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HELENE ELLIOTT

USC's Ed Orgeron takes spirited approach with team to energize play

Before the Trojans' 38-31 win over Arizona on Thursday night, the interim coach focused on boosting morale.

Helene Elliott

1:28 AM CDT, October 11, 2013

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Ed Orgeron said last week he wanted to merely tweak what the Trojans had been doing under Lane Kiffin rather than introduce sweeping changes, but Orgeron added a significant new formation to the team's playbook Thursday in his debut as USC's interim coach.

After players and coaches walked from the team buses and across the Coliseum field, they stopped near the Trojans logo to join support staff and players’ families in forming an imperfect but impressively big circle. While they held hands, Orgeron stood in the middle to address the group, his gravelly voice unmistakable even if the exact words were lost at a distance.

After a few minutes, Orgeron left the center and blended into the circle, slinging his arms around the shoulders of the people on either side of him, their heads bowed in prayer or deep thought. This private moment in a public venue was new; Kiffin routinely walked off the bus and across the field to the tunnel while the receivers or linemen gathered in small circles, but the team didn't gather as one as it did Thursday.

“That was a great feeling. A team that prays together, stays together,” linebacker Hayes Pullard said.

Orgeron, a big promoter of Trojans tradition, might have created a new ritual as USC held on for a 38-31 victory over Arizona at the Coliseum. The ending was hairy, but the Trojans’ previously stale and plodding offense produced hefty amounts of enthusiasm and creativity. And offense and defense united to give Orgeron a Gatorade bath at the end.

“These guys, I watched them hurt and I just wanted to change them, and I really mean that,” he said afterward, still wearing his soggy white USC shirt. “And to see them happy, to see them celebrating and feeling good about themselves, a little more pep in their step, that’s all I wanted. I did tell the guys I’d treat them like my sons. And you see your sons hurting; you hurt for them. We just wanted them to feel good. That’s what this was about.”

The first clue Orgeron would do things differently from Kiffin was subtle: Orgeron allowed cookies, cupcakes and ice cream to again be served at the team's training table after they had been banished. He turned off the music that had played during practices but reached back to the Pete Carroll era for other musical cues.

“I wanted to change the things that I thought needed to change, make the guys a little bit looser,” Orgeron said earlier this week. “Cookies and ice cream — I'm a lineman so I knew it would make the guys happy — and stuff like that.

“And we wanted to bring some music into the meeting rooms and go back to the competition. A lot of the stuff we did with Coach Carroll that I thought was fantastic. He brought a lot of energy.

“Let's let the players cut loose a little bit — that's what we wanted to try. Just wanted to get their mind off what had happened and change their thought process to, ‘Hey, we can have fun and still play football at a high level and win.' That's what we're trying to instill.”

He succeeded in that Thursday.

“No disrespect to the coaches who were here before — I don’t want to get into that — but you want a coach that you would … go to war for every time,” said quarterback Cody Kessler, who was 15 for 30 for 297 yards and two touchdown passes. “This man right here to my right, and I don’t only speak for myself, I speak for the whole team, we would go to war for this guy any day of the week. Anytime he needs us, we have his back.

“When you have a coach you can not only see but feel that he cares about you so much and he wants you to be the best you can be and succeed, that’s love right there. That’s awesome. I couldn’t ask for a better head coach right now. I know all of us we’d go to war and put our life on the line for this guy any day of the week.”

If Kessler got carried away in the flush of victory, that’s understandable. But he and his teammates played hard for Orgeron. “We love Coach O like a dad,” Pullard said.

Unlike Kiffin, who clung to his super-sized play chart like it was a life raft — though it didn't save his job after the Trojans' sloppy 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 28 — Orgeron walked the sidelines Thursday with no cue cards in front of his face to jolt his memory or mask his emotions.

Orgeron was expressive, bumping fists with players as they came to the sidelines and tapping one player or another on top of the helmet during timeouts.

Orgeron tried to deflect credit to the players Thursday.

“This is not about anything I do. This is about those young men out there,” he said. “I’m really proud of the way we came out starting fast. I’m proud of the coaching staff and the leadership on this team, of every team member, how they bought into what we were telling them, how they practiced, how we started to form an identity and a bond as a team. I’m really pleased with the overall effort of the football team.”

In another big and welcome change, Orgeron wasn't married to managing the offense as Kiffin had been. Orgeron left defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to oversee the defense and delegated the play-calling to offensive coordinator Clay Helton, the better for Orgeron to process everything that played out in front of him.

Other than problems in the secondary in the second half that Orgeron promised to fix, the result was the kind of shackle-loosening performance the Trojans needed in order to regain some stability after the upheaval of Kiffin's firing.

Orgeron had said earlier this week he expected some ups and downs, adding, “But I want them to fight and compete and play with energy and have fun playing the game. If we do that, we're going to do well.”

If they do, we'll see if the cookies and ice cream are just dessert, or their just deserts.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen