Surging Trojans are bucking the odds

There are lots of ways to gain respect in college football. There are the fans, the media and, certainly, your opponents to consider.

But the true sign of respect comes from only one place: The oddsmakers.

The gentlemen who set the betting lines in Las Vegas are cold, dispassionate observers. They do not let loyalty, emotion or bias enter into their thinking. They are the most objective sports observers on the planet.

And now, more than anyone else, they have given Ed Orgeron and his rapidly improving USC Trojans the ultimate sign of respect.

They have opened No. 5 Stanford, the team that has beaten supposedly unbeatable Oregon two years in a row, the clear bully of the Pac-12, the Rose Bowl-winning group that has gone 20-3 over the past two seasons, as only a 3-point favorite over USC.

Clearly, the guys in ‘Vegas have been impressed by the resurgent Trojans, and that’s more significant than anything you’ll see in the national polls.

Orgeron should be proud. But he also should be wary.

After watching his kids unload 62 points on Cal, the tendency is to start thinking his team can run it up on anybody. Well, Stanford isn’t anybody.

Going from Cal to Stanford is tantamount to going from a series with the Houston Astros to one against the Boston Red Sox. That’s who David Shaw’s guys are, the Red Sox of the West, sans the beards, of course.

The Cardinal are the heavyweights of the conference, both literally and figuratively. They have future NFL players everywhere you look, from guard David Yankey to linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy and safety Ed Reynolds.

Their objective is no mystery. They try to beat you up on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Ask Oregon. The Ducks have that futuristic offense and those snazzy uniforms and dull, old-school Stanford simply came out and stuffed them. The score of that game was 26-0 at one point, and only a blocked field goal for a touchdown and a recovered onsides kick allowed Oregon to crawl back to within 26-20.

Realistically, can USC win this game? Sure, but it will have to play better than at any time this season. Both physically and mentally, the Trojans have made startling improvement since the night the lights and the job were turned off on Lane Kiffin.

Orgeron definitely has muscled his way back into the head coaching discussion, and a victory on Saturday could catapult him right to the top of athletic director Pat Haden’s list.

The trick will be pulling it off. Let’s not forget Notre Dame and Utah overpowered USC’s offensive line, and neither of those teams is as talented up front as the Cardinal.

The Trojans’ resurgence has been ignited by Orgeron’s return to a power running game. You have to wonder how well they can run against a Stanford defense that made Oregon’s sleek tailbacks look like they were slogging in mud.

Then again, after the past two weeks, the big question concerning USC must be asked: Just how good is Javorius "Buck" Allen, anyway?

The redshirt sophomore from Tallahassee, Fla., has rushed for 268 yards and scored a combined six touchdowns against Oregon State and Cal, and that’s without playing much at all in the second half at Berkeley.

Allen is listed at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, but he appears bigger than that. He has quick feet and the kind of speed you don’t often see in players his size. And the more you watch him, the more impressed you are, which makes you wonder why he took so long to be discovered.

Many of us who observed spring practice came away thinking Allen was the most intriguing tailback out there. Justin Davis, the exciting freshman, was flashier, but even he didn’t have Allen’s combination of size and speed. Why Kiffin didn’t utilize “Buck” earlier this season, when everything else seemed to be going wrong, remains a mystery.

But certainly Orgeron and running backs coach Tommie Robinson recognized something that Kiffin didn’t. They moved Allen into the tailback rotation immediately, and now there is no way they are getting him out.

If the injury to Silas Redd’s knee limits his playing time on Saturday, it will be Allen and true freshman Ty Isaac, another good looking runner, who will carry the load against Stanford.

For the second week in a row, the Trojans were beautifully balanced on offense, running for 256 yards and passing for 243 against Cal. The effectiveness of Allen and the other tailbacks sets up the play-action passes that have helped quarterback Cody Kessler immeasurably.

And if a rested Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor, another obvious gamebreaker Kiffin seemed to ignore, have enough time to work over Stanford’s secondary, it could get very interesting in front of a loud, sellout Coliseum crowd.

Stanford will try to control the ball and the clock, the way it did at Oregon. Nobody does that better than the Cardinal, who try to beat you with muscle, not finesse. This will be the biggest challenge of the season for Devon Kennard and his buddies on defense.

So can the Trojans pull it off? I’m not sure, but when in doubt, always trust the oddsmakers.

And they think this could be a very close, competitive football game.