Trojans Go Duck Hunting: A USC-Oregon Preview
Before the season began, did anyone view this weekend’s USC-Oregon matchup as the most anticipated of the Pac-10 season? No, we were all too busy reeling from all the NCAA sanctions and that Jeremiah Masoli business. But here at the halfway point, Oregon is a thrilling No. 1 in the AP poll and SC is fresh off a dominant performance against Cal.
A breakdown of Saturday's imminent bruising battle:
Offense: Each team boasts at least one explosive player at every position. Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley slightly edges the Ducks’ Darron Thomas in statistics. Barkley has 1,869 passing yards and 20 touchdowns on the year, with only four interceptions. He’s one of the hottest hands in the NCAA, coming off his five-TD massacre of Berkeley. But Thomas (1,808 yards, 19 TDs) is faster and more versatile — he’s rushed for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
USC has a rushing tandem to be envied in Allen Bradford (560 yards, 4 TDs) and Marc Tyler (438 yards, 6 TDs). Because both are such big threats, opposing teams have had difficulty shutting down SC’s run game. However, Oregon phenom LaMichael James has run for more touchdowns (11) than Bradford and Tyler put together, and rushed for nearly as many yards as their combined total (971). SC fans better hope Monte Kiffin spent last week’s bye reviewing ways to stop this guy.
There’s receiving talent to spare on both these teams. USC freshman Robert Woods just barely trumps Thomas’ favorite target, Jeff Maehl, in yards and touchdowns. Thomas tends to spread the ball around to an array of players, a la Tom Brady and the ’01 Patriots. Barkley is more likely to stick to Woods and senior standout Ronald Johnson, but David Ausberry has been a reliable third target.
Defense: It’s a good thing SC has had offensive success of late because their defense has been struggling all season. They’re injury-ridden and it shows. Safety T.J. McDonald is the bright spot in a group that’s allowed an average of 402 yards and more than 24 points per game. The Ducks have been far more impressive, forcing turnovers and sacking QBs like it’s easy and logging two shutouts on the season. Tackle Brandon Blair and defensive end Kenny Rowe have combined for 60 tackles.
Special Teams: USC has turned to Johnson and Woods for punt returns and they’ve both been very successful. Joe Houston, who missed a crucial field goal against Washington, in essence setting up their win, absolutely cannot afford to do the same against Oregon. In contrast, Ducks kicker Rob Beard is 6-for-6 this season and looks all kinds of confident.
Cornerback Cliff Harris has returned three punts for touchdowns for Oregon. Both teams have provided admirable coverage against the kick, but the overall edge goes to Oregon, where special teams coordinator Tom Osborne has kept things fresh by rotating in different players each week. As a result, Oregon leads the nation in yards per punt return.
Coaching: Chip Kelly of Oregon and head Trojan Lane Kiffin have spent the weeks leading up to this showdown trading barbs, so stay tuned after the game for a potentially tense handshake between the two. Look for Oregon to stick to the rush-heavy spread former offensive coordinator Kelly has so successfully implemented. To combat it, SC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin admits he’s attempted to make significant adjustments to his famous “Tampa 2” system.
Tampa 2 is all about speed, tackles and pressure on the quarterback, but it is much less effective against the run and in particular a running quarterback like Thomas. Given the difficulty Trojan players have had successfully executing it this year, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to nimbly switch gears this week.
X-Factors: The Trojans have the Coliseum on their side. It’s Homecoming and pumped fans are planning a “red out” — they hope to blind Oregon by wearing only Cardinal Red. Then again, the Ducks are accustomed to strange get-ups. In 2009, they confused opponents by wearing a different uniform each week, and that only scratched the surface. Oregon has such a wide variety of jerseys, helmets, pants, socks and shoes that there are 512 possible combinations.
And USC has the added challenge of overcoming the ESPN College Gameday curse. The program is set to broadcast from the USC campus on Saturday, terrifying legions of Trojan faithful. Whether the Gameday Curse is as formidable as the EA Sports Madden Football curse, which is singlehandedly responsible for the injury of several NFL players, remains unproven.
Outcome: The men of Troy would love nothing more than to crush Oregon’s title hopes. This game will be an offensive shootout — don’t be surprised to see a score on almost every possession. If the Trojan defense can lock down and exploit Oregon’s few weaknesses, it will be another victory for ol’ SC.
To reach writer Kate Rooney, click here.
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