The last time USC faced Arizona, in November of 2012, the Trojans held a commanding second half lead that they were unable to hold on to and the Wildcats ended up coming away with a 39-36 victory. The loss was the start of a 4-7 skid over 11 games that eventually cost former coach Lane Kiffin his job.
Fast forward to the first USC game under interim head coach Ed Orgeron and a similar pattern developed. The Trojans jumped out to an early lead -- thanks in large part to a pair of early Cody Kessler touchdown passes, each of which traveled over 60 yards -- and were seemingly in control with a 21-point lead early in the fourth quarter before Arizona closed the gap to a single touchdown with a few minutes left in the game.
But this night was different and it was all due to the emotion Orgeron has infused in the Trojans.
It has been less than two weeks since Orgeron took over, but the signs were present from kickoff that things were going to be different. During the Trojan Walk, Orgeron was out in front with a big smile and high fives for the fans outside the ropes. When Orgeron and the team walked down the stadium steps onto the field, they were joined at midfield by the player’s families, something that had not been done before.
By the time the team came out for the opening kickoff -- led by former All-American Keyshawn Johnson in his No. 42 Ronnie Lott jersey -- the crowd was enthusiastic and vocal in their support. This wasn’t just any night for the USC football program, it was a chance for a new start. Gone were the clouds that had enveloped the team under Kiffin and, no matter how much Arizona fought back, there was a just a sense that nothing was going to spoil the Orgeron celebration for the Trojans.
And this game was very close. Each team had more than 500 yards of total offense and neither side committed a turnover. New USC offensive play-caller Clay Helton did a good job of spreading the ball around; Nelson Agholor hauled in seven passes for 161 yards and a touchdown while serving as the top receiver with Marqise Lee out and all five healthy scholarship tailbacks carried the ball. Silas Redd saw his first action of the year after spring knee surgery and ended up leading the Trojans with 19 carries for 80 yards.
Unfortunately for USC, the troubles in the secondary that were present against ASU reared their head again. Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker -- known more for his running ability -- completed touchdown passes of 57, 45, 28 and nine yards to help keep his team in the game. The Wildcats also had balance with the strong running of Ka’Deem Carey, who had 21 carries for 138 yards.
By the time Arizona pulled within a single touchdown with just over four minutes left to play, there might have been some who thought it was going to be 2012 all over again. Ironically, the Trojans prevented another Wildcat comeback by doing what they couldn’t do last year -- use the running attack to finish off the game.
During this past offseason, Kiffin had referenced the inability to close out last year’s Arizona game as the need to establish more of a physical run game. Thursday, when the Trojans got the ball back one last time, they were able to finish the job. It was Redd, Redd and more Redd. Seven rushes, no passes, three first downs, the clock down to zeroes and a bright spot in the land of Troy.
After the game, Orgeron ran up the Coliseum tunnel to adoring cheers from the fans. It was also clear how much this game meant to the players as Kessler talked about how the team would go to war for Orgeron because of how much he cares about them. Orgeron summed it up best when he described the emotion he had from seeing the players get the much-needed win.
“I’m happy for the players,” Orgeron said. “I like seeing them feel good about themselves. The key is, after all these guys have been through, we won the ball game.”
It might only be one game but it could be a sign of something more. The loss last year to Arizona set the Trojans on one path and it will be interesting to see if the victory over the Wildcats this year will get things headed in a different direction.