The Oregon Ducks take on the USC Trojans this weekend in a game that provides an interesting contradiction between expectations and reality. USC came into the season as the Pac-12 favorite after catching lightning in a bottle last season and upsetting Oregon en route to a 10-2 season toward the end of which the Trojans looked absolutely dominant. This led to Larry Scott placing the game on Nov. 3, directly opposite the LSU-Alabama tilt in what many saw as the two matchups of the year in college football.
However, I offer you this challenge. Think of the USC games you've seen this year. Pretend the uniforms aren't cardinal and gold. Forget the context of the preseason expectations and just look at the games for what they are. Do to Trojans look like a team that can consistently compete with the top tier teams in the country? Did they look that way when their offensive line was being slaughtered against Stanford? When they were getting penalized every other play and watching Arizona score on them repeatedly? When they looked almost completely disinterested against Washington?
The PANIC with regards to this game stems from this game being built up all offseason, and the fact that the Ducks lost to the Trojans last season. But I have serious doubts that USC can replicate what it did last year. That performance was made possible due to USC's line play. Their defensive line was able to win the line of scrimmage and hold Oregon's running game in check, therefore bottling up the Duck offense for the first 2 ¾ quarters. Offensively, the Trojan offensive line was able to open up big holes for the run game, forcing Oregon to commit to the box and allowing an unpressured Matt Barkley to play pitch and catch with Marqise Lee against a freshman corner. And even with pretty much everything going right for the Trojans, they wore out and Oregon dominated in the last quarter by a far worse margin than they had dominated the first three, winning only when the Ducks missed a game tying field goal at the end of regulation.
Yes, USC has a ton of talent. But are we to expect that all of a sudden, SC is going to stop being the most penalized team in the country? That Lane Kiffin is suddenly going to become a good coach? That they're going to fix all the issues that plagued them against Arizona, only fix them against a much better offense? Forgive me if it comes off as hubris that I expect the Ducks to win this game by three touchdowns. In fact, that's pretty much what I expect in every game for the rest of the regular season at this point.l
I'm going to call the USC offense one dimensional, and that's going to get me in trouble. You say "but the Trojans average over five yards per carry, they have over 1200 rushing yards on the season." Yes, that is true. But that stat that is more relevant to me is that USC converts 32.2% of the time on third down-good for 113th in the country. That's 23 spots lower than Washington State. USC might be able to run, but they run so well only because of the attention that must be given to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. When you put them in a situation where you know they are going to run, where they need to put their heads down and get a first down? They don't look so hot (by contrast, Oregon is 15th in the country, at just shy of 50% on third down, which is complimented by a 75% clip on 4th down). For what its worth, the Ducks are 9th in the country in that they only allow 28% conversions on third down defensively. Silas Redd simply isn't a dynamic playmaker at the position. If USC gets into a lot of third down situations, they are going to have a long night.
We all know about Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, and Marqise Lee and how dangerous they are. Those guys are going to make some plays. But this shouldn't be like last year where its an inexperienced freshman matched up on Lee with no safety help because the safety has to commit to the box. It'll be an elite, experienced corner on Lee with safety help a good chunk of the time. It becomes a lot harder to dominate a game that way.
The ironic thing about USC is that the Trojan defense has probably been the better unit this year. Sure, they've played a lot of poor offensive teams, but they haven't allowed those teams to do a whole lot of anything.
The Trojan defense has done a nice job against the run this year, at 3.48 yards per carry against. That's good, especially given the rebuilt defensive line. But that number has also come against a number of pro-style teams that really struggle to move the football: Utah, Hawaii, Colorado, Cal, Stanford, etc. That number jumped up to 5.1 yards per carry in their first game against a spread at Arizona. They also gave up plenty of yards and points against Ryan Nassib and Syracuse. This is an aggressive defense-7.38 TFL (tied with Oregon for 22nd in the country), 8th in sacks (27), 4th in interceptions (15). But they can also be undisciplined, with a lot of penalties and missed tackles.
Their body of work shows really good numbers, but I'm interested in how they do against dynamic offenses, and especially dynamic quarterbacks, for which there is a small sample size. They held Keith Price in check, but Nassib and Matt Scott both had excellent games against them. With Arizona State and UCLA coming up after Oregon, SC's defense is going to be tested in ways that they haven't yet this season.
Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu vs. Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. USC's hopes of winning this game depend upon the kind of dominance they saw in the passing game last season. With Mitchell and Ekpre-Olomu a year older and looking like two of the best corners in the conference, that kind of performance is far more unlikely.
This is the best team Oregon has played this season-but its not a great team. They have not been clearly distinguishable from their opponents, whereas Oregon has smashed them all handily. They are poorly disciplined and poorly coached. This one won't be over with ten minutes to go in the second quarter, but I would expect the final score to be somewhere around the three touchdown margin that we have become accustomed to.