Will the Ducks’ torn and tattered defense help the Trojans make Saturday night a ‘Home Sweet Home’coming?
As the university celebrates Homecoming, the USC Trojans (5-3, 4-2 in the Pac-12) face the Oregon Ducks (3-5, 1-4) on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 4 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It’s the 61st meeting between the schools with USC leading the series 38-20-2. However, Oregon has won five of the past seven meetings, including its past two appearances in the Coliseum: 53-32 in 2010, and 62-51 in 2012. In Eugene, Ore., a season ago, the Ducks flew past the Trojans, 48-28, on a chilly afternoon in Autzen Stadium.
On Oct. 27, USC rushed for 398 of its 629 total yards in a 45-24 thumping of California. Ronald Jones II led the way with a career-high 223 rushing yards, while scoring on a 37-yard run and a 16-yard reception. Sophomore tailback Aca’Cedric Ware tacked on a career-high 130 yards on the ground, while quarterback Sam Darnold tossed five more touchdown passes – his second consecutive game with that total. Meanwhile, the Ducks snapped a five-game losing streak (their longest in 20 years) with a 54-35 victory over Arizona State last Saturday. In just his third career start, true freshman quarterback Justin Herbert tied the school’s single-game passing yards record (489) and tacked on 23 rushing yards to break UO’s single-game total offense record.
USC Coach Clay Helton (11-7 in parts of three seasons) continues to own a spotless record at home – the Trojans’ win over Cal was their seventh-consecutive win in the Coliseum. Oregon headman Mark Helfrich (36-13, 23-8 Pac-12) finds himself on a hot seat in his fourth season in Eugene. After bouncing back from a 3-3 start in 2015 to finish 9-4, the Ducks’ hope was to return to the top of the Pac-12 North standings this season. But another stopgap effort to replace 2014 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota and a defense that’s struggled to adjust to new coordinator Brady Hoke’s scheme have Oregon facing the unfamiliar position of needing to win three of its final four contests to become bowl eligible.Oregon Offense
Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick took the reins when Scott Frost accepted the top job at Central Florida. Though the Ducks made a quarterback change in the heart of that five-game skid, their offense remains as potent – statistically – as ever. Oregon once again tops the Pac-12 (No. 15 nationally) in rushing offense with 248 yards per game, while the Ducks’ total offense (519.1 yards per game) and scoring offense (40.5 points per game) both rank in the conference’s top three and nation’s top 16. Oregon’s experiment with yet another FCS-level graduate transfer quarterback didn’t fare as well as it did with Vernon Adams a season ago. Dakota Prukop, an FCS All-American at Montana State, started the first five games and wasn’t bad. He completed 66.2 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns with just two interceptions. He didn’t bring the run threat Oregon expected, averaging just three yards per carry. So, the UO brain trust turned to Eugene native Herbert. After a rocky outing against Washington, he tied the school record for TD passes in a single game (six) at Cal and doubled down with more record-setting exploits last week, as noted above. His 12 TD tosses in his first three starts tied the school record for most TD passes in a three-game span, previously shared by Mariota and Joey Harrington.
Oregon’s receivers have been hit by a pair of key injuries: junior Devon Allen, who averaged 35.2 yards on four grabs, was lost for the season in week three, while senior Dwayne Stanford (13 catches, 13.5 per grab, one score) hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury at Washington State on Oct. 1. The Ducks still have a solid crew of pass catchers, led by junior slot man Charles Nelson. He has a team-leading 44 catches (9.9 yards per) and has scored three times. Classmate Darren Carrington (31 catches, 14.4, three TDs) is the Ducks’ most physical target on the outside. The return of tight end Pharaoh Brown (22 grabs, 13.8, a team-leading four TD receptions) from an injury that cost him the 2015 season has been huge. Sophomore Jalen Brown (nine catches, 15.3, two TDs) has stepped into the breach for Stanford, and was especially solid last Saturday. Senior tight ends Johnny Mundt (seven catches and two TDs in the past two games) and Evan Baylis are also factors.
After rushing for more than 3,200 yards during the past two seasons combined, junior running back Royce Freeman has struggled to get on track in 2016 – and that’s left Oregon at risk of not having a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in a decade. He’s still averaging 5.7 yards per carry, but his 561 rushing yards are second on the team to speedy sophomore Tony Brooks-James (572, 8.1 yards per carry). Both have eight rushing TDs (Brooks-James also has a receiving score, as the duo has combined for 17 receptions). Nagging injuries have hampered both, but Brooks-James has been the top option of late. Junior Kani Benoit (6.9 yards per carry on 38 tries, two TDs) and sophomore Taj Griffin (5.3 yards per on 35 carries, three TDs) provide depth.
The Ducks have started four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen for much of 2016. The loss of junior left tackle Tyrell Crosby to a season-ending injury in week three only junior right guard Cameron Hunt (39 career starts) with any experience. In Crosby’s stead, redshirt freshman Brady Aiello has been solid. Aiello’s classmates – Shane Lemieux (left guard), Jake Hanson (center), and Calvin Throckmorton (right tackle) – have each started all eight games. Juniors Doug Brenner, Evan Voeller, and Jake Pisarcik are key reserves.Oregon Defense
Hoke took over for long-time assistant Don Pellum, who remained to coach linebackers. The Ducks’ defense was atrocious in 2015, and Helfrich hoped a new voice and new leadership would help. But Hoke’s shift to a 4-3 look, some key injuries, and a lot of youth have left Oregon’s defense in an even worse spot. The Ducks rank at the bottom of the Pac-12 in total defense (529.8 yards per game, No. 127 nationally) and scoring defense (42.3, No. 125 nationally). They are 11th in the conference in rushing defense (234.8 yards per game, No. 117 nationally) and pass defense (295 yards per game, No. 121 nationally). Oregon does rank sixth in the Pac-12 in sacks (21), but after spending the bulk of their recent run among the nation’s elite as a group that forced turnovers, the Ducks have just eight interceptions and one fumble recovery this season. In fact, until UO picked off three Sun Devil passes last Saturday, the Ducks hadn’t forced a turnover since a Sept. 24 loss to Colorado.
Up front, junior Henry Mondeaux (27 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack) and sophomore Justin Hollins (28 tackles, four for loss, two sacks) have started every game at the defensive end spots, with senior T.J. Daniel (six tackles, two sacks in the past two games), junior Jonah Moi (17 stops, 2.5 for loss), and sophomore Jalen Jelks (16 tackles, two sacks) also seeing opportunities. Daniel also can slide inside, while Moi played extensively at linebacker earlier in 2016. The defensive tackle spots have been in flux thanks to a series of nagging injuries. The best three-man rotation available for Saturday would appear to be junior Austin Maloata (23 tackles, three for loss, 1.5 sacks, but missed last week’s game), sophomore Rex Manu (11 stops, 2.5 for loss) and redshirt freshman Gary Baker (10 tackles).
Injuries have really knocked around the Ducks’ linebackers. Senior Johnny Ragin III (29 tackles) was lost for the season after the Washington State game. Junior A.J. Hotchkins (32 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks) was slated for starting MLB duties before the season, but has missed two games (including last week). The Ducks hope to have him available Saturday. Junior Jimmie Swain (46 tackles, 1.5 for loss) has played well in Hotchkins’ stead – 32 tackles in the past three games. The good news at linebacker: true freshman strong sider Troy Dye. He leads Oregon with 54 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks, and also has one of the Ducks’ eight interceptions. He can play any of the three spots. On the weak side, senior De’Quan McDowell (26 tackles) and sophomore Kaulana Apelu (23 stops) have split time.
Another true freshman, safety Brenden Schooler, has been the star of Oregon’s troubled secondary. He has 46 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions. His emergence allowed junior swingman Tyree Robinson (41 stops, one INT) to finally focus on cornerback. Sophomore Ugo Amadi (25 tackles) is listed atop the depth chart at the other corner this week, though junior Arrion Springs (33 tackles, eight pass breakups) has started the previous eight. Senior Reggie Daniels (20 tackles) and sophomore Khalil Oliver (23 stops, one INT) have both seen time at the other safety spot or in the nickel.Oregon Special Teams
Junior Aidan Schneider has made 7-of-8 field goal attempts (long: 41) and all 31 PATs. Senior Matt Wogan has booted for an impressive 35 touchbacks in 58 tries, and the Ducks rank third in the Pac-12 in kickoff coverage. Junior punter Ian Wheeler averages 38.5 yards on 38 tries with just 10 boots returned (for an average of 7.6 yards). Nelson is one of the country’s premier kickoff returners – he owns the UO career kickoff return yards record. He averages 27.3 yards, including a 100-yard house call at Washington State. He’s also averaging 17.8 yards on six punt returns, where he shares time with Carrington (six returns, 2.2 average).USC Offensive Gameplan
Only three turnovers (and, well, 13 penalties) sullied a dominating performance by the Trojan offense against Cal. USC could have easily translated those 629 yards into more than 60 points. Still, Jones finally enjoyed the breakout the coaching staff has been talking about. Ware also showed out – but minor knee and ankle injuries could rule him out for Saturday. And Darnold, despite the turnovers, continued to show impressive growth, finding four different receivers on his five TD tosses – Jones, Darreus Rogers twice, Deontay Burnett, and Daniel Imatorbhebhe.
If Ware is unavailable, along with the continuing absence of tailback Justin Davis, USC’s depth chart looks light. Sophomore Dominic Davis would become Jones’ top backup, with former walk-on James Toland IV behind them. The good news: USC’s offensive line has stabilized after some early injuries. If that group can continue its effective play, Jones and the rest of the group should have plenty of room.
This game closes out a three-game run against some of the worst Pac-12 defenses I can recall. Whether injury, inexperience, or simple ineffectiveness, Arizona, Cal, and Oregon have been atrocious in 2016. While it was clear that USC would seek to run the ball down the Bears’ throats last weekend, the array of options for USC’s offensive staff this week may be too decadent. Pressure and turnovers seem to be the only way a struggling Oregon defense can stop the Trojans. However, as noted, the Ducks have forced just nine turnovers this season and, though their only minor success on defense has been in pressuring the quarterback, 11 of their 21 total sacks have come in their three wins. However, since Darnold took over, he’s been sacked just three times in five games.USC Defensive Gameplan
Though allowing 475 total yards, the USC defense played a solid game. The Trojans kept Cal scoreless until USC’s offense had put up 21 points – and the Bears’ 10 first-half points were a result of Trojan fumbles. USC held Cal a season low in points and scoffed at the Bears’ season-long effectiveness in third- and fourth-down situations, holding them to five-of-16 conversions. The Trojans also held Cal to more than a half-yard per play below their season average.
The challenge against Oregon will be just as stiff. While the Bears prefer to throw it, the Ducks remain a run-first offense – averaging 10 more rushing attempts per game than passes. Oregon is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and 6.9 yards per play. The Ducks’ pace is still breakneck: UO is averaging fewer than 26 minutes of possession time. How can Clancy Pendergast’s group attack Oregon? At first glance, it seems the Trojans will re-shift their focus to the run-first attacks they faced in the weeks prior to Cal.
The health of Uchenna Nwosu and Michael Hutchings are a crucial starting point, because USC’s linebacker and safety play against the Ducks’ zone-read will tell the tale on how effective Herbert can be. If they are limited – or in Hutchings’ case, unavailable – Olajuwon Tucker, Quinton Powell, and Jordan Iosefa must be ready. When Herbert looks to throw, though, expect some new wrinkles from Pendergast to create pressure from unexpected areas. While the youngster has been outstanding so far, he’s still green.The Pick
With a game at top-5 Washington next weekend, I’ve seen some chatter about USC overlooking this contest. That seems like balderdash. These Trojans were embarrassed in Eugene last November and, I imagine, are licking their chops at this shot at these Ducks. Additionally, USC has played extremely well at home during the past seven contests. Whatever your thoughts on Helton’s limitations, having USC ready to roll out of the Coliseum tunnel has not been a problem.
Like Cal, the Ducks have struggled to finish games on the road, going 0-3 away from Autzen. That’s not to say they haven’t competed: two of Oregon’s road losses (and three of their five overall) came by three points – at No. 10 Nebraska on Sept. 17 and at Cal on Oct. 21. Of course, the Pac-12 North’s co-leaders – Washington and Washington State – put it on the Ducks by 49 and 18, respectively.
Oregon’s offense – especially with Herbert – is nothing to take lightly. After watching the recent history of this series, I can’t imagine Trojan fans chalking this one up as an easy Homecoming win. Oregon’s offense can still hurt teams in any number of ways and if the Trojans are not prepared, the Ducks can put up scores of points. Still, Oregon’s defense is a mess. Once again this week, the only thing that should get in the USC offense’s way is itself – penalties and turnovers. Avoid (or at least minimize) those mistakes, and the Trojans could hang half-a-hundred.
USC 52, Oregon 35
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)