USC jumped out to a 28-3 first-half lead over Arizona Thursday night in Los Angeles, the Trojans' first game under Ed Orgeron after the firing of Lane Kiffin. The narrative, at that point, was simple: Maybe all a talented USC side needed really was a coaching change for its skill to come through.
But fun and happiness only go so far, as USC barely held off a hard-charging Arizona team in a 38-31 win at Los Angeles Memorial Colesium. For those looking ahead to Notre Dame's Oct. 19 date with USC, the Orgeron-led Trojans may be a little more of a threat than they were under Kiffin. But those first-half improvements quickly fizzled out in the second half.
Arizona scored a late touchdown on a 57-yard pass in the second quarter, which didn't look concerning at the time. Sure, USC cornerback Dion Bailey whiffed on timing the floating pass, but momentum seemed to be on USC's side.
The second half, though, brought about many of the same problems that've plagued USC in lackluster games under Kiffin. The defense particularly wasn't good in the fourth quarter, allowing Arizona's B.J. Denker to slash it apart (he finished 28/44 for 362 yards and four touchdowns) while Ka'Deem Carey gained 138 yards on 21 carries.
There were some positives, to be sure: Nelson Agholor set season highs with seven catches for 161 yards and caught his first touchdown since Week 1, although it's worth noting top target Marqise Lee missed the game with a knee injury. Cody Kessler wasn't sacked, and USC did maintain some nice balance on offense (297 passing yards, 249 rushing yards).
Looking ahead for Notre Dame, though, perhaps USC looks more difficult than they did two weeks ago under Kiffin -- but this still appears to be a deeply flawed team. Star running back Tre Madden suffered a hamstring injury -- we'll get more on his status for the Oct. 19 Notre Dame game later -- while nearly half of Kessler's completions went to Agholor.
If Lee is back next Saturday, Notre Dame may have a tough time covering both him and Agholor, although Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell held their own against Lee and Robert Woods last year. Plus, Kessler hasn't proven to be great at looking toward multiple receivers in games, choosing to key on Lee and eschew throwing to Agholor. Defensively, the Trojans once again looked beatable on the ground and through the air by a competent-at-worst offense.
So Orgeron or not, the initial return for Notre Dame off Thursday's game is that Oct. 19 still appears to be a favorable matchup. It's much easier to change a culture than it is to fix longstanding flaws.