Are we having fun yet? The answer for the USC football team, playing its first game under interim coach Ed Orgeron Thursday night, was a resounding “yes.”
Orgeron vowed to inject some more life, emotion and creativity into a program that had grown a little stiff under Lane Kiffin, who was fired after a Sept. 28 loss at Arizona State. Orgeron made good on that promise in USC’s 38-31 Pacific-12 Conference victory over Arizona in the Coliseum.
Orgeron and new play-caller Clay Helton gave Cody Kessler the green light to take numerous shots downfield, and the sophomore quarterback delivered, connecting with Nelson Agholor and Tre Madden on touchdown pass plays of 62 and 63 yards in the first quarter. The Trojans (4-2 overall, 1-2 in conference) had only one pass play of more than 60 yards in their first five games.
But it was some punishing runs by Silas Redd that sealed the victory for USC in the final minutes.
Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker, who completed 28 of 44 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns, connected with Garic Wharton on a 28-yard scoring play to bring the Wildcats to within 38-31 with 4:18 remaining, and the ensuing kickoff pinned the Trojans back at their four-yard line with 4:15 left.
But Redd reeled off runs of eight, 12 and eight yards to chew up a couple minutes of clock. On a third-and-eight play from the USC 37-yard line, Redd rushed for 10 yards and a first down with 1:12 left. Arizona was out of timeouts, USC ran out the clock, and the Trojans dumped a bucket of ice water over the head of their new coach.
“It was fun, but we had a little too much fun in the fourth quarter,” Orgeron said in a television interview after the game. “I was happy for the coaches and our players. They gave us everything they could possibly give tonight.
“I liked our consistsency, the way we ran the ball, our balance, the way we protected the quarterback. I’m proud of our whole football team and happy for the Trojan family.”
Kessler completed 15 of 30 passes for a career-high 297 yards, with seven of those completions going to Nelson Agholor for 161 yards. Ka’Deem Carey rushed for 138 yards on 21 carries and caught six passes for 36 yards for Arizona.
Here's a recap of the scoring drives:
USC 38, Arizona 31 (4:18 left in the fourth quarter)
Here come the Wildcats.
A 21-yard punt return by Johnny Jackson gave Arizona the ball on the USC 42, and it took the Wildcats only two plays and 19 seconds to find the end zone.
B.J. Denker passed 14 yards to Terrence Miller for and then 28 yards to Garic Wharton for a touchdown. Wharton ran a wheel route from the slot, and Denker led him with a perfectly thrown pass.
USC 38, Arizona 24 (6:48 left in fourth quarter)
Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker is one quick and elusive dude.
The sophomore avoided a heavy pass rush that nearly pushed him out of bounds and fired a nine-yard touchdown pass to David Richards, who made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone and got one foot down.
The score capped a 17-play, 96-yard drive during which the Wildcats converted three third downs.
USC 38, Arizona 17 (14:46 left in the fourth quarter)
Javorius Allen capped a nine-play, 73-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run to help the Trojans pull away from the Wildcats.
The two key plays on the drive were Cody Kessler completing passes of 11 and 29 yards to tight end Randall Telfer.
Kessler, through three quarters, has completed 14 of 27 passes for 294 yards.
USC 31, Arizona 17 (4:03 left in third quarter)
The Wildcats needed only three plays to drive 85 yards for a touchdown.
Ka’Deem Carey got the drive moving with a 39-yard run.
Quarterback B.J. Denker, after a pump fake, found Garic Wharton open down the left sideline for a 45-yard touchdown touchdown pass, Wharton’s first touchdown of the season.
USC 31, Arizona 10 (8:15 left in third quarter)
On a third-and-11 play from the Arizona 41-yard line, USC quarterback Cody Kessler, feeling the pocket close in around him, bolted up the middle and then toward the right sideline for a 34-yard scramble to set up Andre Heidari’s 45-yard field goal.
USC 28, Arizona 10 (halftime)
A USC offense that produced only one pass play of more than 60 yards in five games before Thursday night produced two such plays for touchdowns in the first quarter against Arizona at the Coliseum.
Quarterback Cody Kessler connected with Nelson Agholor on a 62-yard scoring play and combined with Tre Madden on a 63-yard strike as the Trojans took early control of interim coach Ed Orgeron’s debut game after replacing the fired Lane Kiffin.
Kessler completed eight of 15 passes for 218 yards in the first half, with four of those completions going to Agholor for 128 yards.
Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker completed 16 of 21 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown in the first half. The Wildcats had allowed only 11 first-quarter points in four games.
A Trojans offense that was already without receivers Marquise Lee, De’Von Flournoy and Darreus Rogers lost tight end Xavier Grimble to an apparent shoulder sprain early in the second quarter.
USC 28, Arizona 10 (56 seconds left in second quarter)
The Wildcats made things a little more interesting just before halftime, as quarterback B.J. Denker rolled to his left and threw an off-balance pass to Nate Phillips, who made a nice, over-the-shoulder catch and raced to the end zone for a 57-yard touchdown.
USC 28, Arizona 3 (2:08 left in second quarter)
After converting touchdown pass plays of 62 and 63 yards in the first quarter, the Trojans got their power running game going before halftime.
Tre Madden broke a tackle on an 11-yard run and Javorius Allen broke off a 20-yard run to set up a one-yard touchdown plunge by Allen, who took a handoff and flew over the line and into the end zone.
Andre Heidari’s extra-point attempt hit the left upright but went through.
USC 21, Arizona 3 (6:40 left in second quarter)
USC's Soma Vainuku blocked a punt that gave USC the ball on the Arizona 42-yard line, and the Trojans found their way to the end zone again.
Justin Davis scored on an 11-yard run around the left side.
The big play of the drive was a 20-yard pass from Cody Kessler to Nelson Agholor on a third-and-seven play from the 39. A roughing-the-passing penalty on the Wildcats also aided the drive.
USC 14, Arizona 3 (12:47 left in second quarter)
The Wildcats, after being pinned by a punt on their own four-yard line, drove all the way to the USC five-yard line, the big play a 32-yard pass from quarterback B.J. Denker to a leaping Johnny Jackson.
But the Trojans defense held on a third and goal at the five, forcing an incomplete pass, and Arizona settled for Jake Smith’s 27-yard field goal.
USC 14, Arizona 0 (5:02 left in first quarter)
A holding penalty on tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick set the Trojans back to their 33-yard line, but two plays later, from the 37, quarterback Cody Kessler found running back Tre Madden wide open over the middle near midfield.
Madden broke one tackle immediately after the catch and another near the five-yard line en route to the end zone to complete a 63-yard touchdown pass play.
USC 7, Arizona 0 (12:21 left in first quarter)
The Trojans went three and out on their first possession but wasted no time getting on the scoreboard on their second possession.
Quarterback Cody Kessler dropped back on a play-action pass from the USC 38-yard line and found Nelson Agholor wide open over the middle.
Agholor caught the ball in perfect stride at about the Arizona 20-yard line and coasted into the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown pass play.
If anyone needed another indication that USC would probably run the ball a lot against Arizona, they got it during warmups as injured receivers lined the sideline.
All-American Marqise Lee, who suffered a knee sprain against Arizona State, senior De'Von Flournoy and freshman Darreus Rogers will not play against the Wildcats.
Sophomore Nelson Agholor and third-year sophomore Victor Blackwell are the only available scholarship receivers.
Agholor has 11 receptions, one for a touchdown. Blackwell caught two passes for 26 yards in USC's 62-41 loss to Arizona State on Sept. 28.
Linebacker Morgan Breslin also has been ruled out for the game.
Ed Oregron did not waste any time giving fans a show.
USC’s “Trojan Walk” from the team busses to the stadium was a lively march that featured the fist-pumping Orgeron leading the way to the cheers of fans. The Trojans' interim coach forsaked a suit for slacks and a polo shirt, making it more comfortable to continuously raise his arms and call for more noise.
Once inside the stadium, the players, coaches and support staff gathered at midfield for a brief address. It was a contrast to the pregame routine under former coach Lane Kiffin, when most players would stop to gather briefly in small position groups before heading to the locker room.
USC is 3-2 overall and 0-2 in Pac-12 Conference play. The Trojans are coming off a 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Sept 28.
All-American receiver Marqise Lee and linebacker Morgan Breslin are not expected to play because of injuries.
Arizona is 3-1 and 0-1 in the Pac-12 after losing to Washington, 31-13, on Sept. 28.