Extensive USC vs. Oregon game preview

Game 11: ‘A Long Time Ago, We Used to Be Friends, But I Haven’t Thought of You Lately at All’

USC and Oregon last faced off three years ago, and though neither has had the 2015 it wanted, Saturday’s tilt should be a dandy.

A pair of four-game winning streaks will be on the line when the USC Trojans (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) visit the Oregon Ducks (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) on Saturday, November 21 at 12:30 p.m. PST. The game, at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., will air nationally on ESPN. USC is ranked No. 22 by the Associated Press (AP), and No. 24 by the College Football Playoff (CFP) committee and the USA Today coaches’ poll. The Ducks come in at No. 22 in the coaches’ poll, and No. 23 in the AP and CFP rankings. It’s the 60th meeting between the schools, with the Trojans holding a 38-19-2 edge, but the Oregon has won four of the past six meetings – including a 62-51 victory in the most recent meeting – at the Coliseum in 2012. In the previous Eugene encounter, USC held off a late Oregon rally to score a 38-35 win in 2011.

Last weekend, USC scored 24 unanswered points to rally from a 17-3 second-quarter deficit in a 27-24 Friday night victory at Colorado. Cody Kessler threw TD passes to fullback Jahleel Pinner, tight end Taylor McNamara, and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, while the Trojan defense had six sacks and stopped CU on a fourth-down play near midfield in the closing minutes. Meanwhile, Oregon linebacker Joe Walker deflected a two-point conversion pass attempt to seal the Ducks’ 38-36 victory at then-No. 7 Stanford. Though UO was outgained, 506-436, the Ducks capitalized on three Cardinal turnovers with a series of big play touchdowns.

USC interim head coach Clay Helton (5-1 at USC, including the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl) has fared well since replacing the fired Steve Sarkisian on Oct. 12 – and could make a strong case for the full-time gig with wins the next two weeks. In Eugene, Oregon headman Mark Helfrich (31-7) is in third year since, and after taking the Ducks to the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game a season ago, he faced some pretty strong criticism when Oregon started 3-3 in 2015. However, transfer QB Vernon Adams’ regained health and four consecutive victories have the Ducks feeling – and looking – much better.

Oregon Offense

Offensive coordinator Scott Frost helms what remains the Pac-12’s top statistical offense. But that’s not to say the Ducks haven’t missed 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota – nor to ignore the injuries that have troubled a number of Oregon’s expected key playmakers. Still, the Ducks have overcome those losses to lead the Pac-12 (and rank in the national top 10) in scoring offense (41.8 points per game), total offense (532.6 yards per game), and rushing offense (297.4 yards per game). And though the Ducks rank just ninth in the conference in passing offense (235.2 yards per game), their big-play nature (53 total plays of 25 yards or more) helps them lead the conference in yards per completion (14.0). Oregon’s season took a turn for the better when Adams – the graduate transfer from Eastern Washington – returned to the lineup full time after struggling with a broken finger he’d suffered in the Ducks’ loss at Michigan State. In the past four contests, Adams completed 64-of-106 passes for 1,092 yards, with 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He’s not been as effective as a running threat as the Ducks would have liked, averaging just two yards per carry.

Only in recent weeks has the Ducks’ receiving corps really melded into form after some early season injuries and suspensions muddled things. The biggest loss was senior receiver Byron Marshall (74 catches, six TDs in 2014; nine catches in four games in 2015) going down with a leg injury against Utah. The Ducks also lost tight end Pharaoh Brown before the season. But junior Bralon Addison has filled the void. Not only does Addison have a team-leading 45 catches (12.5 yards per) and six TDs, he’s also carried the ball 13 times (5.2 yards per carry), and thrown two passes (one for a 39-yard TD). Six-foot-five junior Dwayne Stanford averages 16.5 yards on 18 catches (four TDs), and – in four games since returning from a suspension – sophomore Darren Carrington has been impressive – 16 catches for 398 yards (24.9 per grab) and four scores. Sophomore Charles Nelson (13 catches, 16.7, two TDs; 75-yard rushing TD vs. Stanford) shifted mainly to safety in early October, but is still a weapon. Tight end Evan Baylis has 12 grabs (10.4 yards per).

The team’s offensive star, though, is sophomore running back Royce Freeman. The team’s leading returning rusher, Freeman’s workload got even bigger when junior Thomas Tyner went down for the season in training camp. He leads the Pac-12 and ranks fifth nationally with 1,392 rushing yards (6.6 per carry), and his 12 rushing scores also lead the conference. He’s also Oregon’s second-leading receiver, with 19 catches (11.8 per, with two more TDs). When he needs a rest, sophomore Kani Benoit (7.5 yards per carry on 46 tries, three TDs) and freshman flash Taj Griffin (7.4 yards per on 59 carries, two TDs; a 49-yard TD reception against Stanford) see most of the action.

Up front, the Ducks have benefitted from a veteran group that’s been able to stay healthy. Senior left tackle Tyler Johnstone returned from a 2014 injury and is a rock, while classmate Matt Pierson has been solid at left guard (he’s also able to flex out to either tackle spot). Notre Dame graduate transfer Matt Hegarty solidified things at center after the Ducks lost four-year starter Hroniss Grasu. On the right side, junior guard Cameron Hunt (29 career starts) and sophomore tackle Tyrell Crosby are the starters. Sophomores Evan Voeller and Doug Brenner are capable reserves on the interior.

Oregon Defense

Defensive coordinator Don Pellum’s crew has taken a massive step backward in 2015. The two best things you can say about the Ducks is that they still get after the quarterback (29 sacks, tied with USC for second in the Pac-12) and are still positive in turnover margin – plus-five for the season (after finishing an astonishing +23 in 2014). After that … welp. Oregon is at the bottom of the conference in passing defense (317.7 yards per game), scoring defense (37.1 points per game), and total defense (491.3 yards per game) – all of those rank No. 113 or worse nationally. The Ducks’ rushing defense is slightly better – No. 6 in the Pac-12/75th nationally – but Oregon’s allowing eight yards more per game on the ground than it did in 2014. The Ducks have struggled to get off the field, ranking 10th in the conference (in third-down defense – allowing a 44.6-percent conversion rate – and seventh in the Pac-12 in the red zone.

That’s not to say Oregon doesn’t have playmakers. Up front, it starts with senior defensive end DeForest Buckner, who has played through an injured wrist lately and counts a team-leading 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks among his 61 tackles. At the other end spot, a duo of senior Tui Talia (25 tackles, five for loss, two sacks) and up-and-coming sophomore Henry Mondeaux (18 tackles, four sacks) have shared time. Senior Alex Balducci is a rock at nose guard, with 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks, but freshman Rex Manu (five tackles) saw some extra time against Stanford’s jumbo sets and earned his way on to the depth chart for Saturday.

Until senior Christian French missed the Ducks’ past two games with an arm injury, Oregon had started the same quartet at linebacker throughout the season. French (29 tackles, two sacks) was replaced at OLB by athletic junior Torrodney Prevot (34 tackles, seven for loss, 2.5 sacks). At the other outside spot, senior Tyson Coleman (45 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) sees most of the time. The inside linebacker duo – seniors Walker and Rodney Hardrick – have been the Ducks’ heart and soul. Walker leads the team with 67 stops, with an interception, and two fumble recoveries. Hardrick is second on the club with 62 tackles

Oregon’s much-maligned secondary has undergone a number of makeovers this season – and there may be another shakeup in the offing on Saturday. Sophomore Tyree Robinson, who started the past four games at cornerback after starting six at safety, was last seen on crutches with a heavily taped lower leg leaving Stanford Stadium and his availability is in doubt. Robinson leads Duck defensive backs with 53 tackles and three interceptions. Freshman Ugo Amadi (18 stops, two interceptions) will be in line for more time if Robinson isn’t available. Sophomore CB Arrion Springs (41 tackles, one pick) has started nine games. At safety, Nelson (37 tackles) has started five since making the full-time move from offense, while junior Reggie Daniels (42 stops) has seven starts. Freshmen Khalil Oliver (13 stops) and Glen Ihenacho (16 tackles) are the backups.

Oregon Special Teams

Sophomore Aidan Schneider has been outstanding, making 17-of-18 field goal attempts (long: 41) and all 49 PATs. Junior Matt Wogan has booted for an impressive 47 touchbacks in 74 tries – but when the Ducks do have to cover, they’re allowing an average of 23 yards per return (ninth in the Pac-12). Sophomore punter Ian Wheeler averages 40.4 yards on 40 boots, but again, Oregon’s coverage has been suspect. The Ducks allow 10.8 yards per return. However, Oregon is more dangerous returning it than ineffective covering it. Addison is averaging 14.2 yards on punt returns, including an 81-yard TD at Michigan State (his third career punt return TD), while he and Nelson team to form the Pac-12’s most effective kickoff return duo (25.5 yards per). Nelson had a 100-yard TD return at Arizona State; Addison had an 87-yard non-scoring return at Washington.

USC Offensive Gameplan

The Trojans’ inability to run the football against a porous Colorado rush defense last Friday night left many folks scratching their heads. Yes, CU loaded up the box – especially when Ronald Jones II lined up at tailback. And, yes, guard Viane Talamaivo’s torn meniscus – which he suffered on the game’s fourth play but played through – probably didn’t help USC’s blocking efforts (expect redshirt freshman Chris Brown to start in his place Saturday). But the Trojans simply could not get anything going until the game completely flipped in the third quarter.

Failing to produce on offense for the entire first half would be a killer this week for USC. Oregon is not a team the Trojans can afford to fall behind 14-0 or 17-3 and think they can make up ground. Not because the Ducks’ defense is so tough, but because no offense has been better in recent years at taking that early margin and going in for the kill. USC’s offense must come out at full throttle on Saturday – for the first time since Helton took over.

What does that mean? The offensive line must set the tone. It must protect Kessler against the Ducks’ aggressive front seven. With the Oregon secondary struggling, Pellum has doubled down on trying to hassle the quarterback. If the Trojans keep Kessler upright, he could have a massive day. The front five must also establish itself in the run game – USC wants to be in third-and-manageable against an Oregon defense that’s struggled on third down. And the Trojans must establish their own pace. The Ducks, with their hurry-up attack, are – as usual – near the bottom of national rankings in time of possession. USC must keep it that way.

USC Defensive Gameplan

On the other side of the ball, USC’s early-game struggles also continued. The Trojans allowed Colorado to score on three of its first five possessions – even after injured quarterback Sefo Liufau was replaced by redshirt freshman Cade Apsay. However, USC’s defensive adjustments continued to show improvement in the post-Sarkisian era, as the Trojans recorded four of their six sacks in the second half and may have shut the Buffs’ offense out if not for a Nelson Spruce punt return to the USC two-yard-line that set up CU’s only second-half TD.

The bad news, as most know by now, is that USC lost its top two middle linebackers – freshman Cameron Smith and senior Lamar Dawson – to injury for the rest of the season. That comes on top of injuries creating serious depth issues for the Trojan safety corps, weakening the middle of the USC defense at an inopportune point in the schedule. It looks like sophomore Olajuwon Tucker will get the first crack alongside senior Anthony Sarao at the inside backer spots, but don’t be surprised to see sophomore Uchenna Nwosu (who has played the rush LB spot most of the season), freshman Porter Gustin, or junior Michael Hutchings early and often.

The key, as always, against the Ducks’ fast-paced, zone-read attack is assignment football. Oregon feasts on blown reads and coverages, so it’s on the Trojans to stay within themselves and play fast but smart. The Trojan defensive line needs to get a push if USC is going to have any luck slowing Freeman down and getting to Adams. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Adams run more than he has of late, but if the Trojans can keep him in the pocket, they have a chance to add to their recently impressive sack totals – Oregon is 10th in the conference in sacks allowed (29). That pass rush will be crucial in helping the Trojan secondary against the Ducks’ downfield shots.

The Pick

Three months ago, many believed this would be the Pac-12 game of the year. Five weeks ago, it looked like these two teams simply might be fighting for bowl eligibility. But as we close in on the first USC-Oregon showdown in three years, the game doesn’t has plenty of conference and regional importance. The Trojans – playing under an interim coach, still recovering from sanctions, and battling a spate of injuries at various positions – somehow find themselves atop the Pac-12’s South Division. The Ducks – struggling to replace the Mariota mystique and battling youth and poor play on defense – knocked off the Pac-12’s leading national title candidate last week and still have a shot at winning the North Division.

It’s not a bad set-up for what looks like it’s going to be a (thankfully) sunny and pleasant (around 50 degrees) afternoon for football. And yes, while both teams enter on those previously mentioned four-game winning streaks, only USC’s win over Utah and Oregon’s over Cal would be considered “comfortable.” Yes, the Ducks are clearly coming off the more impressive victory last Saturday, but how many times has that counted for anything in the topsy-turvy Pac-12 this year?

Though the Trojans should be able to put up points and are unlikely to be cowed by the wild atmosphere at Autzen, there are two concerns for USC. First is how Troy has started games under Helton’s watch. USC simply cannot allow the Ducks to jump out early and be forced to play catch-up all day against Oregon offense and a revved-up crowd. Second, the injury/depth trouble in the middle of USC’s back eight is also a concern against a Duck offense that uses misdirection to beat you in the middle of the field and speed to beat you on the edges. Though no outcome will shock me – and, personally, I just love the “Fight On” spirit USC has shown of late – those concerns are enough for my pick to edge just slightly northward.

Oregon 44, USC 35

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)

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