At the beginning of the game, it was obvious that Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti wanted to make a statement. The Ducks won the toss and going against the recent trend, the Ducks chose to receive the ball. In most of its recent games, USC has chosen to defer the choice of the ball to the second half when it won the toss as have most of their opponents. It began to look as if Oregon's philosophy would pay early dividends. On its initial drive, the Ducks converted some impressive third down plays and they methodically and expertly drove the ball to USC's 13 yard line. However, their effort was all for not because on 4th and one, the Ducks were stopped by the Trojan's bend but don't break defense and other than knowing that they kept the ball away from the SC offense, the Ducks came away with a big zilch.
Perhaps the absolute highlight of this game from a Southern California Trojan standpoint is the much improved pass rush the Trojans managed to bring to the game tonight. The Trojans were credited with three sacks in the game and on countless other downs, the defense brought enough heat to thoroughly disrupt whatever the Ducks were trying to do. In particular, defensive end Lawrence (LoJacK) Jackson got his first, second and yes, third sack of the season, all in one game. Lawerence had been talking to Coach Carroll just this week about lack of sacks and the Coach had some recommended reading for his star defensive end. Whatever the two discussed and whatever the required reading said must have worked wonders. After being unable to land a single sack all season long, Lawrence gave the Ducks Oline fits and he recorded three sacks on the evening. His performance could not have come at a better time.
USC's defense needed all that LoJack had to offer and then some to hold this prolific, league leading Ducks offense in check. After averaging some 36.3 points per game and 456.8 yards per game, the Ducks were held to 10 points and 374 total yards by SC's improving and league leading defense. The vaunted Ducks' rushing attack, which had been averaging 206 yards per game was held to 117 net yards rushing. To my way of thinking, being able to hold a prolific rushing team in check, especially one that has a mobile quarterback who can run the option and throw the ball reasonably well is quite an accomplishment and is hopefully a sign of terrific things to come for this defense. The Trojans' ability to limit Oregon's ground game helped force the Ducks to throw the ball and eventually Dixon threw a ball that was intercepted by freshman Taylor Mays who made a very nice play and took the ball all the way inside Oregon's 10 yard line. From there, it was merely a short time that SC scored yet another touchdown to help put some real distance between the Trojans and the Oregon Ducks.
It was also very nice to see some excellent one on one coverage by Terrell Thomas. On one long pass play in particular, TT made what I honestly felt was his most outstanding play of the year, and possibly the best of Terrell's career. Isolated one on one against one of the several large and talent receivers that play for Oregon, Terrell kept up with his guy step for step and his excellent play helped prevent yet another score by the Ducks.
On offense, the Trojans managed to score some major points and they also overcame three costly SC turnovers of their own. The Trojans did not put the ball on the ground, but they did manage to win the game despite losing that usually important battle of the turnovers. In this particular game, SC lost three interceptions while only picking off one pass thrown by Dennis Dixon and recovering one crucial fumble. In the end, however, this was one game when it was not just all about the ball. In this particular ball game, SC gave it up three times and they only came up with two takeaways of their own. Of the three pics thrown by Trojan passers, only one was thrown by JD Booty. Booty's pic was very costly, however, because for all intents and purposes that particular pass was headed to a wide open Steve Smith in the endzone and instead of scoring a touchdown on the play, USC ended up losing the ball and the opportunity to get an easy 7 points. USC's other two pics came on two very strange plays. First, Dwayne Jarrett got the ball on a bubble screen pass that traveled backwards.After catching the ball, DJ then made a very poor decision to throw the ball short and into double coverage. Perhaps the only thing worse than the actual execution of that play was the decision to call a trick play like that in the first place. SC was marching the ball down the field very well, and it did not seem like any trickery was needed to score. All SC really had to do was run the ball and throw it down the field. I can't recall many times during this game that the vertical passing plays did not succeed. It was the short passes and bubble screens that really began to become predictable and/or ineffective. SC's final interception thown was on a play where backup quarterback Mark Sanchez threw a long, off-balance, errant pass to fellow freshman Travon Patterson. Some might question why SC would be throwing the ball at all, especially at that particular time of the game. I personally never subscribe to that theory. If a kid practices all week long, why not let him show his stuff when he finally gets the chance to do it. Hopefully Sanchez will be able to learn from this experience and he will be all that much stronger as a quarterback in the future.
Whereas the defense played very well for most of the night, the overall play of the offense was pretty good on a night when is seemed like it could have been very good to spectacular. The running game got into gear and Chauncey Washington finally had a real breakout game with very nice results. He carried the ball 15 times for 120 yards and a solid 8 yards per carry average. Of course, it was his long 42 yards touchdown jaunt that was the real offensive highlight of the night. On that long touchdown jaunt, Chauncey displayed both great strength and speed. It has been a long time coming, but he finally broke off that long touchdown run that so many people have been waiting to see. Despite the very nice effort by Chauncey and the very steady game played by John David Booty, (hitting 16 of 25 for 176 yards), the offense was a bit strange, at least to my way of thinking. I have no idea why SC calls that bubble screen so many times and I hope that in the future, the plays called on SC's first possession of the second half lead to more productive offensive series. For two weeks in a row, when SC initially got the ball in the second half , they gave the ball right back to the opponent without any meaningful production at all. That is something that can hopefully be improved by the very next game. With the shorter games, and with teams trying to keep the ball away from the SC offense as much as possible, it is vital that the SC players are put in position to have as many meaningful series as possible. And it definitely seems to me that when SC chooses to pursue the vertical passing game, something good happens over and over again. Exactly why that part of their game is not utilized more often is one of the great mysteries of this season. Simply put, I did not understand the play calling to start the second half; it simply baffled me. I also don't quite undertand how the tight ends seem to virtually disappear for whole games at a time.
The special team played well when called into action. There were no long punt returns and SC did not give up any onside kick recoveries by Oregon. When CJ Gable got a chance to run a kickoff back, he made a very nice return that helped eventually set up a very nice score. Van Blarcom's leg seemed to come back and he kicked several balls long and deep enough to prevent any return. There were two small mishaps on the punts. First, Patrick Turner made a lunge for a punted ball that should have been allowed to role dead and one just has the feeling that the coaches will let him know about his decision. Second, Shareece Wright's aggressive punt coverage cost the Trojans' 15 yards but I am not sure how to completely stop that from occurring when fast, tough athletes are on their way to take on punt returner.
There have been several complaints posted on various sites suggesting that this year, SC has not been improving enough and that the coaches have not been making enough and adequate adjustments. In my opinion, that changed tonight. USC's team came out focused and they played better overall defense than they had at any point up till now and they did it against a really potent offense. I also think that the SC staff had this team ready to play some serious ball. The blitzes were a little different and it looked like the Trojans were pursuing better than at any time this year For a defense that never faces the option, it looked like the kids understood that they had to play assignment football and do what they were told. To hold a tough offensive team like the Oregon Ducks to almost 100 yards below their average of 456.8 ypg and to 26.3 points below their 36.3 point per game average clearly demonstrated that the kids took this game very seriously and that once again, in November, USC is an improved team that is going to do whatever it can to sustain their momentum and to win the Pac-10. Tonight, to my eye, up close in personal at the Coliseum, this team looked very well coached and they showed more overall improvement than they had at any other time up to this point in the season.
And before I finish, how can one ever forget the bizarre calls by the refs and the guys who control the instant replays? For perhaps the first time in history, we got to see a reversal of a reversal. Need one say anything else about the refs in the Pac-10? And as my esteemed friend pointed out to me, the way the refs actually spot the football after the plays is simply amazing. Time after time, the ball ends up in spots that really seem to differ from the where the player and ball actually hit the ground.
Well, game one of the final 4 game stretch is now history. It is now reasonable for the team to discuss Cal and to prepare for a really tough game next Saturday. After losing to Arizona, The California Golden Bears, the team that so many national announcers( are you kidding me, Lou Holtz?) and internet posters alike felt to be the class of the Pac-10 is looking quite mortal after all. Yes, the California Bears can beat USC, but it is far from a given. To be honest, I personally think USC is the better team and I like USC, under Pete Carroll's guidance to continue to improve and to win that game next week. Pete hates to lose and he and his staff will have the players focused and ready to rock and roll by the time the Bears suit up and are at the Coliseum. After all, USC has a recent history of doing pretty well in November, they have won 31 straight home games and they have a chance to reach their oft stated goal of locking up a position in the Rose Bowl. I guess only time will tell.