It’s been a strange year for the USC football team.
The Trojans enter Saturday’s Pac-12 battle at Oregon State having lost two straight and sitting at 4-4 overall and 3-3 in the conference.
That prompted coach Clay Helton to make some changes this week, firing the offensive line coach and taking over play-calling duties for the rest of the season.
"It's something that I have been itching for," Helton said of calling plays. "It's something that I have wanted to do and something that I'm hoping will press our offense forward and even take it to the next step."
That means the Beavers (2-6, 1-4), coming off a thrilling 41-34 overtime victory at Colorado that ended a 13-game Pac-12 losing streak and 22-game road losing streak, aren’t all that sure exactly what to expect from the Trojans.
“There’s really no way to account for a change like that,” defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar said. “You try to just build off of some of the tendencies that they’ve had but knowing that all of a sudden when the decision maker changes, those tendencies may change as well.
“So you’ve just got to try to adapt during the course of the game and get a feel for what his plan is and what he’s going to emphasize.”
Tibesar and the Beavers expect to see the return of USC freshman quarterback J.T Daniels, who missed last week’s home loss to Arizona State.
Jack Sears, a redshirt freshman, passed for 235 yards in Daniels’ absence.
Helton said early in the week Daniels was no longer in concussion protocol and was likely to start.
Daniels has completed 124 of 218 passes for 1,629 yards and eight touchdowns with seven interceptions.
“I think the week off has allowed him to get a little bit fresher body wise and arm wise,” Helton said. “He’s brought a very serious mentality this week, very businesslike going through the game plan, and looked good (Wednesday).”
The Trojans have used three main running backs who have helped them average 120.9 yards per game. Michael Pittman Jr. has been the big-play receiver with 27 catches for 561 yards and six touchdowns.
“We’re going to have our hands full and it’s going to take us to play our best game to go out and get a win,” Tibesar said.
Oregon State has had its share of issues at quarterback but a healthy Jake Luton could help solidify the position. Coach Jonathan Smith said Thursday he would start on Saturday.
Luton came off the bench and threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Beavers to the comeback win and earn the Pac-12 offensive player of the week honor. He had missed the previous four games with an ankle injury.
Conor Blount, who had started in his absence, was not cleared to play after suffering a concussion the week before.
In what amounts to less than two full games, Luton has completed 56 of 84 passes for 682 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.
The Beavers may have found another weapon with quarterback Jack Colletto in the run game. After being replaced by Luton at the half, Colletto came on to score on two short runs.
“I think he has a good feel for it and the nice part about it is he can throw the ball, too,” offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren said. “So I don’t know if they can just load up every time, you can have some passes and things for him as well.
“I think we all feel comfortable putting Jack out there. It’s nice he was able to go start a game and get some game experience. I think that just makes it even more comfortable putting him in a critical situation.”
The Beavers could match up well in the run game with Jermar Jefferson having already surpassed the 1,000-yard mark as a true freshman. USC gives up 174.3 rushing yards per game. He also had six catches for 49 yards against Colorado.
“For a true freshman I think he’s doing a wonderful job,” Helton said. “The hidden gem for him is what he’s doing out of the backfield. He has good ball skills, gets matched up one on one. He’s hitting holes … very patient runner and explosive once he hits it.
“Obviously they have a lot of faith in him as a young person of handing it to him numerous times and he’s carrying the load for them.”
Oregon State sophomore receiver Isaiah Hodgins, who had 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns last game, knows the offense will have its hands full.
“I think they’ve got great corners and a lot of talent on the defense,” he said. “And even though their record doesn’t necessarily show that ... I think their defense has played good. So I feel like it will be a great challenge.”
The Beavers hope to ride the momentum from last week’s comeback into Saturday and the final third of the season.
“The elation and joy was genuine,” Tibesar said of last week’s celebration. “It was awesome to be a part of. Hopefully for the players, getting some validation for the work that they’ve been doing since we got here in January can carry over and sustain it that, hey look, if we just stay with the process, we can win in this league.”
Former defensive lineman and NFL veteran Stephen Paea will be on hand Saturday to sign autographs in Parker Plaza from 5-6:30 p.m. as part of the “Take Your Tailgate to the Next Level” promotion by Go RVing.