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There’s progress, but also more work ahead, as USC beats Oregon State

USC receiver Ajene Harris makes an acrobatic catch between Oregon State safety Tyrequek Zimmerman (8) and cornerback Larry Scott (15) in the second quarter.
USC receiver Ajene Harris makes an acrobatic catch between Oregon State safety Tyrequek Zimmerman (8) and cornerback Larry Scott (15) in the second quarter.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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It wasn’t a rollicking return to the offensive style and pace USC showed Trojans fans in the season opener.

There were lapses on special teams and defense and too many penalties.

But USC made big plays when it needed them most Saturday night against Oregon State.

The No. 18 Trojans bounced back from their loss at Boston College two weeks ago with a 35-10 victory at the Coliseum that answered some questions but left others still dogging them.

“We’re not perfect and we have plenty of room for improvement,” Coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We’ll enjoy this, but it’s not the end-all, be all.”

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Quarterback Cody Kessler passed for two touchdowns, including a Hail Mary to receiver Darreus Rogers at the end of the first half, as the Trojans improved their record to 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-12 Conference.

Su’a Cravens returned an interception for a touchdown, tailback Justin Davis scored twice and tailback Javorius Allen also rushed for a touchdown, and the defense once again did not give up a touchdown pass.

Sarkisian, under fire after the Boston College debacle, would have been facing a crisis if the Trojans lost at home to Oregon State for the first time since 1960.

Instead, USC will prepare for next week’s Pac-12 South game against Arizona State with confidence rather than the uncertainty that surrounded the program the last two weeks.

“After what they had to hear about the last two weeks,” Sarkisian said of the defense, “I’m really proud of what they did.”

The 37-31 defeat at Boston College — in which the Trojans surrendered 452 yards rushing — did not look any better when the Eagles lost to Colorado State on Saturday.

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But the Trojans can finally put the loss behind them after an impressive defensive effort in which they gave up only 58 yards rushing, 181 yards total and did not allow an offensive touchdown against the previously unbeaten Beavers (3-1).

Despite hurting itself with 14 penalties for 124 yards, USC outgained Oregon State, 461-181, and mostly neutralized senior quarterback Sean Mannion.

Mannion and receiver Richard Mullaney burned USC cornerbacks several times, but Mannion completed only 15 of 32 passes for 123 yards and had two intercepted.

Cravens, who moved from safety to linebacker for the game, returned a first-quarter interception 31 yards for a 7-0 lead.

“We knew they wanted to get the ball out to the flats to their big tight ends,” Cravens said. “I just made a play on the ball.”

In the second quarter, freshman cornerback Adoree’ Jackson tipped a pass in the end zone and sophomore safety Leon McQuay III intercepted it to end a threat and protect a 14-10 lead.

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USC also showed some signs of evolving on offense.

Sarkisian said after the Boston College loss that he might have been too stubborn to run the ball and that he would consider using the pass to set up the run.

He did that against Oregon State, the Trojans throwing numerous first-down passes against a defense that had not given up a touchdown pass and ranked first nationally in pass-efficiency defense. Nine players caught passes for the Trojans.

Kessler completed 17 of 22 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. He finished 24 for 32 for 261 yards and has yet to have a pass intercepted.

“I think we bounced back amazing — not only the pass game but the run game,” Kessler said.

USC, which rushed for 20 yards against Boston College, gained 200 against Oregon State. Allen, who rushed for only 31 yards against B.C., gained 115 yards in 20 carries.

USC led, 21-10, at halftime, on Cravens’ interception return, Kessler’s short touchdown pass to Davis and Kessler’s 48-yard heave to Rogers on the final play of the second quarter.

Cravens’ touchdown gave the Trojans a 7-0 first-quarter lead, but it didn’t last long.

On the ensuing kickoff, Oregon State’s Ryan Murphy caught the ball at the three-yard line, broke to his left and then outran the Trojans down the sideline in front of the Beavers’ bench to tie the score.

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A field goal by Trevor Romaine gave the Beavers their first, and only, lead, 10-7 early in the second quarter.

The Trojans came back and finally put together a scoring drive.

Freshman tight end Bryce Dixon’s 31-yard reception was the key play in a 65-yard march that ended with Kessler’s nine-yard touchdown pass to Davis for a 14-10 lead.

The tip by Jackson and interception by McQuay set the stage for the biggest play of the game.

USC’s final possession stalled at Oregon State’s 48, and it looked like the Trojans would take a four-point lead to the locker room at halftime.

But Sarkisian let the clock run down to one second and then called time out.

On fourth down, Kessler took the snap, moved to his right and then launched a pass toward the right corner of the end zone.

Rogers out-jumped several teammates and defenders, made the catch and landed on the one-yard line, before turning and crossing the goal line for a 21-10 lead.

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“I was just thinking in my head, ‘Don’t throw it out of the end zone. Don’t throw it out of bounds,’” Kessler said.

Allen’s 17-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter gave USC more than enough, and Davis later added a 21-yard scoring run.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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