Almost everything will be the same for the USC Trojans when they take the field Thursday night against Arizona in their first game since losing to Arizona State on Sept. 28.
The players are the same. The schemes/concepts are the same. Uniforms, helmets, etc., all the same. It’s what’s under the helmets -- specifically between the ears -- that might be noticeably different.
That ... and also a new coach. You might recall Lane Kiffin was fired nearly two weeks ago and the Trojans have spent the past 11 days going through a rebirth of sorts. The hope in Troy is that their minds are right for Thursday night's kickoff.
“There is a lot of energy and excitement right now which is a good thing going into the Arizona game,” said USC linebacker Devon Kennard. “When Coach Kiffin first got fired, some guys were really surprised and some guys were sad. After our first meeting, we bounced back and we’re ready to move forward and we’re really buying into what Coach O is doing and the direction he’s trying to take this program. We believe. That’s a good start.”
Coach O, being Ed Orgeron, was named interim head coach following the near-immediate dismissal of Kiffin following the 62-41 loss in Tempe, Ariz. He’s spent the bye week doing everything he can to put the fun back in USC.
“It was a critical week for us to get back to USC football,” Orgeron said. “These guys have been through a lot, so I tried to ease up on them and change a couple of things that were going on in the program. I thought we needed some change and to let the guys know it was going in a different direction. It’s been great. The guys have been walking around and smiling. There is a lot of energy in the room. A lot of energy on the practice field. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, but still focused.”
Kennard said many of the players were surprised Kiffin was fired. He added that they were aware of the outside noise, but few thought it would actually happen during the season. Kennard said he’s swapped text messages with Kiffin and thanked him for everything he did for him.
Then he, Orgeron and the Trojans got down to business.
“Coach O addressed the hard circumstances, but reminded us that the only thing that matters is the men in this room,” Kennard said. “We’ve got to fight the rest of the season. We really have a unique opportunity to turn this season around with a fresh start and a new beginning. That really fired a lot of the guys up.”
So what will the Trojans look like under Orgeron? Probably not too different than the previous Trojans. But Orgeron said there will be subtle tweaks that hopefully will have not-so-subtle results. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will call the plays and Clancy Pendergast will continue to run the defense.
“It’s hard to make wholesale changes in a week,” Orgeron said. “... There is hope. You’ve seen the running game; we’re making strides. Our strength is our running backs. The offensive line is doing a better job. We got out of whack in our passing game and it was not what USC used to be. We went back to some fundamentals. Some things they do really well and some things they aren’t ready to do. We’re making it quarterback-friendly so we can do some things we know we can do to get the ball deep.”
Arizona knows a little something about changing coaches in midseason. It happened to the Wildcats in 2011 when Mike Stoops was let go. The Wildcats came out the following game and beat UCLA 48-12. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said his team is preparing for an emotionally charged USC squad.
“I would hope we would play normally like ourselves no matter what,” Rodriguez said. “But I did tell the players that this game is going to be more difficult because USC is going to play extremely fired up, loose and come out with a chip on their shoulder. We will get USC’s best shot.”
Kennard and his teammates see the change as an opportunity to move forward and erase the negativity that has plagued the program for the past nine months.
“At this point in the season, coming off the ASU loss, things could be a lot more down around the locker room than they are,” he said. “But because of the change, there is a lot of energy and guys feel like it’s a fresh start and a new opportunity for everyone. In that sense, it gives us a clean slate. Nothing that happened up until this point matters. All that matters is the future.”