What a difference six weeks can make.
When the USC team plane flew home from Tempe, Ariz., in the early morning hours of Sept. 30, the Trojans were at a low ebb. The spirit of the team was down, and USC athletic director Pat Haden was left with no choice but to make a change at the head coaching position.
At the time, the Trojans were 3-2 and the main focus was trying get things turned in a positive direction. Haden talked about getting back to the “fun and energy” of college football. Things were so down that a decision by interim coach Ed Orgeron to return cookies to the training table made national news.
The honeymoon period began in the Coliseum on an emotional night against Arizona where the Trojans hung on for a victory and quarterback Cody Kessler spoke impassioned postgame words of praise for Orgeron. It was the first sign that something really different could be going on.
Notre Dame was next, a night filled with mistakes and critically timed errors that resulted in a tough defeat. In the locker room, the players spoke genuinely about how much they had wanted to win the game for Orgeron, yet another sign.
The next three games, all victories over Pac-12 opponents Utah, Oregon State and Cal, have seen steady improvement from the Trojans, to a level that seemed almost unimaginable following the loss to ASU. The USC team which gave up 62 points to the Sun Devils is now coming off a game in which it scored 62 against the Golden Bears. The victory sets up a nationally televised showdown with Stanford next Saturday at the Coliseum with the ESPN GameDay crew in town.
It would have been quite a stretch to predict this scenario when Orgeron took over, yet here it is. This is a game which will provide an important measuring stick for the USC side in so many ways.
For the current team, it will be a test to see just how far they have come. Just a few weeks ago there was a worry that injuries would become too much of an issue to overcome. While it’s true the Trojans will be without a few key players they would certainly rather have in the lineup, there has been a dramatic rise in the “next man up” syndrome with players such as Javorius Allen, Nelson Agholor and J.R. Tavai stepping in for injured players and performing well.
In the last two games in particular, the Trojans seem to be playing at a higher physical level on both sides of the ball, something that will be critical against the Cardinal. Make no mistake about it: Stanford is no Cal. The Trojans will be taking a huge step up. The Cardinal are playing for a potential spot in the national title game while the Trojans are looking to stay alive for a berth in the conference title game.
The game against the Cardinal also offers a chance for the Trojans to halt the Stanford four-game winning streak in this series. Stanford is the oldest USC rival in a series that dates to 1905 and the Cardinal had never won four in a row prior to this point.
The thought of that streak stretching to five is not appealing to the Cardinal and Gold. For so many years the Trojans lived with the identity of being the power team while Stanford was known as the finesse team. Jim Harbaugh came to Palo Alto and changed that identity, and David Shaw has certainly kept it going. The best way for Orgeron and the Trojans to show that things are really different is to beat the Cardinal. It’s that simple.
For Orgeron, you can’t understate how important this game will be to his shot at being named the full-time USC coach. Few would put him as the favorite to win the job, but a victory in this game -- now matter how it happens -- could be enough to launch Orgeron into the lead position, depending on how things go the rest of the year. Almost as important as the outcome, however, will be to see how the team plays for him.
There’s little doubt that Orgeron deserves a ton of praise for the way the team has responded to him up until this point and now they get a chance to show how they play for him with so much on the line. If the Trojans play inspired football on this kind of stage, how can Haden not make Orgeron a serious candidate? Coach “O” has pushed the right buttons in so many other areas that he has put himself in position to make a real good claim for the job.
With all that being said, there is still the matter of playing the game. Stanford is good; everybody knows that. The Trojans will find out a lot about how good they are in relation to the Cardinal when the teams line up on Saturday. It should be quite the battle.