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October 2, 2008

Game 4: What Now?

Game 4: What Now?

After last weekend's shocking loss at Corvallis, does anyone really know what to expect when the Trojans face first-place Oregon?

The No. 9 (AP/USA Today) USC Trojans (2-1, 0-1 in the Pac-10), open their 2008 Pac-10 home schedule Saturday, October 4, against the Oregon Ducks (4-1, 2-0), ranked No. 23 by AP and No. 20 by USA Today, at 5 p.m. (PDT) in the sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the 55th meeting between the Trojans and Ducks, with USC holding a 36-16-2 edge. However, in 2007, the Ducks that pulled off their sixth win against Troy in the past 10 meetings, defeating USC, 24-17, in Eugene. The Trojans did win the last meeting at the Coliseum, 35-10, in 2006.

A week ago, USC and Oregon had about as divergent a set of results as you can imagine. Then-No. 1 USC was stunned, 27-21, at unranked Oregon State, as the Beavers - behind the stellar running effort of Jacquizz Rodgers - built a 21-0 halftime lead before holding off the Trojans thanks to a late interception thrown by Mark Sanchez. Meanwhile, the first-place Ducks finished a 2008 sweep of the state of Washington, rushing for 346 yards and seven TDs in a 63-14 drubbing of Washington State in Pullman.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season at USC (78-15, 49-10 in the Pac-10) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Oregon headman Mike Bellotti (110-53, 67-41 Pac-10) is in his 14th season in Eugene, making him the current dean of Pac-10 coaches. Outside of a 37-32 upset loss to Boise State two weeks ago (when the Ducks were forced to play a fifth-string QB thanks to injuries), Oregon is off to another hot start in 2008 - leading the conference (and ranking in the national top 10) in total offense, rushing offense and scoring offense.

Oregon Offense
Under second-year offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, Oregon remains a three-receiver, single-back attack. However, the Ducks shouldn't be confused with their in-state rivals - who operate out of a similar set. Unlike the Beavers, who line up the quarterback under center for the most part and favor more of a mid-range passing attack, the Ducks utilize more of a quick-hitting spread attack with the quarterback operating most often out of the shotgun. Just who that quarterback will be in a given week - heck, a given quarter - has been a mystery since late last season when then senior QB Dennis Dixon tore an ACL. Since then, the QB spot has been swarmed with injuries. Presumed starter Nate Costa went down with a season-ending injury during camp, while sophomore Justin Roper suffered a partially torn knee ligament at Purdue on Sept. 13, and has missed the past two games. He's questionable for Saturday. In his stead, sophomore JC transfer Jeremiah Masoli has played reasonably well, completing 58.3 percent of his passes for four TDs and no interceptions. Masoli, though, suffered a concussion in the Boise State loss on Sept. 20, giving true freshmen Chris Harper and Darron Thomas each an opportunity. Masoli, Harper and Thomas all played at Wazzu last week, but if Roper is unable to go, expect Masoli to play against USC - barring another injury.

Even with the musical chairs at quarterback, the Ducks are still averaging more than 47 points and 531 yards per game. A good deal of the credit for that can be attributed to two players - running backs Jeremiah Johnson, a senior, and LeGarrette Blount, a junior JC transfer. The 6'2", 229-lb. Blount has 66 carries for 481 yards and eight TDs, while Johnson, the nominal starter at 5'10", 200 lbs., has 65 carries for 440 yards and six scores. The duo is averaging 184 rushing yards per game between them, as well as seven yards per carry. This information is likely to frighten any Trojan fan who saw Oregon State's diminutive Rodgers brothers baffle USC last Thursday night. Including all four QBs, the Ducks are averaging more than 308 yards rushing per game.

The quarterbacks are also helped out by a solid corps of receivers, led by seniors Jaison Williams and Terrence Scott. The 6'5" Williams is a load when he holds on to the ball, and he has 20 grabs, including three TDs so far in 2008. Scott is a smaller, faster wideout who is more of a deep threat. He's caught 18 balls for more than 15 yards per. Sophomore Jeff Maehl, who is often featured in the slot, also has 20 catches - but more of a possession variety. The Ducks also have a big-time weapon at tight end in junior Ed Dickson. He is tied with Williams for the team lead with 20 catches. One place the Ducks have fallen off in 2008 is utilizing their backs as receivers - running backs have just three catches in five games.

Senior All-Pac-10 center Max Unger headlines an offensive line that has been stellar in run blocking and has allowed just four sacks in five games - even with the issues at quarterback. RG Mark Lewis and LT Fenuki Tupou (brother of USC DT Christian Tupou) are also returning starters for this group. Senior RT Jacob Hucko appears to be in line for his second start, while sophomore C.E. Kaiser (who has started four times so far in 2008) provides depth. Sophomore Jordan Holmes is a comer at left guard. Senior utility man Jeff Kendall could see time at center or either guard spot.

Oregon Defense
Expected to be the strength of the team while a young Ducks offense rounded into form, Oregon's attacking 4-3 defense has been an aggressive, ball-hawking group that is allowing just 100 yards rushing per game. Oregon has forced 10 turnovers, while at the same time, the Ducks have 17 sacks and 42 tackles for loss, leading the Pac-10 in both categories. But defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has to be concerned that in Oregon's two biggest tests of 2008 - at Purdue and the home loss to Boise State - his defense allowed an average of 214 yards on the ground, at a 4.4 yards-per-carry clip. At the same time, Ducks' opponents are 16-of-16 in red zone opportunities, scoring nine TDs and seven FGs.

Up front, Oregon features a pair of studs at defensive end in quick senior Nick Reed, an all-conference first-teamer in 2007, and bulky junior Will Tukuafu. So far, the pair has teamed for 42 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, split nearly evenly. Inside, 300-lb. senior Ra'Shon Harris has notched 20 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, while classmate Cole Linehan has been the quietest of the group. There is not much experienced depth here, with reserve ends Brandon Bair and Kenny Rowe getting limited action.

Sophomore Spencer Paysinger has been a revelation for Bellotti & Co. thus far in 2008. Coming out of nowhere, he leads the team with 43 tackles on the weak side, where the Ducks suffered through injuries a year ago. Seniors John Bacon (MLB) and Jerome Boyd (SLB) are returning starters. Boyd has 21 tackles, but while Bacon has started every game, it is sophomore Casey Matthews (brother of USC DE Clay Matthews) who is turning into a star in the middle. He's had 13 tackles, including three for loss, in increasing duty.

The secondary features the Beavers' three returning defensive starters - junior cornerbacks Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond III, and senior strong safety (or as the Ducks call it, rover) Patrick Chung. The big-hitting Chung is one of the top safeties in the nation and has 31 tackles, equaling first-year free safety starter T.J. Ward, a junior. Byrd and Thurmond have made their marks as playmakers throughout their Oregon careers, and they have three interceptions between them so far in 2008. They do take risks, though, and that makes them ripe to get beat from time to time. Sophomore Talmadge Jackson III sees time in nickel situations, with junior Willie Glasper also providing depth at corner.

Oregon Special Teams
The Ducks have been excellent in the kicking game so far in 2008. Senior kicker Matt Evensen has hit six-of-nine FG attempts so far in 2008, and two of those misses were from beyond 48 yards. Notably for a kicker used to artificial turf, he was four-of-four at Purdue, the Ducks' only appearance on natural grass so far in 2008. He's also nailed touchbacks on half of his 36 kickoff opportunities. Fellow senior Josh Syria is averaging just a spot under 40 yards on 19 punts. He's also nailed seven of his kicks inside the 20-yard line. Byrd is the lead punt returner, and he's averaging more than 16 yards on 14 chances, including an 87-yard TD return at Purdue, helping Oregon rank second in the conference. The Ducks lead the conference in kick returns, where Chung splits duties with junior running back Andre Crenshaw. Both are averaging more than 30 yards per return.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Well, that Oregon State game certainly seems to put everything back to square one, doesn't it? After two spectacular performances - by both coaches and players - the troubled game plan against the Beavers, along with the odd in-game adjustments (if you can call them that), have placed the Trojan offense back into the same "Question Mark" category it resided in during training camp. A first-half attack that appeared to have a "don't make mistakes, keep it close" flavor failed to do the job, as USC trailed by three touchdowns at the break. And, once USC closed to within a score in the third quarter by finally taking advantage of the Beaver defense's clear weaknesses, the Trojan braintrust appeared to somehow decide to reinstall the first-half offense for much of the rest of the game.

Honestly, outside of Joe McKnight's poor performance - one he has personally owned up to a number of times in recent days - it's hard for me to fault the players for the debacle in Corvallis. Outside of an explainable late interception, Sanchez played well when given the opportunity. USC's receivers also played well - when put in position to succeed. The offensive line play could be criticized - but, again, was the problem their overall effort or not being in position to succeed? Last, but not least, Stafon Johnson's performance warranted far more than seven carries.

What does this mean against the Ducks? Well, you've got me. After the Trojans basically failed to take advantage of a young Beaver front seven and so-so secondary, can offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and the offense have a bounce-back effort? One thing is for sure - the Ducks are susceptible to the run if the Trojans set it up well and stick with it. Oregon plays high-risk, high-reward football on defense - and if USC can take advantage with some quick-hitting pass plays and utilize the middle of the field early, then that rushing attack - which should, again, feature Johnson more extensively (his style appears to be a perfect fit against the Oregon defense, but it was against the Beavers, too) - should be able to break out.

USC Defensive Gameplan
If you thought the offensive plan against Oregon State was frustrating, then I trust you also had some issues with the defensive effort, as well. For years, we have heard that the reason Pac-10 teams give USC the most trouble is that they play the Trojans every year and therefore are more able to scheme against them. I concur - but, at the same time, shouldn't the reverse also be true? After all, Oregon State has been running, essentially, the same offense since Mike Riley first arrived in Corvallis in 1997. The Beavers even ran it right through the Dennis Erickson Interlude between Riley's two stints. So, then, why - if USC has seen this offensive package so many times - did the Trojans look like they were facing Oregon State for the first time in decades?

Outside of that - and Carroll's preference for making adjustments at the half, which backfired in this game, leaving the Trojans 21 points down - most of the blame for the defensive effort against Oregon State rests with the players. While one could make the argument that USC's players looked less than inspired, which reflects poorly on the coaches, there is plenty of senior leadership in this group that should have been able to adjust attitudes early on. But the poor tackling and simple missed assignments doomed the effort. From defensive ends Everson Griffen and Kyle Moore repeatedly allowing a tiny wide receiver pin them outside with blocks, to linebackers missing gaps, and the whole team's inability to bring down Jacquizz Rodgers consistently on first - or even second - contact, the USC defense played extremely poorly for much of the game.

Again, does this performance foreshadow anything against the Ducks' high-powered attack? Let's hope not, because you can expect Oregon to attack the Trojans on the ground with Blount and Johnson by trying to utilize a rushing attack similar to the Beavers last Thursday. Both Oregon backs are bigger and stronger than Rodgers, so if USC tackles as poorly as it did a week ago, it will be a long day. With Rey Maualuga questionable due to a sprained knee, the Trojan linebacking corps could possibly find itself adjusting positions or even inserting freshman Chris Galippo into the lineup. At the same time, it appears that Griffen and tackle Averell Spicer have lost their starting positions after their poor performances against the Beavers. Matthews and Tupou will likely see a lot of time for USC Saturday. I expect the Trojans' effort and intensity to be much stronger than at Oregon State - but, against the run, they need to play assignment football, not over-pursue, and when Oregon goes to the air, get after whomever the Ducks play at quarterback.

The Pick
The Trojans' outing at Oregon State not only threw a monkey wrench into USC's plans for a possible national championship, it also made match-ups like the one this Saturday that much tougher to forecast. Honestly, the Trojans' were flat out outplayed and beaten by an emotional, yet precise, Oregon State team. If USC can't be trusted to arrive with a coherent offensive game plan, nor a full-throttle effort on defense, in the conference opener, how on earth can one claim to know which Trojan team will show up this week?

Here's a simple guess: this weekend, expect the Trojans to bring a lot more fire to the field early than they did in Corvallis. If USC can slow the Ducks rushing attack - a major question now - Oregon's tenuous quarterback situation will make it hard for Bellotti's crew to mount a consistent attack. At the same time, I do not necessarily trust that USC's game plan for attacking the Duck defense will be wholly effective. The Trojans must minimize the effectiveness of Oregon's defensive ends and cornerbacks by using a quick hitting passing attack that takes advantage of the middle of the Ducks defense. Oregon's weakness at defensive tackle and linebacker can be exposed with the right game plan.

The Trojans have always bounced back from a loss well under Carroll. However, the last time a USC team was so soundly beaten by an opponent was the 2002 game at Kansas State. Bouncing back from a game that would cause any self-respecting football player to question his effectiveness will be the toughest test any of Carroll's teams have had in the past six years. After a slow start, though, it says here that the home crowd and a swarming defensive effort in the second half will be enough to right the ship.

USC 30, Oregon 20

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight 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 thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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