The concerns intensified after USC lost to Oregon -- a bowl game of sorts -- on Oct. 30. The Trojans were only 2-3 in the Pac-10 at that point, and had taken the emotional 1-2 punch of losing to Washington and Stanford on last-play field goals. But USC didn't fold.
The Trojans bounced back by rallying past Arizona State and getting a late field goal of their own in a 34-33 victory. And last Saturday's 24-21 win at Arizona might have been the team's most complete game of the season.
"I think it speaks a lot about our players and who they are," coach Lane Kiffin said of the team's resiliency.
"The guys who stayed here ... it says a lot about their commitment and wanting to finish this thing off. It seems like every week, there is the question, 'Can they get up?'"
USC (7-3, 4-3) still has three games left -- at Oregon State this week, followed by rivalry games against Notre Dame and at UCLA. There is still a lot to play for, even though the season is going to end one way or another on Dec. 4.
That fighting spirit that USC is showing is not something Kiffin saw early on.
"I didn't see that in the spring and in the early fall," he said. "I knew this was a work in progress, but it's been really good to see them grow and go through all this and get closer together."
--USC is 1-2 in its past three trips to Oregon State, and coach Lane Kiffin doesn't see any big mystery as to why Reser Stadium has been so tough for the Trojans. "Yeah, because they're really well-coached and they play really well," Kiffin said. "I just think that Mike Riley is one of the best coaches in the country, and he continues to prove it."
--Starting LB Devon Kennard (although listed as "Kennedy" on the official press release) earned second-team Pac-10 All-Academic honors, announced Tuesday. No USC player earned first-team honors. QB Matt Barkley, OL Khaled Holmes and C Michael Reardon were honorable mention.
SERIES HISTORY: USC leads Oregon State 59-10-4 (last meeting, 2009, 42-36 USC).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: USC has excellent balance on offense, and the offensive line took center stage last week against Arizona as the Trojans rushed a season high 46 times and controlled the clock for more than 37 minutes. "USC is probably as good an example of balance as there is around," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley. "That gives any defense problems." USC is 29th nationally in passing (262.3 yards per game) and is 22nd in rushing (199.6 yards per game).
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: USC hasn't been very good in the secondary all year, especially when it comes to giving up big plays. The Trojans have been a bit better in that area lately, at least making the opposing offense have to work its way down field. Against Oregon State, stopping RB Jacquizz Rodgers is where it all begins -- he had 113 rushing yards vs. USC last season, and he had his breakout game with 186 rushing yards when the Beavers upset the Trojans early in the 2008 season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "For the program, it can be a game that changes a season. Our goal now is to go 10-3." -- CB Shareece Wright, on getting the win Saturday at Arizona.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: USC at Oregon State, Nov. 20 -- The Beavers have lost two in a row, and not exactly to the top teams in the league. They are coming off losses to UCLA and Washington State, and Oregon State hasn't quite been the same since losing star WR James Rodgers to a knee injury at Arizona on Oct. 9. But this has been an unpredictable league, with teams sharply rising and falling every week ... so perhaps you can't count on the fact that USC is up and Oregon State is down.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Keep running the ball. Coach Lane Kiffin has wanted to establish a physical identity on the ground, and the Trojans definitely did that last week against Arizona. Oregon State has given up 431 yards on the ground in the past two games, both losses, so the Trojans need to keep taking their shots and perhaps wear down Mike Riley's defense. Plus, a ground attack could negate any literally cold hands in the passing game. "The style we play is built for weather, running the ball," Kiffin told the L.A. Daily News. "We'll be fine."
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Marc Tyler -- It's time for an encore after he rushed 31 times for 160 yards against Arizona last week. The junior showed quick moves at the line of scrimmage and the ability to push the pile for a few yards when he was surrounded.
LB Malcolm Smith -- He has made big plays in each of the past two weeks, returning an interception 74 yards for a touchdown against Arizona State on Nov. 6 and forcing a fumble from Arizona WR David Douglas at the USC 15 last week.
S T.J. McDonald -- The sophomore leads the team with 78 tackles, and he is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. He has been the team's most consistent defensive back, coach Lane Kiffin said.
--DE James Boyd, who is suspended indefinitely from the football team because of academic issues, recently told the L.A. Times that he will walk-on to the basketball team after the season. Boyd is a 6-foot-4, 245-pound redshirt freshman who could add bulk to coach Kevin O'Neill's front line.
--S Jawanza Starling (ankle, hamstring) did not suit up for the game. Marshall Jones started in his place.
--DT DaJohn Harris was back in the starting lineup last week. That will keep Armond Armstead, who can play inside or outside, at end.