A top-10 tussle on Halloween provides the perfect stage for USC to rid itself of its recent curse in the state of Oregon.
The USC Trojans (6-1, 3-1 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls and No. 5 in the BCS, head north this Saturday, October 31, to face the Oregon Ducks (6-1, 4-0) - ranked No. 10 by the AP and BCS, and No. 12 by USA Today - at 5 p.m. (PDT) in the Eugene's Autzen Stadium and in front of a national ABC/ESPN2 audience. It is the 56th meeting in the series, with the Trojans holding a 37-16-2 lead. However, the Ducks have won five of the past nine, including a 24-17 decision in the Trojans' last visit to Eugene in 2007. A season ago, USC hammered Oregon, 44-10, at the Coliseum.
A week ago, the Trojans once again had to hold off a fourth-quarter charge from a seemingly defeated opponent, surviving two late Oregon State touchdowns in a 42-36 victory at the Coliseum. Junior tailback Allen Bradford rolled up a career-high 147 yards rushing, scoring twice, and junior wideout Damian Williams' second punt return for a touchdown in 2009 provided the final margin of victory. Meanwhile, the Ducks overcame a sluggish offensive first half with great special teams play and turnovers, before junior quarterback Jeremiah Masoli got the Duck attack going in the third quarter of a 43-19 victory at Washington.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (94-16, 61-11 in the Pac-10), having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Oregon headman Chip Kelly is in his first season taking over for Oregon's most successful coach ever, Mike Bellotti, who moved up to athletic director. Kelly, who had been on the Duck staff as offensive coordinator since 2007, had about the rockiest debut as a head coach imaginable, suffering a 19-8 loss in a nationally televised game at Boise State - after which, his star running back LeGarrette Blount punched a Boise State player, earning a season-long suspension. However, in the following six games, the Ducks have improved steadily, and the Oregon defense has been a revelation. The question remains, however: does Oregon have what it takes to knock USC off the Pac-10 pedestal this Saturday?
Oregon Offense Though Kelly brought in first-year offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, it's clear that the offense is still his operation. Oregon's high-tempo, spread-option offense ranks No. 14 nationally in rushing (210.7 yards per game) and is putting up 34 points per game. The Ducks show off multiple looks out of their shotgun-based attack, mixing two-RB, two-TE sets, with three-wide and empty sets. Through it all, Masoli is the clear key, as he makes rapid-fire decisions with the football, both on running and passing plays. He's completed 60 percent of his passes, but is averaging barely more than 150 yards per game through the air. He had a huge passing day in the Ducks' win over Cal on Sept. 26, but most of that came on runs after the catch. Where he truly shines is in the running attack - he's Oregon's second leading rusher with 272 yards at a 4.6 per-carry clip, and makes great decisions time and time again. Junior Nate Costa is less mobile, but a better passer. He led Oregon to a win at UCLA when Masoli was sidelined, and is a gadget-play threat as the holder on kicking teams.
When the Duck attack does take to the air, it's senior tight end Ed Dickson who is the big play target. At 6'5", 243 lbs., Dickson is a load - and fast. He destroyed Cal, with 11 catches for 148 yards and three scores. He also had a big game against Washington State and leads the Ducks with 27 grabs and 4 scores. Oregon's second tight end, sophomore David Paulson, has stepped up recently as well, with six of his nine catches in the past three games. Junior wideout Jeff Maehl is another favorite target, especially on quick throws to the outside. Maehl is averaging 12 yards per catch on 21 grabs. Junior receiver D.J. Davis has come on in recent weeks, and had four catches - including his first TD of the season - against Washington. Sophomore receiver Lavasier Tuinei is the other listed starter, and the 6'5" target has eight catches.
Oregon's rushing offense hasn't missed a beat after losing Blount. Much of the credit goes to Masoli's decision making, but speedy redshirt freshman LaMichael James has been spectacular. He has 735 yards (a 6.9 ypc average), and has been extra special in Pac-10 games, rolling up 505 yards in four outings. Carroll compared him to Cal's Jahvid Best this week - high praise indeed. Classmate Kenjon Barner has stepped up as an able reserve in the recent weeks, averaging 5.4 yards per tote. Senior Andre Crenshaw may also see some action.
The Oregon front five was very green at the beginning of the season, but the group has grown immeasurably. Two starters returned from 2008 - junior Bo Thran, who swapped from LG a season ago to LT this year, and junior RT C.E. Kaiser. New starters Carson York (redshirt freshman LG), Jordan Holmes (junior C, who brought in solid game experience) and Mark Asper (sophomore RG) have grown immeasurably since the Boise State debacle.
Oregon Defense Veteran defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti's group might be the surprise of the conference so far. Expected to struggle up front and bombarded by huge early-season injuries in the secondary, no one would be surprised if the Ducks defense was inconsistent. Instead, Oregon ranks in the national top 25 in pass defense (No. 23 - but No. 6 in pass efficiency defense), sacks (No. 10), tackles for loss (No. 25), scoring and total defense (No. 19 in both). While the Ducks operate out of a 4-3 set, they move around a lot, often showing three down-linemen, and attack from everywhere. It's a true team effort, as a dozen Oregon defenders have at least 20 tackles, and the group has allowed just three touchdowns in four Pac-10 games. At the same time, the Duck defense has been a scoring machine of late, forcing 19 turnovers and helping Oregon boast a +5 turnover ratio.
Up front, the lone returning starter - and emotional leader - is senior DE Will Tukuafu, who has 22 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks. At the other end, lightning-fast junior Kenny Rowe has been a outstanding. With seven sacks (tied for eighth nationally with, among others, USC's Nick Perry) among his 23 stops, Rowe has become a fearsome threat to Pac-10 quarterbacks. Sophomore Tyrell Turner has been an able complement as a reserve end, with two sacks. Inside, the Ducks are rangy, with 6'7" Brandon Bair and 6'6" Blake Ferras at the tackle spots. They've combined for 45 tackles and are a threat to tip passes at any time.
Junior middle linebacker Casey Matthews, who comes from a long line of USC greats, including current Green Bay Packer Clay Matthews, has become a big-time playmaker for the Ducks. He's tied for the team lead with 44 stops, and has 2.5 sacks, an interception and three pass break-ups. He truly plays sideline to sideline. Sophomore Eddie Pleasant has been solid on the strong side, with 28 tackles. He will be tested this week, as Josh Kaddu, who had been spelling him regularly and has 21 tackles, is out with a foot injury. On the weak side, junior Spencer Paysinger, has been excellent - 36 tackles and five passes broken up. True freshman Michael Clay has rotated into this spot more regularly as the season has gone along, and has 20 tackles.
When the season kicked off, the Ducks had two returning starters who were both honors candidates in cornerback Walter Thurmond III and free safety T.J. Ward. Ward went down with an injury in the opener, and returned just last week against Washington. Thurmond's season ended with a knee injury early in the Cal game. Less than two weeks later, Thurmond's replacement, senior Willie Glasper, was also lost for the season with a knee injury. Decimated Ducks, right? Wrong - the group of sophomore Anthony Gildon and junior Talmadge Jackson III at the corners and redshirt freshman John Boyett and sophomore Javes Lewis at the safeties has performed incredibly well. And with Ward back in the mix, the group just got stronger.
Oregon Special Teams Senior placekicker Morgan Flint has been solid to a distance of 42 yards, making six-of-eight FG opportunities and all 27 PATs. Redshirt freshman Rob Beard handles kickoffs and longer field goals, but has missed his only opportunity, a 51-yarder. Freshman punter Jackson Rice is averaging 40 yards per boot. Barner and James handle kickoff and punt returns, with Barner the major threat. He's averaging 31 yards per return and had a 100-yard TD return at UCLA.
USC Offensive Gameplan The Trojan offense took another step forward a week ago against Oregon State. Since QB Matt Barkley's return from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the loss at Washington, the Trojans have scored 27, 30, 34 and 42 points. A nice progression, wouldn't you say? Adding the thumping running style of Bradford more seriously into the mix last Saturday was another step forward - even if it came about because of an early hand injury to Joe McKnight. Let's hope that the use of Bradford doesn't slide backward this week. One spot of concern from a week ago is Barkley's two interceptions (and a third nullified by a penalty). With how opportunistic Oregon's defense has been - and how they move around to confuse quarterbacks before the snap - a clean game from the true freshman is a must on Saturday.
However, Barkley should be helped out by the Trojan offensive line and rushing attack. USC must try to impose its will with its sizeable offensive line against the Ducks' speedy, but undersized, front seven. While the Duck defense has been excellent thus far, its weakest link has been against the run. Boise State and Purdue ran the ball effectively against Oregon - as did Washington until turnovers and special teams play turned the game into an Oregon rout. A mixture of Bradford and McKnight and some solid up-front play should give the Ducks plenty to worry about.
That's not to say, however, that USC won't try to make some hay through the air. While Oregon's pass defense statistics are impressive, they've racked up a lot of those numbers against some of the worst passing offenses in the conference. Washington (266 yards) and Purdue (281) both had success gaining chunks of yards via the pass against the Oregon defense. The possible loss of tight end Anthony McCoy for this weekend's game would definitely hurt USC, but Washington showed last week just how susceptible the middle of the Duck defense can be when a quarterback has time to throw. Expect both Williams and Ronald Johnson to challenge the Duck secondary repeatedly.
USC Defensive Gameplan Tempo is the key to the Oregon offense. When the Ducks get rolling, they play football almost like a fast-breaking basketball team - no huddle, quick hitting and putting defenses on roller skates. The Ducks did it to Cal all day, and they got it going again in the second half at Washington last weekend. The key to slowing Oregon down: controlling Masoli in the spread-option running game and making the Ducks throw it more than they want to.
While there is reason for concern after USC's past two second-half defensive performances, Carroll does have a point that they happened against quality passers. They also happened against more traditional offenses. USC has prepared for and faced different versions of spread-option play this season and in recent seasons and has improved against it distinctly. This Saturday, however, will be their greatest test since Dennis Dixon led the Oregon attack in 2007.
Accounting for James and Masoli in the running attack is important. The spread-option is really a side-to-side attack that seeks cutback lanes for its runners. USC's side-to-side defensive speed is the best in the conference. If the Trojan linebackers stay in their lanes and the defensive line can disrupt the Ducks' front five, USC could cause Masoli problems. The play of the defensive ends and Malcolm Smith at linebacker against the run will be hugely important. Also, keep in mind, when the Ducks get near the end zone, Masoli calls his own number more often than not in the run game. In their passing attack, the Ducks love using Maehl on quick throws to the outside in order to soften up the middle of the pass defense. Then, when they're on, they burn opponents in the seams with Dickson. USC can handle Maehl, but it must account for the seams on all pass plays - that's where the Ducks make big plays with their receivers and tight ends.
The Pick In my preseason Pac-10 preview, I picked the Ducks by a touchdown in this one, citing "three costly turnovers" from USC. Interestingly, the Ducks have become a turnover-forcing monster so far this season. At the same time, they've become a force on special teams - both through returns and blocks. While people like to talk about the Duck offense, it is Oregon's efforts on defense and special teams that have given the school the opportunity for a breakthrough victory this Saturday. And if they continue their mastery in this area, it's likely they will come out on top.
Make no mistake about it, however, the Ducks must continue to make big plays on defense and special teams this weekend. Oregon has not faced an offense that is as talented or multi-faceted as USC's - and the Trojans will move the ball. If USC doesn't turn it over and converts drives into touchdowns rather than field goals (a place where a clear improvement was made last weekend), it will be on the Duck offense to turn this into a shootout. Can they do it? Absolutely, especially with the crazy environment promised by a Halloween night game in Autzen.
However, while the Ducks offense has put repeatedly up huge numbers in recent seasons, they've consistently struggled to match those results against Carroll-coached defenses. Even in Oregon's win two seasons ago, it took USC turnovers to help the Ducks' most explosive offense ever get to 24 points. I expect USC to contain the Ducks' rushing attack and force Masoli to have the type of game he had through the air against Cal. All things equal, the Trojans have more than enough to win this game - but, when have all things been equal for USC in the state of Oregon recently? Still, USC's road experience in 2009 will serve them well and help them overcome the Ducks, their crowd and the spooks of recent visits to the state
USC 31, Oregon 24
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). 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 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.