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October 10, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- After loose practices with considerable change under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, including a meal catered by local favorite Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, USC has a newfound energy heading into its first game without Lane Kiffin.
"Got a little pep in my step. I'm ready to go," said Orgeron, who has seen the mood change in practices leading up to the game.
The Trojans (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12 Conference) will host the Wildcats (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) in the storied program's first-ever Thursday night contest. Kickoff at the Coliseum is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Both teams had a bye last week and have not played since Sept. 28.
"I think our challenge is going to be more difficult because they're going to play extremely fired up, loose, relaxed, with a chip on their shoulder, and all those kind of things," Rodriguez said. "I think we're going to get their very best shot."
Kiffin, who went 28-15 in parts of four seasons, was fired after USC's 62-41 loss at Arizona State. Ironically, his stumble can be traced back to last season's 39-36 loss at Arizona, which started a string of five losses in the Trojans' last six games of 2012 to set the tone for this season.
There may be a bit of energy zapped from the Trojans if star receiver Marqise Lee is unable to play. The junior suffered a left knee sprain against the Sun Devils and has been held out of practice.
"He's very questionable. We'll see, though," Orgeron said of Lee, who set a Pac-12 single-game record with 345 receiving yards on 16 catches in last season's contest against the Wildcats.
And that UA defense may have an absence of its own to overcome. Senior middle linebacker Jake Fischer has been limited in practices after leaving the fourth quarter of the 31-13 loss at Washington with a right ankle sprain.
Fischer is listed as questionable, and Rodriguez said Hank Hobson will start in his place if he is unable to play.
Still, the defense is hoping to bring its own fuel to offset the Trojans' emotional boost. Cornerback Jonathan McKnight said the unit does not want to see a repeat of the 618 yards it allowed to USC last season.
In Year 2 under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, the Wildcats have allowed 335 yards and 14.3 points per game - the nation's 23rd- and ninth-best averages, respectively.
"Every team we play, there's always a chip on our shoulder," McKnight said. "(USC) put a lot of yards on us (last year)."
But, ultimately, the Wildcats may have to do something they have had little success in through four games: throwing the football.
Senior quarterback B.J. Denker completed just 14 of 35 passes for 119 yards and tossed a pair of interceptions in the rain in Seattle. He owns the league's fewest passing yards per game average (111.2), touchdowns (2), completion percentage (50 percent) and the shortest "long" passing play (31 yards) of the 12 starters to this point.
As of late Wednesday night, the forecast called for roughly 64 degrees around kickoff and a 10 percent chance of rain, which hit the area throughout Wednesday.
Rodriguez said he understands that teams will continue to dare Denker to win a game with his arm, and stack the box against the nation's fifth-leading rusher, Ka'Deem Carey (143.7 yards per game). On the other side will be the Pac-12's second-best total defense and the nation's 13th-best - tops in the league - against the run (99.6 yards).
The strides in practices that have "encouraged" Rodriguez now need to produce on game day, he added.
"We haven't thrown the ball nearly as well as we need to, and we haven't had to, at times," Rodriguez said.
"Until we do it in a game, everybody is going to question it - and I don't blame them because I question it."