Written by Sarah Bergstrom, USC blog contributor
The fans were happy, the locker room was happy, even the Trojan's interim head coach, on the dawn of what's being deemed the "Coach O Era" said he woke up happy for the first time in a long time in anticipation of Thursday night's battle with the Arizona Wildcats.
"I had a blast tonight," said Orgeron in his post-game press conference. "It was fun. I'm proud of every team member, the way they practiced this week and the way they performed tonight."
In front of a packed Coliseum crowd, the Trojans did not disappoint. After spending the past week and a half bringing new energy to a Trojan team that hasn't had much to be excited about this season, Orgeron said the victory in USC's first Thursday night regular season game was all because the players chose to buy in. While the end of the game was a little close for comfort for most Cardinal and Gold fans, USC outplayed the Wildcats through the first three quarters and most importantly, as Coach O has emphasized, the Trojans are rediscovering joy in their favorite game.
The offense racked up 546 total yards, 297 of which came through the air. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton opened up the playbook, looked down field, and in the absence of injured WR Marqise Lee, six different receivers recorded catches on the night. But it was sophomore Nelson Agholor who stepped up for the offense and played lights out as the Trojans' "Iron Man". Agholor (pictured by Pierson Clair) had seven catches for 161 yards including a 62-yard touchdown early in the first quarter.
"I saw a great ball by Cody and the coaches made a great situation because we ran a play before that that showed what the safeties were playing. Then we came down and made a great route on the corner and it was there," said Agholor on his touchdown, the Trojans first of the game.
The Coliseum, and the USC sideline were rocking as Kessler, Agholor, and a host of Trojan running backs led their team to a 28-10 lead at halftime. The Trojans converted six third downs in the game, three of which came from successful Kessler-Agholor connections.
"It's nice to have that connection with someone. Me and Marqise have that too," said redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler. "It's nice to have that because you feel confidence. It's even better to know someone else has your back when you have there's. We needed Nelson to play big tonight, because unfortunately Marqise wasn't here, but he stepped up big and that was awesome."
In 2012, Agholor finished with 19 catches for 340 yards and two touchdowns. Only six games into this season, the sophomore wide receiver has 18 catches for 353 yards and two touchdowns. The ball didn't find itself in Agholor's hands often in the first five games of the year (he had 12 catches total coming into the game) and many have spent the season awaiting a breakout game from the sophomore. Now with play calling responsibilities in the hands of Helton, things are starting to look a little different.
Helton, taking over play calling duties for the first time since he coached at Memphis in 2009, said the offense's performance Thursday night is what he has expected in this system. The offensive coordinator credited his players for stepping up and making things happen even as the Trojans struggle with depth issues across the field. Helton said he loved seeing so many players get touches on the ball and is excited about the options available for both the run and pass games.
"It was exciting," said Helton. "It was a total team effort tonight to see five running backs carry balls and it seemed like a number of guys were making big plays at the right time. It was the mindset all along that we were going to use everyone. It's going to take everyone to beat good teams."
All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee did not suit up for the game because of a sprained knee injury and it is unknown when he will return. Even if he returns to take on the Fighting Irish in South Bend next weekend, quarterback Cody Kessler said it's always comforting to have two outstanding options out wide.
"Nelson can stretch the field and run by guys and that's nice to have. It's exciting when you have two guys like that. Nelson played his butt off tonight and I'm proud of him," said Cody Kessler.
Helton believes it's only going to get better for Agholor from here. As secondaries will assuredly continue to lock down on Lee (whenever he returns to the field), Agholor's role will only become more significant this season.
"Nelson is a really special player contributing at a much needed time. With Marqise down, it's Nelson's time to step up and what a fabulous job he's done. The chemistry gets better with every game between them (Kessler and Agholor) and I think it's going to continue to improve next week," said Helton.
The Notre Dame defense has allowed more than 34 points three times this season. The Irish pass rush struggled greatly until their most recent victory over Arizona State and they are lacking at depth in their front seven. Perhaps their greatest weakness through six games has been tackling in their secondary, a good sign for Agholor and the Trojan offense when they pay a visit to South Bend next weekend. Whether or not Lee returns, Agholor says he's prepared to be the player his team needs him to be.
"I'm a guy who just wants to do what the team needs me to do. If that means I have to catch three passes or seven passes, it doesn't matter I'm going to do it," said Agholor.
The Trojans have nine days until they take on their cross-country rivals. Maintaining this fresh start mentality will be the key to victory over a Notre Dame team with an extra week of preparation. Coming off of a 37-34 victory over ASU, the Irish are also 4-2, however their two losses have come against ranked opponents. After a rocky start this season, things appear to finally be clicking under the leadership of interim head coach Ed Orgeron. With some combination of Roscoe's, cookies, and an overall "fun factor", the team appears to be united and playing the best football it has all season.