With the offense firing on all cylinders thanks to Vernon Adams Jr.’s six touchdown performance against No. 24 USC, the Oregon defense was able to contain the Trojan offense behind a huge day for linebacker Joe Walker.
Walker, a senior, tallied 15 tackles (nine solo) on the afternoon and had one of the five sacks the Ducks racked up on Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler in a 48-28 victory at Autzen Stadium on Saturday.
“Anytime you get 15 tackles you’re running to the ball and you’re getting off blocks,” defensive coordinator Don Pellum said. “So I’m excited about that and I’m excited that Joe had a good performance.”
Kessler completed 30-of-41 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns, but the Ducks (8-3, 6-2) contained the Trojans (7-4, 5-3) big play ability by batting down a majority of Kessler’s deep passes and limiting playmaking receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to five catches and only 57 yards receiving, which led all Trojan receivers.
“One of the goals was to keep leverage on those deep balls,” Pellum said. “We wanted to keep leverage on the edge for the runs, but we also needed to keep leverage on the deep balls. One of the things SC does is they hit you with the big plays. So we tried to make an emphasis and I think for the most part we did a pretty good job.”
The Ducks did have trouble containing running back Justin Davis. The junior finished with 141 yards rushing on 16 carries, continually gashing the Ducks line to improve the Trojans field position. But the Trojans found themselves in a deep hole early and couldn’t afford to rely on the run game.
Despite holding a 24 point lead, things started to change in the third quarter as USC fought back. Thanks to a Ronald Jones touchdown run and a punt return touchdown by Adoree Jackson in the third quarter, Oregon found their lead whittled down to 10. USC began driving early in the fourth quarter when the Ducks came up with a key defensive play to stop the bleeding.
Aided by a mishandled snap, cornerback Arrion Springs was able to blitz and get around the edge to sack and strip Kessler of the ball deep in Trojan territory. Defensive end DeForest Buckner recovered the fumble and the Ducks scored on the next play, essentially shutting the door on the Trojans comeback.
“It’s nice when you bring a secondary guy,” Pellum said. “Because of the speed they have a chance to close and get there, so that was a huge play.”
Buckner finished the day with eight tackles (three solo) and a sack to go along with the fumble recovery. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jalen Jelks added two sacks and defensive back Chris Seisay had four tackles in his return to action. Freshman Ugo Amadi, who started in place of Tyree Robinson at cornerback, had seven tackles, as did senior linebacker Rodney Hardrick.
After the game, Pellum talked about how they added new wrinkles to the defense for Saturday’s contest and discussed how that could evolve over the final two games.
“At this point we’re probably operating on half a playbook or somewhere, a third of it,” he said. “So as we move forward, whatever the offense we’re facing calls for we’d like to be able to dial in a couple things. You know we’re going to keep our base defense but we like to dial in a couple things and if our kids can handle it we will. If they can’t we won’t.”
There’s no question that Oregon has gotten it together over the past month on both sides of the ball after an underwhelming first half of the season. It’s been enough to keep their Pac-12 North Division championship hopes alive and reel off a five game winning streak, including wins over two ranked opponents.
If Cal can upset Stanford, the Ducks could even luck into the Pac-12 Championship game in two weeks. If not, the Ducks figure to be an imposing force as the season draws to a conclusion.