Well, folks, it's nervous time. Now the really tough portion of the schedule starts.
Two of the last five teams on the schedule are in the BCS top five, two more are in Sagarin's top 17, and another is #36 according to that computer rating. This is where we separate the men from the boys.
The Pac-10 title is up for grabs, and strangely enough, the contenders have managed to avoid each other through the first half of the conference season. The only game of consequence was the Cal/Oregon game, and since then, Cal might have played themselves out of contention. So what about Oregon? Well, they are an old rival now, as Pete Carroll and Mike Bellotti are the deans of the Pac-10 coaches. They no each other well. Here's a look at the Ducks.
Oregon Offense vs. USC Defense
Pete Carroll is 3-1 against the Ducks, the only loss being a squeaker on a last second field goal in Eugene against Oregon's best team ever. The Trojans have covered the spread easily in every game during that stretch. Why? Because the Trojans have had a handle on the Oregon offense. In 2001, the Trojans held the Ducks 10 points under their scoring average. In 2005, it was 21 points under. In 2006, it was 20 points.
The only exception was 2002, the Ducks scored two meaningless TDs in the last three minutes against reserves that were not even in the two deep. In those four games, Oregon averaged 81 yards rushing per game. Last season's team, which was very similar personnel-wise to this one, went into the SC game averaging 36 points and 457 yards per game. They left with ten points and their worst offensive performance of the season.
The Ducks' offense is better than last year's, and could be the best group in the history of the school. They average 47 points and 551 yards. Those numbers are staggering. The main factor has been that they have gone with Dennis Dixon at QB and stuck with him instead of playing musical QBs with Brady Leaf. Dixon is a more confident player now. He has thrown fewer INTs than any other regular Pac-10 starter.
The bugaboo for the Ducks, whenever they have struggled offensively, has been turnovers. 2006, 2004, and 2003 are the only years in this decade that the offense did not average 30 points per game, and those were also the only years that they were in minus territory in turnover margin. Oregon's only loss came in a game that they dominated statistically, but were -4 in turnovers.
Dixon takes fewer chances with the football now. Oregon tries to stretch you horizontally rather than vertically. The Ducks complete a high percentage of short passes, and let their receivers run with the ball after the catch. This is why a player who threw 14 INTs last season has only thrown three after seven games this season. Still, the real weapon on this team is Jonathan Stewart. He is far and away the best running back in the conference. He's like a bowling ball with legs. First contact better come from more than one guy because he is very hard to tackle. He is the key to the game.
Washington saw a steady diet Stewart, especially with outside runs. The Ducks will feel you out early to see where you are weak, and then they will attack you there. The Trojans probably won't see as many of those end runs. We'll probably see more of the read option look, where Stewart will go between the tackles. The Ducks know that SC is fast at linebacker and at end, so they will likely try to make the linebackers hesitate because Dixon is a running threat on the read plays. This also keeps the backers inside, which means more room on the quick outs and stops that the Oregon wideouts run.
The Ducks have Jaison Williams at WR, and he is a big guy who is tough to tackle on the short stuff. He is an effective weapon in the red zone. The rest of their wide receivers are nothing special. Cameron Colvin is out with an injury. Derrick Jones was suspended for last week's game, but I expect him to be back. Jones has not made much of an impact with the Ducks, but if they run the ball with a receiver with their option, he'll be the guy.
Oregon has adjusted their scheme slightly this year with the addition of new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who came from traditional 1-AA power New Hampshire. They use more of the short shotgun, and will often motion a player into the backfield to make it look like an offset I behind the short shotgun. Still, because of season ending injuries to Colvin, Jeremiah Johnson and Brian Paysinger, Stewart and Dixon do the heavy lifting. Watch out for Andre Crenshaw though, who played well against UW.
If the Ducks have a weakness on offense, it's that Dixon is not a physical player. He would much rather give the ball to Stewart than keep it, which means that he will only keep if he sees a big run. He would rather run out of bounds or slide than get the extra yardage, and I saw him make those choices several times in the last few games. He has been tough to get to because he is such a good athlete, but a team that rings his bell could force some relapses to his old form of tossing it up for grabs.
Oregon Defense vs. USC Offense
This is the weak underbelly for the Ducks. They are not a good defensive team. The Ducks to this point have had three common opponents to SC. The Trojans gave up 235 yards to Stanford, Oregon gave up 402. The Cougs had 247 yards of offense against SC, and 314 against Oregon. The Huskies put 190 on the board against SC, and 421 against the Ducks. Oregon has given up over 400 yards to four of its seven opponents (including about 550 to Houston) and Michigan had almost 300 at halftime before Chad Henne's second quarter injury caused them to go into a shell.
Why the struggles? The Ducks are very weak up front, especially in the middle. This has forced them to play their linebackers and/or their third safety (since they sometimes run a 4-2-5) tight to stop the run. Even when teams line up three wide, the third LB/safety almost turns his back to the third receiver and faces the running back. The Ducks will often play seven in the box even against three wide sets, and their strong safety Patrick Chung cheats toward the line, even though he does not set up in the box. Even this kind of gambling hasn't always helped. Oregon still gives up four yards per carry.
As a result, the Ducks have had to show a lot of faith in their corners, and the results have been a mixed bag. Teams do not complete a high percentage of passes because of all the bump coverage Oregon plays, but the Ducks have given up a lot of big plays. Washington's four TD passes last week were all 26+ yards, including one of 83 yards. DeSean Jackson lit the Ducks up for 161 yards and two TDs of 25 and 31 yards.
All told, Oregon's gambling ways have led them to give up nine TDs of at least 25 yards this season. That's way too many for seven games. Still, the good news for Oregon is that they have been able to make some plays as well. DE Nick Reed has been a playmaker for them, leading the conference in sacks and tackles for loss. Walter Thurmond is tied for the conference lead in passes defended. The Ducks have also been great in the red zone, giving up only 10 TDs in 21 opponent trips.
Pete Carroll has owned Mike Bellotti for two reasons. The first is rush margin. As I said above, in four games against Carroll's teams, Oregon has only run the ball for about 81 yards per game. Meanwhile, the Trojans have dominated, rushing for 150 yards per game, and if you factor out 2001, in which the Trojans were awful at running the ball, it goes up to 185 yards. Even last year's team, which struggled to run the ball consistently, averaged 4.8 yards per carry, their best average of the season. This season's team has run the ball much better, and will likely have Chilo Rachal back, the team's best run blocker.
In my opinion, this means that the Ducks will have to load up to stop SC, as they have done much of the season. Notre Dame tried a similar tactic, and ended up paying for it. The Trojans riddled them with Fred Davis plays, as they have done to many teams this season. Close linebacker play also makes it tougher to defend the fullback, and the Irish didn't do that either. The drag routes that are a staple of the offense become much easier to throw, as are the inside seam routes. Mark Sanchez completed one to Davis which was brought back due to penalty.
The Trojans will move the ball on the Ducks now that they have some of these players back from injury and a healthy QB. My guess is that Sanchez will get the start again (I wrote this on Tuesday), and that the threat of Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight again make things tough for the Ducks on the ground, especially on outside stretch plays.
So that leaves the battle of the conference's #1 offense against its #1 defense. That was the same type of showdown we had last season. The Ducks were able to move the ball at a decent clip, but they could not make the plays that they needed to, mostly because the Trojans stopped their running game. It will be tougher to stop it this time, but it's unlikely that Oregon will even come close to their average of 294 yards per game.
If the Trojans can neuralize, not stop, but neutralize Stewart, then Dixon will have to win the game for Oregon, most likely with his arm. Look for SC to try to take advantage of the injuries at wide receiver by playing their corners closer to the line than they usually do, and don't be surprised to see a lot of blitzing, especially early, as there was last year.
The spread option offense is designed to focus on isolating defensive players to find the bad match-ups. However, the proplem for Oregon is because of USC's athletic ability, there aren't many bad match-ups. SC's speed neutralizes any schematic advantage. That's why even though Oregon has been outstanding offensively ever since they installed the offense, they have averaged only 11.5 points and 260 yards per game against the Trojans.
Expect Oregon to top both of those averages this Saturday. The Ducks will move the ball. They did so last year, as they only punted four times. However, they will turn the ball over a couple of times, as they have been known to do in critical games. It will likely not be a meltdown as it was against Cal, but it will be enough to slow them down. The Trojans will also make a few mistakes, as they are wont to do on the road. However, the Trojans are going to win this game where most games are won, on the lines.
Oregon's offensive line is good, but not as good as SC's DL is. The Trojans, even with injuries on the OL, are still better than the Ducks DL. The Ducks won't have enough to bottle up Davis, Stanley Havili, and Vidal Hazelton, and the Trojans will take advantage of Oregon's depleted wide receiver corps with a more aggressive gameplan. USC will come out of Eugene with a huge road win, and the national title talk will start anew.