Athlon previews the Pac-12 showdown between USC and Oregon.
Before the season started, this Pac-12 matchup was targeted as a potential top-five showdown and a game that would have major national title implications. There’s still plenty on the line this Saturday but USC’s two losses have taken some of the appeal away from the matchup in Los Angeles.
The Trojans are out of the national championship picture but have an opportunity to play the role of spoiler. With matchups against Oregon and Notre Dame remaining, USC still has a chance to work itself into an at-large spot for a BCS bowl. Oregon ranked No. 4 in the latest release of the BCS standings and is only a few decimal points behind Notre Dame for third place. The Ducks have some work to do to catch Kansas State, but if they win out, Chip Kelly’s team should eventually take the No. 2 spot in the BCS standings. However, a loss to USC would knock Oregon out of the national title picture, especially with Kansas State likely to finish unbeaten.
Neither team has been able to gain a huge advantage in the overall series in recent years. USC snapped a two-game losing streak with a 38-35 victory in Eugene last season. The Ducks have lost two out of the last three games in Los Angeles, including a 44-10 defeat in 2008. USC owns a 38-18-2 edge in the overall series.
Storylines to watch in Oregon vs. USC
Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee vs. Oregon secondary
In last season’s matchup, Barkley torched the Ducks’ secondary for 323 yards and four touchdowns on 26 completions. And those numbers are even more impressive when you consider Robert Woods wasn’t 100 percent at the end of last year. With Woods back to full strength, and Marqise Lee coming off a huge performance against Arizona (16 catches, 345 yards), the Trojans will be the best passing attack Oregon has faced this year. The Ducks rank 45th nationally in pass defense and 13th in pass efficiency defense. Considering the style of play in the Pac-12, the numbers can be a bit deceiving. Oregon has allowed just 10 touchdown passes and held opponents to under 60 percent completion percentage. The Ducks have also intercepted 14 passes, taking four of those back for touchdowns. Cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will have their hands full trying to slow down Woods and Lee, but they will also have plenty of help from the front seven. Oregon is averaging nearly three sacks a game (2.9) and faces a USC offensive line that has struggled at times. If the Ducks can get pressure on Barkley and not allow him to get comfortable in the pocket, the secondary should be able to prevent any big plays by the Trojans’ receivers.
USC’s run defense vs. Oregon’s rushing attack
Despite losing a couple of key contributors on the defensive line, USC’s rush defense has been solid this season. The Trojans have allowed only two teams to rush for more than 150 yards in a game and have given up just six touchdowns on the ground all year. Those statistics will be put to the test by Oregon’s offense, which is averaging 330.6 rushing yards per game. Kenjon Barner is the team’s workhorse, recording 974 yards and 10 touchdowns so far this season. Sophomore De’Anthony Thomas is one of the nation’s most explosive players and is averaging 8.6 yards per carry. As if stopping those two players won’t be enough of a challenge for USC, quarterback Marcus Mariota has 378 yards and three rushing touchdowns in 2012. The Trojans did a good job of holding the Ducks’ rushing attack in check last season, allowing LaMichael James only 78 yards on 20 attempts, and De’Anthony Thomas had just three yards on three carries. It’s impossible to stop Oregon considering all of the weapons at its disposal. However, the Trojans have to limit the big plays by the Ducks’ trio, as well as hold them to field goals once they get into the redzone.
How will Marcus Mariota play on the road?
The Ducks’ redshirt freshman signal-caller has passed every test so far this year. Mariota has thrown for 1,483 yards and 18 touchdowns, while rushing for 378 yards and three scores. Although this is his first year as Oregon’s starter, he has thrown only five picks and has emerged as a team leader. Mariota’s road resume is limited, as the Ducks played Washington State at a neutral site (Seattle) and at Arizona State on Oct. 18. The redshirt freshman was off against the Cougars, completing 21 of 32 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown. He wasn’t needed for a big game against Arizona State and finished with just 46 passing yards and one score. Considering how easy Mariota has transitioned into the starting role, there’s little reason to believe he will struggle on Saturday night. Oregon’s receiving corps doesn’t have a true No. 1 standout, but there’s plenty of depth and options for the passing game to click. And if the redshirt freshman has an impressive performance, he should have a chance to vault himself into Heisman contention.
Penalties played a huge role in USC’s loss to Arizona last week and could factor into this game. The Trojans rank last in the nation with 10.3 penalties per game, while Oregon is committing 7.9 each contest. Although penalties aren't solely to blame for a loss, the yellow flags could stop a crucial drive or put one of these offenses in a third-and-long situation late in the game.
Can Silas Redd get on track for USC?
The passing offense is going to lead the way for the Trojans, but Lane Kiffin’s team needs to have more balance if it wants to win. After running for 155 yards against Washington and 158 yards versus California, Silas Redd has been a non-factor the last two weeks. Oregon ranks 39th nationally against the run and has allowed each of its last three opponents to record at least 150 yards. The Trojans won’t need Redd to have 175 yards, but the offense could benefit from more balance this week, especially as it looks to keep Oregon’s high-scoring offense off the field and give its defense some time to rest.
There’s no question USC is disappointed to be 6-2. The Trojans expected to compete for a national championship and are instead just fighting to get into a BCS game. If Oregon can win on Saturday night, the road to an appearance in the national championship will likely hinge on the season finale against Oregon State. Expect this game to go back and forth and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team with the ball last pull out a close victory. Barkley, Lee and Woods will hit on a few big plays, but the Ducks eventually have too much firepower on offense and make a timely stop on defense to seal the victory.
Final Prediction: Oregon 45, USC 38
by Steven Lassan
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