LOS ANGELES — Ed Orgeron restored fun to Southern California football over the last six weeks, and wins have followed.
With four victories in five games under the interim coach, USC (7-3, 4-2 Pac-12) has managed to stay in the Pac-12 South race during a season of upheaval and disappointment. And the Trojans are having a blast doing it, attacking each day of practice with the same enthusiasm they’ve shown in winning three straight.
"How can you not have fun right now?" receiver Marqise Lee asked. "How can you not get excited when you get the chance to play a team like Stanford?"
Actually, their next opponent hasn’t been much fun for most opponents.
No. 5 Stanford (8-1, 6-1) is two wins away from hosting the Pac-12 title game for the second straight season. The Cardinal cemented their spot atop the league by beating Oregon last week, and they’ve had extra days of preparation for their visit to the Coliseum, which is sold out.
While Stanford is rolling from last week’s season-defining victory over Oregon, the Trojans haven’t beaten a ranked opponent since their upset of Oregon on Nov. 19, 2011.
"They had the upper hand previously, but then the last few years we’ve managed to pull out some pretty close wins," Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson said. "I think this is a big game for them, because they’ve turned things around. They’re trying to get the USC moniker back to the old days where they’re getting all the publicity and hype."
USC’s resurgence also has caught the attention of Stanford, which could be forgiven for a slight letdown. Last week’s intense win over the Ducks gave Stanford control of the Rose Bowl race and a place in the national title discussion — which the Cardinal will exit if they don’t beat USC.
"We’re at that point in the season where every game is big," coach David Shaw said. "Every game matters. Every game counts. The fact that it’s SC, I think our guys always get up for SC, and SC always gets up for us."
Five reasons to watch the latest chapter in a rivalry dating to 1905:
COLISEUM CALAMITIES: After decades of defeats, Stanford’s last three visits to the Coliseum have been nightmares for USC, albeit for varied reasons.
It’s been six years since Jim Harbaugh’s Cardinal pulled one of the greatest upsets in college football history, beating Pete Carroll’s 41-point favorites on a last-minute TD pass.
Four years ago, Stanford steamrolled the 11th-ranked Trojans 55-21, knocking No. 11 USC out of BCS contention with Carroll’s worst loss in his nine seasons.
"That was the beginning of putting our program on a map in the national perspective and people acknowledging the way we play football," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said.
And two years ago, Stanford and Andrew Luck survived three overtimes for a spectacular 56-48 victory over the underdog Trojans.
RUNNING GAME: Stanford’s defense is incredibly tough against the run, yielding just 98.7 yards per game after holding run-happy Oregon to 62 yards last week.
But USC is loaded with talented tailbacks despite several injuries at the position. Javorius Allen has 268 yards on the ground in USC’s last two games, and Tre Madden appears ready to return to the lineup while Silas Redd sits out.
The Trojans probably must run the ball consistently to keep up with Tyler Gaffney and Stanford’s own punishing ground game, a prospect that sounds good to both defenses.
"I love games with lots of running offense like this," USC safety Dion Bailey said. "It starts at 5 (p.m.), and it might be over by 6:30."
RESPECT REVERSAL: In several recent years, Stanford entered this matchup hoping to earn national respect. This time it’s the Trojans, who haven’t generated a flutter of interest in the national polls despite their surge.
"I was kind of shocked they’re not ranked in the Top 25," Shaw said. "I don’t know if anybody has played as well as they have in the last month of the season."
HEALING TROJANS: USC’s depth already is depleted by NCAA scholarship restrictions, and the Trojans have been beset by injuries all year long.
But a few key Trojans are healing up. Imposing defensive end Leonard Williams expects to play after missing last week’s win with a "bad" labrum, and cornerback Josh Shaw also expects to be ready to go. Tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble are probable to play, along with Madden.
As for Lee, who has just eight catches in the last five games, the Biletnikoff Award-winner promises he’s ready to play at full speed.
KINGS OF CALIFORNIA: Stanford finishes its Pac-12 schedule with back-to-back games against Golden State foes USC and California. Although it’s an unofficial title, the Cardinal pride themselves on ruling their state, just as USC did for most of the previous decade.
In fact, Stanford has won 31 of its last 32 games played in California, losing only the Oregon in 2011
"We take pride in kind of holding control and dominance of the state," Skov said. "I’m not saying we do, but at the end of the season, if we do, we take pride in that."