Oregon's late-game heroics in recent weeks to beat rival Washington, then snap a four-game losing skid to Washington State, extended the Ducks' current winning streak to seven games. Oregon remains alive in the College Football Playoff hunt after ascending to No. 7 in the latest AP Top 25 poll. A road win over the Pac-12 South leader could improve the Ducks' standing further next week when the first Playoff rankings are revealed.
As for the host Trojans, they defend their perfect home record on the season with designs on a return to the Pac-12 Championship. USC is fresh off its first road win of 2019, edging Colorado on a Michael Pittman Jr. touchdown in the final minutes. The Trojans trailed for more than 40 minutes of that one, but the comeback keeps their inside track on the South intact.
USC holds that advantage over Utah by virtue of a September win, one of USC's four at the Coliseum. It's the last day before the nation rolls back its clocks and sunset comes an hour earlier. Still, nightfall arrives in Los Angeles well before the fourth quarter Saturday. Expect some #Pac12AfterDark madness in this pivotal contest.
Oregon at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 2 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Oregon -5
When Oregon Has the Ball
Before he came to Oregon, initially as Willie Taggart's offensive coordinator and currently as head coach, Mario Cristobal coached the offensive line at Alabama. Tuscaloosa influence is evident in the Ducks brand of football.
Oregon aims to impose its will physically with one of the nation's best offensive lines. The front five paves the way for the Pac-12's third-most productive rushing offense, fourth-most prolific passing attack, and most efficient passing game. Justin Herbert's veteran savvy and the time his blockers buy him combine to produce almost error-free football with the quarterback throwing 21 touchdowns against just one interception.
This style of play wears down opposing defenses effectively, evident in three of the Ducks' last four games. Oregon outscored Cal, Washington, and Washington State in those games by a combined 58-38 margin after halftime.
Clancy Pendergast's USC defense has been wildly up-and-down throughout the season. Injury plays a part; Christian Rector, Drake Jackson, and Talanoa Hufanga have all spent time on the sidelines this month. Jackson and Hufanga are out Saturday. The Trojans followed a masterful defensive performance Week 8 vs. Arizona with a dud at Colorado, only recovering after quarterback Steven Montez sustained a fourth-quarter injury.
USC limited Stanford and Utah on the scoreboard, two teams with comparable offensive philosophies to Oregon. In both instances, however, red-zone misfires played a critical role. For Utah in particular, the Utes gobbled up yardage with Zack Moss sidelined most of the game, but faltered when in scoring range. Oregon should be able to move the ball, starting early with a physically battering emphasis on establishing CJ Verdell and Cyrus Habibi-Likio with the run. Capitalizing on opportunities that come as a result is crucial.
When USC Has the Ball
The juxtaposition in quarterbacks is fascinating. Oregon's Herbert is a four-year starter, and as such, a picture of consistency. USC true freshman Kedon Slovis has moments that remind one he's a freshman — USC's game-winning drive at Colorado included two near-catastrophic freshman errors — but the youngster's also been electrifying.
The final drive at Colorado crystallizes the duality nicely. After a wayward shovel pass and fumble went back USC's way, Slovis settled in to deliver dimes to wide receivers, who make it all too easy. After going 65 possessions allowing just two touchdowns over five games, the Oregon defense has had some trouble defending the pass. Washington attacked early with Jacob Eason throwing bombs, and Washington State's Air Raid created chaos.
Add that vexing, Air Raid element Oregon saw a week ago with the NFL-caliber receivers operating in USC's offense, and the challenge increases dramatically. Just a handful of big plays can swing a game in USC's favor, and each of Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns can deliver. The trio will keep the Oregon secondary busy.
Running back has been less of a sure thing — not for lack of ability, but availability. The Trojans were down to freshman Kenan Christon at Colorado, and he ran well. But with Markese Stepp and Vavae Malepeai both scratched for Saturday, and Stephen Carr questionable, the youngster faces a much stiffer challenge from the Oregon defense.
Cristobal said this week linebacker Troy Dye should be back from a hand injury. Dye's the center of the Ducks defense. Taking away anything USC might be able to mount on the run game should be the focus of Andy Avalos' approach in the Coliseum, then rattling the young Slovis.
Highly ranked Pac-12 teams going on the road and losing seems to be the only thing one can bank on in this conference. Given USC's home-field record this season, Saturday looks like the quintessential such contest. The bevy of injuries on both sides of the ball for USC, however, is a concern. How will a defense that's been so up-and-down handle the Oregon offensive line? Can they get to Herbert at all?
Oregon's ability to stop the talented USC wide receivers is the biggest question mark for the Ducks. Facing an Air Raid offense last week could help in terms of preparation, but there's no way to replicate the things Pittman can do in one-on-one — heck, two-on-one — coverage.
Expect a nail-biter that feels every bit like the Pac-12 Championship-implicated contest it is. Oregon has thrived in such situations against good opponents since dropping the season opener. That could tilt things in the Ducks' favor.
Prediction: Oregon 34, USC 31
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.