Be wary of Willamette Valley: Three things to watch for in USC vs. Oregon State

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LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEP. 17, 2022. USC quarterback Caleb Williams hands off to running back Austin Jones.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams, center, hands off to running back Austin Jones, left, during a win over Fresno State on Sept. 17. USC is looking to improve to 4-0 with a win over Oregon State on Saturday night. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It has been five years since Alex Grinch last set out to stop a Jonathan Smith-led offense. But USC’s defensive coordinator hasn’t forgotten how his three years squaring off with Oregon State’s now-head coach went while the two were on opposite sides of the Apple Cup rivalry.

“I remember not being able to stop them,” said Grinch, who spent three seasons as Washington State’s defensive coordinator while Smith was the offensive coordinator at Washington. “You don’t forget those Saturday afternoons.”

Hopefully for USC, he has learned from his mistakes in those matchups. Grinch’s defense saw Smith’s Huskies offense rack up 131 points over their three meetings from 2015 to 2017. All three were lopsided Washington State losses.

USC’s defense showed some signs of life in the second half of last Saturday’s win over Fresno State. The Bulldogs scored only seven points after halftime, as the Trojans' pass rush notched four second-half sacks.

Yet the defensive front still struggled against the run, where Oregon State will be most dangerous this weekend.

Here are three things to watch for when USC heads to Corvallis to play Oregon State on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. PDT (Pac-12 Networks, Pac-12 Now app):

Ground and pound

Oregon State running back Damien Martinez carries the ball against Boise State on Sept. 3.
Oregon State running back Damien Martinez carries the ball against Boise State on Sept. 3. (Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

Last season, when Oregon State pummeled USC into its own home turf, the Beavers relied on an absolutely dominant run game. They racked up 322 yards on the ground in a resounding win, the most given up by a USC defense since October 2017.

A year later, Oregon State is still relying heavily on its run game, while USC is still struggling to stopground games.

The Beavers haven’t been as efficient without the Pac-12’s leading rusher in 2021, B.J. Baylor, in its backfield. But both Deshaun Fenwick and standout freshman Damien Martinez have shown flashes through three games as the Beavers have 11 rushing touchdowns, the most in the Pac-12.

USC, on the other hand, ranks outside of the top 100 nationally in rushing yards allowed, giving Oregon State a decided advantage on the ground. How its defensive front responds to the Beavers backfield early will go a long way in deciding the game.

Hold the ball

USC quarterback Caleb Williams warms up before a win over Fresno State on Sept. 17.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams warms up before a win over Fresno State on Sept. 17. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

USC has proven through three games that its offense doesn’t need much time to score. Five of its touchdown drives this season have taken less than two minutes.

The speed with which the Trojans score makes them especially lethal, which is why Oregon State would prefer to play Saturday’s game at as slow a pace as possible. Grinding out long drives on the ground, in turn, gives USC’s offense less time to do damage.

“They’re going to try to hold the ball, and that’s fine,” USC quarterback Caleb Williams said. “But we just have to worry about the offensive side. We have to be consistent. We have to worry about the little things, the small details, because those things go a long way.”

USC showed its potential to carry out long, clock-killing drives last week against Fresno State. Its first touchdown drive lasted more than 10 minutes. The next two were each more than five minutes. Don’t be surprised to see USC settle in for a few lengthy ones on Saturday in Corvallis too.

Long, strange trips to Corvallis

USC coach Lincoln Riley talks with quarterback Caleb Williams before a win over Fresno State on Sept. 17.
USC coach Lincoln Riley talks with quarterback Caleb Williams before a win over Fresno State on Sept. 17. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

USC left each of its last two trips to Oregon State with comfortable victories, but its history in the Willamette Valley is littered with haunting road losses that still linger more than a decade later.

Losing trips to Oregon State doomed potential title runs in 2006 and 2008. The Beavers created four turnovers to upend the third-ranked Trojans in 2006. Two years later, USC was ranked No. 1 when Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers overpowered its defense, dealing the Trojans their only loss of 2008. Their next defeat at Oregon State, in 2010, would mark the low point in that season too.

Since 2000, USC is a mere 3-4 in Corvallis.

This will probably be its last chance to even the score. With USC off to the Big Ten in 2024, preserving the Trojans’ legacy in Corvallis isn’t likely to be high on the priority list for scheduling.

Yet the respect for Corvallis runs deep among college football bettors. As of Thursday, three times more money had been bet on Oregon State as 6½-point underdogs than any other college football spread this week, according to Caesars Sportsbook.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.