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USC Trojans vs. Oregon Ducks Preview and Prediction

Cody Kessler

Cody Kessler

Utah's loss at Arizona last week put USC in the driver's seat for the Pac-12 South divisional championship.

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The Trojans have certainly come a long way since Oct. 8, when their second consecutive home loss — a 17-12 defeat against Washington — dropped them to 1-2 in Pac-12 play. In the weeks since that loss, interim head coach Clay Helton replaced Steve Sarkisian, and USC has been perfect in conference competition. 

Oregon is amid its own comeback story. The Ducks fell to 3-3 just two days after USC's loss to Washington, dropping an overtime heartbreaker at home against Washington State. 

The return of quarterback Vernon Adams from a broken finger contributed to Oregon's current four-game winning streak, which reached a crescendo last week in a 38-36 upset of Stanford. 

The Ducks need Stanford to lose against this week at Cal to have a shot at the Pac-12 Championship Game. USC, on the other hand, controls its own destiny. Win out, and the Trojans are bound for Levi's Stadium. 

"We've been in playoff-football for the last for four weeks," Helton said. "When we started the second half of the season after [losing to] Notre Dame, we basically said that every game is a championship game... So we've done that the last four weeks, and fortunately, we've won four Pac-12 games in a row."

The "playoff mentality" as Helton described is going to be put to its greatest test yet against suddenly clicking Oregon.

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USC at Oregon

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: ESPN

Spread: Oregon -4

Three Things to Watch

1. USC's Run Defense Pushed to the Limit 

Since surrendering 214 yards on 35 carries at Notre Dame, USC held opponents to 3.54, 3.9, 1.9 and 1.6 yards per carry. The lowest of those yields came against Arizona, the Pac-12's second-most prolific rushing offense behind Oregon. 

The Trojans will be hard-pressed to replicate that performance against the league's leading rushing attack. Oregon is fourth in the nation at 297.4 yards per game on the ground, surpassed 400 yards rushing on three occasions, and twice flirted with 500 yards. 

It starts with running back Royce Freeman, the Pac-12's leading rusher at 139.2 yards per game. 

"Tremendous speed and power. Royce has the ability to break arm-tackles with ease," Helton said. "Wrapping him up is something we're going to concentrate on." 

But there's much more at play than Freeman. Kani Benoit has come on strong, putting together the three best games of his young career in the last three weeks. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost can also use multi-talented Charles Nelson, who rushed for 88 yards on just two carries in last week's win at Stanford. 

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"He was so good at everything, whether it was as a return guy, at tailback or receiver, he's always been a physical player for his stature," Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said. 

Oregon has so many ways in which it can attack a rush defense, an opponent has to play its best game to slow the Ducks in that facet. 

2. Special Teams

Special teams play has been spotty for USC throughout the season. Shoring up its play in that phase Saturday is critical, faced with one of the conference's consistently best squads on special teams. 

The aforementioned Nelson is one of the nation's most explosive kickoff returners, and wide receiver Bralon Addison is equally dangerous taking back punts. 

USC ranks No. 11 in the conference and No. 122 nationally in punt return coverage. Oregon's last three opponents neutralized Addison by preventing the Ducks from returning a single punt. 

The Trojans' ability — or inability — to duplicate that strategy could make the difference in Saturday's outcome. 

3. Payback In Mind? 

Saturday's contest has a number of payback plots working within it. The last time USC visited Autzen Stadium, the Ducks harbored BCS championship aspirations that disappeared with a Trojans' win. 

Oregon repaid the favor a year later in the two teams' last meeting, hanging 62 points on the Trojans — the most allowed by any USC team in history. 

For two of the most important individuals lining up Saturday, there's some motivation dating back to their high school days. 

Adams, a product of Bishop Alemany in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, wears his Southern California pride on his sleeve — literally.  

Adams only received recruiting interest from FCS programs out of high school, thus Saturday is one more opportunity for the quarterback to show what another power program was missing. And it's the power program from his own backyard. 

USC linebacker Su'a Cravens garnered recruiting interest from across the country, but not from Oregon. Cravens told the Los Angeles Timesthis week he takes the recruiting snub "a little personal."

Final Analysis

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USC and Oregon are both surging, but one team has to cool off Saturday. 

Should the visiting Trojans slog to another slow start, as they did in their last two wins over Arizona and Colorado, it could be a long afternoon in Eugene. 

Oregon's style thrives on opponents suffering lulls. The 14-point deficits USC dug against Arizona and Colorado could easily be 28 against a high-powered offense the strength of Oregon's. 

USC must establish a consistent run early in order to lengthen drives, both in yardage and time of possession. A defense dealing with some injuries, including to linebacker Cam Smith and safety Leon McQuay, cannot afford repeatedly quick turnaround times. 

The way Oregon is playing right now is simply a bad matchup for USC. Adams' capable deep ball should exploit mismatches with the pass, thus opening the field for the Ducks' potent run game. 

Prediction: Oregon 42, USC 27

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.