One wonders, after the ups and downs of Coach Carroll's charges, is duck on the menu or are the Trojans just playing turkey.
It's Homecoming at USC and for the Trojans that is the happiest place on earth. While going through more growing pains then a pimply faced teenager, USC has already danced with the number one schedule in the nation. Problem is, what they've barely survived was the easy part.
So as the Ducks fly south this winter the only thing the Trojans can do is lock and load the .20 gauge and let the hunt begin. From here on out, for USC, it's open season.
This matchup, more than any of the other three presents interesting scenarios for USC on both sides of the ball. As a passing offense, the Ducks are a mixed bag of tricks.
Dixon, a tall fast gunner on the run, has managed to generate no more than 150 yards in his last five games with a season low of 109 yards in total passing. What makes him dangerous is his ability to take off and run. Averaging nearly 40 yards rushing, Dixon becomes a legitimate dual threat, something the Trojans have struggled against in recent past.
"It's the dynamic nature of their quarterback (Dixon) that makes the difference. ... There's very little chance for negative plays against these guys." Coach Carroll.
So where do the Ducks get their quack, so to speak, if it isn't in the air? Coaches Lane Kiffin and Pete Carroll…
"They're the most prolific in the running game. They are a very balanced club and will be a real challenge for us, especially if their quarterback gets out in space." Carroll
"Jonathan Stewart was a kid we really wanted. He was just a monster." Kiffin
Stewart is the meat of the Ducks' entrée. Averaging 130 all purpose yards, he is the league's third best rusher. Built like a Mac Truck he'll chose to run over versus around you but that doesn't mean he doesn't have wiggle. He can make people miss and is rarely brought down with the first hit.
Bringing him down, or slowing him down, however, is not impossible. Washington State managed it and beat the Ducks, as did Cal. Achieving that is what it takes to ground the high-flying Ducks. Luckily for USC stopping the run happens to be a strength.
This is where the matchup between these two very good teams gets good: Oregon's ground game against SC's rush defense – the best of each ball club bill-to-nose and nose-to-bill.
The Trojans lead the league in stopping the run. They get a little boost in manpower with the return of Travis Tofi to the defensive line – a line that has shown considerable improvement over the last few games thanks to giant-sized efforts from Moala and Ellis.
For Oregon to win, their offense has to have the run. If USC takes that away from them, forcing Dixon, while keeping him contained, to carry the team on his arm, it could prove to be a wounded effort for the Ducks as Dixon is turn-over prone. But that might be the biggest "IF" of the 2006 season for USC.
9 interceptions to 11 touchdowns. Give those stats to John David Booty and Trojan fans might form a lynch party, or at least muster an even louder call for backup Mark Sanchez. Those, however, are two key numbers in the season of Duck signal caller Dixon. And as mentioned above, without that ground game, those two numbers could prove to be the key for a Trojan victory.
Flip that coin over and you've got SC's strength on offense, the passing game against the league leading pass defense in Oregon. Not only are they solid in shutting down an opponent's productivity, the Duck secondary are ball hawks. With that said, however, they haven't gone up against anything close to the Trojans' skill players. This from Oregon coach, Mike Belotti…
"The Trojans' Smith and Jarrett are probably the best wide receiver tandem in the nation and it will be all we can do to slow them down."
Every aspect of this game will be a challenge for both programs. For Belotti the biggest challenge might be just walking in to the Coliseum. None of Oregon's current players have ever played a college football game at Memorial Coliseum. The last time even Belotti visited the hallowed grounds SC was in a mild slump.
Fast-forward to 2006 and you've got three new Heisman trophy banners hanging at the peristyle end and two more National Championship banners running at field level. Add to that near double the attendance and well, the old house ain't looking too shabby. Belotti must get his boys focused on the game right away and not get caught up in the bigtime environment, or it could all slip through their webbed fingers very fast.
"…I need to get them there early, walk the field and show them there are two goal posts, just like our place, endzones and fans in the stands… I need to take the mystery away for them because it's going to be loud…" Mike Belotti.
It might sound simple but winning on the road isn't…simple. Homefield is one of the bigger advantages the Trojans will have against a Duck team that has used their own homefield to leverage out a victory more than once – just ask Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners.
This is the beginning of a three game homestand for USC. Getting off to a great start with a win against Oregon will lay the foundation for the remaining games. Coming out ready to play and then executing in every aspect will be the Trojans' greatest challenge.
Thus far this season it has been very difficult to identify this Trojan ball club by any other name then inconsistent.
They've been very good at times, fairly miserable and everywhere in-between. That level of play, inconsistent with bursts of solid execution will not get it done against a team the caliber of Oregon. They are too fast, too versatile and too hungry to avenge too many years of losing to the reigning Pac Ten champs to have anything but a solid performance win the day.
Unfortunately, beyond Stanford and Arkansas, the Trojans haven't played a truly complete game. And because USC is such a young club it is difficult to think they are suddenly just going to "show up." Mental errors from the linebacking corp will allow Dixon to convert in a variety of ways.
Taking plays off from the D-line will open holes up for Stewart and give the Oregon passing game time enough to find the open receiver. And playing too far off the Duck pass-catchers will spell doom for our challenged secondary.
No, as much as so many other teams had to play perfect ball to beat USC, this time it is the other way around – it's USC that has to be on its game from first snap to final whistle to secure this victory.
This week's game is the first, since the Rosebowl, that I feel the Trojans will have their hands full. I do not think Oregon is as talented as USC but they are executing at a high level and are talented enough, like Texas was, to get the win.
The advantages USC will have are obvious: 1. Playing at home. You cannot measure the magnitude of this enough. 2. Game time. Having this as a night game is a huge benefit for the Trojans as the late start leaves the visitors with not a whole lot to do and nowhere to go. 3. November. Nobody is better than Pete Carroll during this month and all things considered, nothing should change. 4. The Trojans are finally healthy, especially with their pass catchers. Having that weapon will make the Trojan offense something it hasn't really been all season – unstoppable.
The disadvantages USC will face are equally as obvious: 1. Inconsistent play from both offense and defense. If Oregon comes out fast, like OSU did two weeks ago and get USC on their heels, it could be a long day for the Trojans. 2. Mobile, spread option quarterback. Dixon needs to play his best game of his career but there's no reason why he can't. He's got big, tough receivers and if he connects, SC loses. 3. Blood-in-the-water. Oregon has always considered itself better than its in-state rival the Oregon State Beavers. Kind of an "anything you can do, I can do better…" Well, OSU handled the Trojans and now its big brother's turn. The psychological aspect to these games is always big. If Oregon isn't intimidated by the crowd and doesn't fold when the going gets tough, they should be in this game to the end.
So, all the Duck clichés aside, this could be the Trojans' toughest game to date. How Pete Carroll launches this four-game finish will be tell-tale as to the quality of his coaching. I'd like to think SC fans will see the best football from this squad that they have all year. That is what Pete Carroll does – shift into another gear and leave the competition behind, come November. Only time will tell.
This game will go one of two ways, low-scoring ball control offense – kind of like a game of super-chess or, an all out aerial assault. Either way SC has the horses to get it done but execution, in the booth and on the field will win the day. It would not surprise me to see Mario Danelo get the game ball after a five field goal effort.
Every possession will count, if not just for this win but for building some continuity to the effort put forth by this rebuilt Trojan ball club. This game stands alone but also becomes the beacon for the 2006 Trojans' November to remember.
The approach for this game should be similar to the one Cal took – establish the run, pound it, commit to stopping their ground game and make Oregon play catch-up with the pass. From that position Oregon's Dixon is forced into some bad decisions resulting in one, if not two (his season average) turnovers. With this new clock and fewer offensive plays in a game, this should produce a Trojan, hard-fought victory.
SC wins but it won't be easy. SC is not all the way and will need just a solid win to build on for the remainder of the year. Also, Oregon matches up better against SC than any other opponent, save Notre Dame. That doesn't mean they are better than Cal, just a more difficult matchup when you look at strength and weaknesses.
USC 35 Oregon 30