On Homecoming Saturday, can the Trojan defense hold up well enough to let the offense find a way to knock the top-ranked Ducks from their perch?
The USC Trojans (5-2, 2-2 Pac-10), ranked No. 24 by the Associated Press, celebrate their Homecoming game on Saturday, October 30 against the Oregon Ducks (7-0, 3-0), ranked No. 1 by the AP, USA Today and Harris polls and No. 2 in the BCS, at 5 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a split-national ABC television audience. It is the 57th meeting between the two schools, with Troy holding a 37-17-2 edge. The Trojans have won four of the past six meetings, including a 44-10 rout in the last Los Angeles meeting (2008). However, the Ducks throttled the Trojans, 47-20, on Halloween 2009 in Eugene, on their way to a Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl appearance.
A week ago, the Trojans rested after handing California a 48-14 drubbing on Oct. 16 at the Coliseum. Matt Barkley tied the school's single-game TD pass record with five (all in the first half), as USC rolled up 602 total yards against what had been a stellar Bear defense. The 42-0 halftime deficit was the largest in the history of the Cal football program. In Oregon's last outing, on Oct. 20, the Ducks rolled to a 60-13 victory over UCLA in Eugene. Oregon totaled 582 yards against the Bruins in just 21 minutes of possession time, as sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas had a career passing night, throwing for 308 yards and three touchdowns.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (12-8 career collegiate head coaching record; 5-2 at USC) is in his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Oregon headman Chip Kelly is in his second season in Eugene (17-3, 12-1 in Pac-10 games). Under Kelly, the Ducks became the first Pac-10 team not known by the initials "USC" to earn a Rose Bowl berth since Washington State in 2002, and his breakneck-paced offense is the talk of college football.
Oregon Offense Kelly, along with offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, has brought a revolutionary pace to the Ducks' zone-read offense. Last year, the scheme made a star of then-QB Jeremiah Masoli (since exiled to Mississippi after being kicked off the team for criminal problems), and it's doing the same for Thomas in 2010. The differences between the two quarterbacks: size and passing ability. Thomas has more of both. He's averaging 6.4 yards per carry and has completed 61 percent of his passes - 17 for touchdowns against just five interceptions. He's a true dual threat and has grown immensely in the seven games he's served as starter. Senior back-up Nate Costa is a more-than-capable alternative should Thomas struggle or go down. In limited duty this season, he's completed 75 percent of his passes and is a threat as the holder on placekicks, in the same vein as Trojans' second-string QB Mitch Mustain.
Thomas' top target has been senior Jeff Maehl, a solid possession target who has a 28-game reception streak and has grabbed 39 passes (six TDs) so far in 2010. Senior D.J. Davis and sizeable junior Lavasier Tuinei are the other starters, and have combined for 43 catches and two scores. True freshman Josh Huff has stood out as a fourth outside target, with 13 grabs and three TDs. As usual, the Ducks have a solid threat at tight end, with junior David Paulson racking up 14 catches, a 19.5-yard average and three scores.
However, sophomore running back LaMichael James, who also encountered some legal issues in the offseason, has been the Ducks' true offensive star. James, a Heisman Trophy candidate, leads the nation with 161.8 yards rushing per game. He averages more than seven yards per carry and has scored 11 touchdowns on the ground (one receiving). His next 100-yard game will break the school record for career 100-yard rushing outings. All of this has come after serving a one-game suspension in the opener. When lightning-quick reserve sophomore Kenjon Barner had to sit out the UCLA game because of injury (he's questionable for this week), senior Remene Alston did a fine job, rushing for 75 yards and three scores.
If all those skill position players are making national names for themselves, it's the experienced offensive line that's truly the key to the zone-read offense. Not only is the group opening holes for the running attack, but also Ducks' quarterbacks have been sacked just twice in 2010. Seniors Bo Thran (LT), Jordan Holmes (center) and C.E. Kaiser (RG) are the group's leaders. Junior Mark Asper (RT) and sophomore Carson York (LG) are the other starters, and junior Darrion Weems has started five games as a utility man. The Ducks' linemen are often interchangeable to Kelly - Thran has started at both guard and tackle this season, while Weems has started at both tackle spots and York at both guard spots.
Oregon Defense Longtime Duck defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti oversees a veteran group that is intent on pressuring quarterbacks (19 sacks, second in the Pac-10) and forcing turnovers (25 takeaways in seven games and a fantastic +12 turnover margin). While the Ducks' other defensive stats seem impressive at first glance (15.9 points per game allowed, 331 total yards per game), Oregon has played much of its schedule against some of the worst offensive teams in the nation. But in games against competent (or better) offenses - Stanford and Arizona State - the Ducks' high-risk, high-reward defense allowed a total of 1,115 total yards and 62 points. So, just who is this Jekyll-and-Hyde unit that gives up big plays almost as often as it makes them?
Up front in their 4-3 set, the Ducks have a solid eight-man rotation, featuring starters Kenny Rowe, a senior, and Terrell Turner, a junior, at the ends and seniors Brandon Bair and Zac Clark at the tackles. Bair (31 stops, 13 for loss including three sacks) and Rowe (28 tackles, a team-leading four sacks) are the leaders. The second string, though young, sees plenty of time, with junior Brandon Hanna and sophomore Dion Jordan at ends and redshirt freshmen Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi at tackles. Jordan has made the most noise with 17 tackles.
The Ducks' linebacking corps features two of the team's top defensive playmakers - senior middle backer Casey Matthews and his classmate on the weak side, Spencer Paysinger. Matthews is third on the team with 35 stops, but he also has 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Talk about filling up a stat sheet. Paysinger has 36 tackles, including two sacks. On the strong side, junior Josh Kaddu has been less flashy, but plenty effective, with 21 tackles. The depth here also sees the field plenty, as senior Bryson Littlejohn (MLB), sophomore Michael Clay (WLB) and redshirt freshman Boseko Lokombo (SLB) have 61 tackles between them.
The Ducks' secondary, lit up by Arizona State and abused at times by both Stanford and Washington State, is an interesting anomaly. While they've struggled mightily at times, they are responsible for 10 of Oregon's 13 interceptions, and junior rover (strong safety) Eddie Pleasant is the team's leading tackler with 37. Sophomore free safety John Boyett has 34 stops and two picks, while senior cornerback Talmadge Jackson III has 33 tackles and an interception. At the other corner, junior Anthony Gildon started the first six games before an injury before sophomore Cliff Harris replaced him in the lineup last week. Harris - as a reserve and nickel back - has been a big-play machine, with 21 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. Junior Javes Lewis and senior Marvin Johnson also see time at safety.
Oregon Special Teams Sophomore placekicker Rob Beard has been solid, making all 40 PATs and all six field goal attempts. He's also been decent on kickoffs, notching eight touchbacks and helping hold the opposition to an average start of the 22-yard line. Sophomore punter Jackson Rice has been solid, averaging 42.5 yards per boot, and opponents are averaging just one yard per return. Barner was handling kick returns until his concussion against Washington State, but now that duty has fallen to Huff. Barner was also part of the league's most dangerous punt return tandem - Harris has returned three punts for scores and Barner took one 80 yards for a score earlier in the season.
USC Offensive Gameplan It's hard for anyone to question the improvement of the USC offense from the 2009 campaign. After impressive performances against Stanford and Cal, the Trojans now rank seventh nationally in total offense (494 yards per game), sixth nationally in pass efficiency and No. 14 in the nation in scoring (37.4 points per game). The Trojans' balance has been outstanding, with USC rushing for 213 yards per contest and passing for 281. The emergence of Barkley (20 TD passes, four INTs - none in the past three games) has been aided by the explosion of freshman receiver Robert Woods, who has five TD grabs in the past two games.
So what to do with an Oregon defense that is undersized but fast up front, and susceptible to big plays - but just as likely to make one - in the back four? Amazingly, USC's offensive gameplan might be more predicated on the Ducks' offensive talent than anything their defense has to offer. The Trojans should expect to move the ball against Oregon's defensive unit, whether on the ground or through the air. But keeping the quick-hitting Duck offense off the field for long stretches seems to be crucial to the Trojans' chances of springing the upset.
I see USC running the football, early and often, against the Ducks. Even UCLA's offense had some limited success early in its defeat a weekend ago by lining up and running it right at the Ducks - and Stanford, Arizona State and Tennessee all had success running the football against Oregon. This means plenty of opportunity for Marc Tyler and Allen Bradford. However, the Trojan passing attack has become too potent to overlook, especially if Oregon tries to stack the box against USC's rushing attack. Barkley must maintain the cool he's shown in recent weeks and avoid forcing passes. The Ducks' defense thrives on turnovers - ASU's seven turnovers were the absolute difference in an 11-point loss to Oregon, and Stanford's three red-zone turnovers again spelled the difference in that shootout.
USC Defensive Gameplan Well, it ain't gonna be the Tampa-2, that's one thing for sure. Monte Kiffin, in comments earlier this week, clearly knows his NFL creation is not built to stop the Ducks' gimmicky rapid-fire attack. And, aside from helping create a touch of confidence, it's hard to take much from USC's solid performance against Cal's up-and-down pro-style attack. A season ago, the Ducks ran circles around the Trojan defense - one that was statistically better than this one. Who can believe that the Trojans will suddenly find a way to slow, let alone stop, the Ducks and their point-a-minute offense?
If the Trojans are to have any success, two things must happen: the front four will have to find a way to get a push upfield against Oregon's veteran line. For all the talk of fast pace, the zone-read is actually fairly slow to activate from the snap. The reason Thomas and James are so effective in it is that the Oregon offensive line has been stellar at creating the time they need to work their trickeration. Second, USC's linebackers and safeties must play heads-up, assignment football. They can't "try" to be playmakers against Oregon - only by playing true to their assignments will they avoid embarrassment and actually make plays.
Expect USC to take some measured chances as well early, run blitzing from various locations, while the ends hold their corners against Thomas and James. If it's effective early, the Trojans will likely continue throughout. A year ago, Monte Kiffin had some success against Florida's zone-read offense while at Tennessee. I imagine his gameplan will look somewhat similar to that one. He will also likely try to steal some of Ohio State's successful strategy from the Rose Bowl, when the Buckeyes stymied the Duck offense. Will that work with this set of players? There's no way to find out except to play the game.
The Pick This game could look a lot like the USC-Stanford game a few weeks back, except at hyperspeed. Both offenses are clearly better than the defenses they are facing. What USC can't do is get caught up in the Ducks' pace, especially if Oregon takes the lead. Rushing around on offense and trying to get those scores back will lead to the kind of mistakes that the Duck defense feasts on.
The turnover battle in this game is even more important than normal. Oregon's defense reminds one of USC's great defenses in the middle of the past decade in just one way - forcing turnovers. The 10 turnovers they forced against Arizona State and Stanford basically saved the Ducks, even with their potent offense. If Oregon gives up the kinds of yards they have against solid offenses in 2010 and doesn't force the turnovers that have been so crucial to its success, the Trojans will have a huge opportunity to pull the upset. Remember, though the Ducks blew out USC in the fourth quarter in Eugene a season ago, USC trailed just 27-20 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter - it's not like the Trojans can't go score-for-score with the Ducks for long periods.
While the Ducks are 6-1 in the seven games they've played against USC when ranked higher than the Trojans, USC's seven wins against top-ranked opponents is the second-most in college football history (Notre Dame, 8). With the bright media lights shining upon the Los Angeles Coliseum again this Saturday night, can the Trojans bring back some of that 2002-08 magic? If they run the football effectively, get 5-6 stops on defense and don't turn the ball over, it's quite possible. However, in the end of a high-scoring battle, the Duck offense will have just a little too much for the USC defense.
Oregon 45, USC 38
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 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.