For the longest time, USC has had an issue getting past the Oregon Ducks. In fact, the whole of the Pac-12, save for Stanford, have had their issues with the Ducks. The high-flying offense and ability to bring in some of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks have given the Ducks an aura and a belief that they can best traditional powers and they’ve done quite a bit of it along the way. Unfortunately, Oregon also lost its ability to recruit along the way and that may be the biggest difference in this weekend’s game.
The Ducks have, traditionally, been able to recruit the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. For some reason or another, though, they’ve been relegated to picking up transfer quarterbacks since Mark Helfrich took over. Relying heavily on transfers to replicate the success of their previous greats is a tactic that has not worked out well for Oregon. Injuries prevented the Pac-12 from ever seeing the best of Vernon Adams and now Dakota Prukop will end his collegiate career with a whimper instead of the bang he imagined when he chose Oregon over Alabama.
Instead, Prukop will watch freshman Justin Herbert take on the Trojans as he likely finishes his collegiate career on the bench. Herbert took over the starting job when Oregon took a 51-33 beating at the hands of Washington State. All Herbert has done since then is break record after record set by names like Marcus Mariota. It certainly doesn’t seem like Prukop will ever see the starting job again, especially after Herbert tied a single-game record for touchdown passes with six against California.
The Trojans typically enter this matchup with a polar opposite at the QB position. But the dynamic is a little different this time around, thanks to the emergence of Sam Darnold, USC’s young, dual-threat quarterback.
Darnold is fully aware of what must be going through Herbert’s head. Like Herbert, Darnold sent the presumed starter for USC packing, a four-year veteran of the program in Max Browne. After taking the job from Browne in the early going, USC hasn’t even hesitated as to who should lead this team moving forward. And Darnold has yet another opportunity to show everyone, including Oregon, why he’s the answer.
Oregon at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: USC -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Pressure Justin Herbert
The start Herbert has had to his collegiate career is not the kind of start an opposing defensive coordinator wants to see while sorting out his X’s and O’s. All Herbert has done since joining the Ducks is complete 63.6 percent of his passes for just under 1,000 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. Those are pretty staggering numbers from a kid who was under center in high school just six months ago.
If USC is going to derail the Herbert train, then Trojans will have to put him under constant pressure from the first snap of the game. The temptation to compare every successful Oregon quarterback to Marcus Mariota is not hard to give into, but the best thing for Herbert is to chart his own path. And playing well under the bright lights of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against a tradition-rich program like USC would be a tremendous stepping stone.
On the other side, Darnold’s dual-threat proficiency has helped him differentiate himself from previous Trojan quarterbacks. A win in his first game against the Ducks would be just another impressive early statement by Darnold, especially considering the struggles some of his predecessors had in beating Oregon. In fact, you have to go back to the Pete Carroll era for the last time USC had back-to-back wins over the Ducks.
At the end of the day, Herbert is a true freshman and the last thing the Trojans want to do is let him get comfortable and in a rhythm. There have been many freshman quarterbacks that appear mature beyond their years at one point, only to be reminded of their youth and experience once teams start to pressure them (see: Josh Rosen). USC has the capability of bringing the heat from every level of its defense to make Herbert’s first trip to the Coliseum one he would like to forget.
2. Sam Darnold Must Continue to Flourish
This one is likely going to remain here until the end of the season. Darnold has everything he needs to be the next great USC quarterback. In fact, it seems likely that he’s headed down that path. But just as quickly as you are on one path, you can find yourself on another. Darnold would do well to learn from guys like Anthony Brown, Max Browne, Bryce Dixon, and many others, if he’s to remain entrenched as the Trojans’ primary signal-caller.
The path to greatness is littered with trials, frustrations and setbacks. To secure one’s place in history, one must be aware of all the potential downfalls and avoid them. Darnold appears to have this concept locked down, but that doesn’t mean it will last forever. The job of head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin is to make sure that Darnold’s good decision-making lasts until at least the first day of the NFL Draft in 2019.
3. Linebackers Must Have a Big Day
One of the biggest challenges of playing a team like Oregon is guarding against the run and the pass on the same play. Disciplined linebacker play is a huge priority for USC against a team like Oregon. The Ducks may only be 3-5, but they can move to 4-5 really quickly and put up a ton of yards in the process if USC doesn’t mind its Ps and Qs. Players like Porter Gustin, Cameron Smith, and Michael Hutchings are going to have to stay late, study tendencies, and be on the lookout for fakes and sells. The tempo they’ll create with the defensive line is critical to success.
If USC comes up short in the defensive department, the Trojans have the ability to win a shootout -- they just haven’t proven it’s a reliable method. For USC to be at its best, the team needs to be stout on defense while also producing a strong showing on offense. The linebackers will play a key role in all of this. If the linebackers are able to shut down Herbert, Royce Freeman, and Tony Brooks-James, USC should be in a great position to claim victory.
Oregon has been on a downhill slide ever since Mark Helfrich took over. The Ducks may have reached the College Football Playoff final in 2014, but this team hasn’t come anywhere close to the product Marcus Mariota helped cement among college football’s elite programs. Since then, it’s been a slow and steady decline of the product fans are used to seeing. Oregon’s recruiting classes also have fallen short of what it has proven capable of in the past.
As USC continues to flourish in 2016, burying an Oregon team that gave the Trojans so many problems in the past would go a long way toward reestablishing their psyche. Even if the Ducks are a shell of their former self, that hasn’t stopped Oregon in the past. The Trojans will need to come correct on Saturday or they could be staring down the barrel of a .500 season.
Prediction: USC 48, Oregon 28
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California.