complacent about what they’ve tried to do, and not particularly committed to new, perhaps bold, experiments in order to get better results, etc. He’s not fully owning just how bad his results have been the last two weeks, and how it may take more than small adjustments to change that. I may be talking nonsense, but that is my take on Helton, and on how much must change.

    You sure can’t make USC the favorite in those three games, but I could see them perhaps stealing one, depending on who else gets hurt, who comes back and plays, and whether there is some incremental improvement in how things are done.

    It does all begin with playing with heart, and my hat is off to Orgeron and the team regarding that crucial first step.

    • Alicia de Artola

      It has been very clear to me that the offensive linemen don’t grasp their assignments and responsibilities. Yes, sometimes its just that they get beaten (and against d-lines like Notre Dame and Utah that’s going to happen) but my big concern is the way they seem let guys through because of simple indecision. They spend too much time thinking about who they’re supposed to block and less time actually doing it. That’s my guess as to what Coach O is talking about, and the only solution I can think of to that is exactly what it looks like they’re doing – simplify it.

      • Ben Factor

        Alicia, I was referring to Kessler’s “bad decisions” that Orgeron mentioned Sunday. What do you think he specifically meant? Wrong targets? Wrong audibles? Throwing into coverage? Not throwing it quickly enough?

        • Alicia de Artola

          My guess would be both the audibles and the quickness of his decisions. Several sacks this season have been the result of Kessler holding the ball too long, but even before that I think it is an issue of reading the defense pre-snap and recognizing when he should expect more time, when he should expect to get the ball out quickly. Things like that. One of the underrated things Barkley did with a similarly lackluster o-line was avoid sacks by making smart decisions and getting rid of the ball when necessary.

    • Alicia de Artola

      One thing USC really misses this year is a guy like Khaled Holmes. Cody is inexperienced so it doesn’t surprise me that he might not be the greatest at reading a defense, so it’s a shame we don’t have someone like Holmes to give him some extra assistance in that regard. Or at least, if we do have that guy, I haven’t heard who.

      • Matthew Moreno

        I don’t think Marcus Martin is on the same level as Holmes was, but he is experienced. You would think he would have taken hold/control of the line.

        • Alicia de Artola

          He would have been guess for a guy to take over the Holmes role in that sense but I’ve heard nothing wrt who has stepped up into leadership positions on the line.
          And that’s really the problem isn’t it.

        • TrojanChuck

          Marcus Martin is a tremendous leader and motivator. It’s that moron Andre Walker that we have to worry about. He just makes dumb play after dumb play and Martin can’t control him. #BENCHWALKER

          • Matthew Moreno

            The left side of the line has struggled as well. Collectively, the unit has failed to consistently put it all together.

            And to think USC employees two offensive line coaches…

          • TrojanChuck

            Maybe Winston Justice can come back to coach Walker. I mean a third wouldn’t hurt, amirite?

          • Matthew Moreno

            At this point, I don’t think Walker’s deficiencies can be solved with coaching.

          • Alicia de Artola

            At what point then, do we just give up on Walker and give someone else a chance?

          • TrojanChuck

            Now? Why not just roll with Martinez and Markowitz. Plus, I get this weird feeling that Walker is going to leave early……………..

      • Ben Factor

        I’m confused. Once Kessler steps to the line, or into shotgun position, how can the center help him? Am I wrong that it’s up to the QB to see how the defense is positioned and to change the play, the formation, or the first-choice target if he thinks it’s necessary. And then after the snap, it’s up to him to find the open target, throw it away, or take off running.

        Since the OL is porous, if post-snap decisions are the problem, we have to ask whether Kessler lacks time to go through progressions, or whether he is slow or unskilled at it.

        A retired QB said that the GB coach gave QB tests every week. They had to state the blocking schemes for different formations and plays, and know where the likely breakdown would happen. I wonder if Helton does that?

        As you point out about the OL, if you have to think too much in the heat of battle, it’s because the decisions are too numerous or complex, or because you haven’t rehearsed mentally. It seems to me that it’s up to the coach to keep the decisions achievable, and then to motivate the players to mentally rehearse until it’s down cold. I agree with you that the signs suggest that one or both is not happening on the OL. I wonder whether one or both are happening at the QB position?

        So, do you think that Orgeron was criticizing Kessler’s pre-snap or post-snap decisions?

        • Alicia de Artola

          A lot was made last year of Holmes making a lot of the presnap reads for Barkley. So when Kessler steps to the line, yes he’s reading the defense and such, but last year so was Holmes. Unfortunately, we don’t know the level at which Marcus Martin is making his reads or if the authority he has on the line when making those reads is the same as Holmes had. We just know that Holmes made Barkley’s job that much easier by not having to focus as much on adjusting the blocking assignments to the defense shown.
          As for the general question, my guess would be a bit of both. In the context of this discussion, the bigger issue has got to be pre-snap.
          And to be fair to Kessler, this is why having a veteran quarterback makes a difference. He’s still learning on the job, as all young QBs are.

    • TrojanChuck

      I like your comments, Ben. You should write on this blog or something. Enjoy reading your points. My hat is off for Coach O too!

      • Ben Factor

        That’s kind of you to say. I would be interested in trying a few stories if the assignment came with staff and player interview privileges. I like digging into things to test my impressions formed from afar. Unfortunately, I don’t think bloggers get that level of access. It’s less interesting without that.

    • Matthew Moreno

      How would you rate Kessler’s decision making? I think he’s done ok all things considered. It’s improved since he was named the full-time starter.

      His biggest downfall so far has been how long he tends to hold onto the ball without either throwing it away or stepping up in the pocket and picking up some yards with his legs.

      I’m not sure how much control he has to audible at the line of scrimmage. I’ve noticed he’s done it on occasion, but it’s unclear (to me) whether it was on his own accord or came from the sideline.