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December 1, 2011

Game 13: Clipped Wings, Redux?




Game 13: Clipped Wings, Redux?

A pair of first-place finishers battle for the second time in three weeks when USC meets Oregon in the first Pac-12 Championship Game.

The Pac-12 South Division champion USC Trojans (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12), ranked No. 9 by the Associated Press, travel to Candlestick Park in San Francisco to face the North Division champion Oregon Ducks (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12), ranked No. 8 AP and No. 9 in the BCS, in the conference's first championship game on Friday, Dec. 2 at 5 p.m. (PDT) and in front of a national Fox television audience. It is the second meeting in three weekends for the teams, as USC stunned Oregon, 38-35, in Eugene on Nov. 19.

A week ago, the teams ended their regular seasons in style by dominating their local rivals - USC trampled UCLA 50-0 (the worst beating in the series since Troy's 52-0 win in 1930), while Oregon walloped Oregon State, 49-21. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has to be thrilled that he stood up to the NCAA in 2011 when deciding to allow the Trojans to compete for the inaugural Pac-12 title even though USC is bowl ineligible. Otherwise, Scott, the conference and Fox would be saddled with an embarrassing Oregon-UCLA matchup that would likely leave the 6-6 Bruins (and recently fired coach Rick Neuheisel) on the outside of the bowl season looking in with an expected Duck victory. That's not even to mention the national perspective on such a matchup - one that would likely read something like this: "Historically, without USC, that conference is the WAC with a better TV deal. Now, it serves up a 6-6 team in its 'title' game?"

Can you imagine the Ducks playing for a "championship" against a second-place team from the other division that could barely scrape together six wins and had just fired its coach earlier in the week? The possible negatives - injuries to key players prior to a likely Rose Bowl appearance or, perhaps more embarrassingly, a lack of motivation leading to a sloppy performance that could preclude Oregon a BCS appearance at the hands of a less-than-average UCLA team - would clearly outweigh any positive for the Ducks in that scenario.

Scott must also be happy that conference athletic directors talked him out of the idea of a home-field advantage in the conference championship game. He'd have a hard time convincing USC and head coach Lane Kiffin that they deserve to travel back to Eugene to face the Ducks again after finishing with identical 10-2 records and - just two weeks ago - becoming the first team to defeat Oregon on its home field since Chip Kelly took over the Duck program in 2009.

Enough about all those embarrassing bullets the Pac-12 dodged thanks to its commissioner making a stand in favor of the conference's premiere program and it's athletic directors pushing for a neutral-site championship. Let's take a look at this intriguing matchup.

Oregon Offense vs. USC Defense
The 35 points Oregon scored against USC two weeks ago likely fool the casual football observer. That's because - especially for three quarters - this was the best defensive performance USC had all season. Only No. 1 LSU allowed fewer points to the Ducks (27), and through three quarters the USC defense had only allowed 14 (another six came on DeAnthony Thomas' TD kickoff return late in the third). And while the Ducks got things going in the fourth quarter - USC's defense had tired of Oregon's rapid pace (something the Ducks work on, so credit to Oregon) and the Trojan offense committed a pair of turnovers - the Trojan defense did just enough on UO's final drive to force a field goal attempt from a green kicker. And then, on that field goal attempt, the Trojans overloaded one side of the line, forcing Alejandro Maldonado to try to kick it slightly left - which turned into a hook left.

The key to the USC defense's stellar effort in Eugene, as predicted, was a combination of excellent defensive line play and spectacular tackling by the Trojan linebackers. Redshirt freshman linebacker Hayes Pullard was everywhere, notching 14 stops (on the way to tying for the 2011 team lead with classmate and fellow LB Dion Bailey). And the Ducks' longest run on offense was 17 yards - this after Oregon broke more than a dozen 20+ yard runs against USC in 2009 and 2010 combined. Forcing Oregon into eight-, nine- and 10-play drives (rather than the quick striking three-play, one-minute drives the Ducks are known for) not only kept the pace of the game manageable for USC, but also created more opportunity for Oregon mistakes, like LaMichael James' key fumble at the end of the first half.

How can USC recreate its performance on Friday night? Well, against many teams, you'd worry about how the Ducks' coaches would adjust the game plan to take advantage of things they saw on tape. But, the Oregon game plan is the Oregon game plan. The Ducks don't really adjust much, as a matter of course. They believe in what they do, they believe in the pace they play, and they believe they are faster than you. I imagine the Ducks will rely on Kenjon Barner plenty this week, as he was far more impressive against USC than James was, but outside of a couple wrinkles here and there (like early use of the bubble screens with receiver Josh Huff that were so effective down the stretch in Autzen), expect the Ducks to try to run their offense at their pace. The keys for USC, then, remain the same - D-line dominance, solid tackling and no big running plays.

USC Offense vs. Oregon Defense
On the other side of the ball, the Trojans had their way with the Ducks for a good 35 minutes of game time after a couple early hiccups. Matt Barkley shredded the Oregon secondary time and again, taking advantage of redshirt freshman cornerback Troy Hill. Marqise Lee and a hobbled Robert Woods (who will need ankle surgery after the season) ran over and through the Duck secondary. And then, in the second half, USC's running game came alive, knocking out four- and five-yard runs with ease to keep the Duck offense off the field for long stretches. To be honest, only two late turnovers (an interception off a tipped Barkley pass that could have been called defensive holding and a fumble as a result of miscommunication between Barkley and Marc Tyler) kept USC from putting the game away long before it came down to Maldonado's errant FG attempt.

Still, if you look at the tape, USC's initial play selection was much more balanced than in some of the Trojans' other outings. In this space two weeks ago, I wrote: "Ball-control passing and a physical ground attack would likely open things up for a downfield passing attack that is much more athletic than the one Oregon faced last week in the Bay Area." At the same time, the Trojan offensive line was dominant in protecting Barkley all night and paved the way for USC's solid rushing efforts in the second half. Against a defense like Oregon's - one that mixes looks and pressure schemes, but really wants to get in your backfield - solid line play is of the utmost import. And a USC line that's allowed just eight sacks in 2011 (best in the Pac-12) was more than up to the task.

Friday night, it will be up to the Ducks to make adjustments against USC's red-hot passing game. The Trojans followed their performance in Oregon by having their way against the UCLA secondary. Barkley is simply on fire right now - looking like Carson Palmer at the end of the 2002 season or Matt Leinart at the end of 2004 - so the Ducks have to try to get him out of that comfort zone. Look for Oregon linebackers Dewitt Stuckey and Josh Kaddu to blitz more often, and also look for the Ducks to take chances on obvious running downs in order to minimize the USC tailbacks' effectiveness. Still, unless Oregon does a much better job of pressuring Barkley, I'm not sure what their secondary can do to change its performance of two weeks ago.

Special Teams
Both teams had their moments on special teams in Autzen. USC's blocked punt led to a third-quarter field goal, while Thomas housed one kickoff and came a shoelace tackle by kicker Andre Heidari from a second. One imagines USC will try to keep the ball out of Thomas' hands on kickoffs this week, while the Ducks' Jackson Rice will likely be more cognizant of the USC punt block team. Still, should the game again come down to a field goal, you'd have to take all-conference selection Heidari over Maldonado.

The Pick
Many Trojan fans and media members familiar with the history of USC football compare the exploits of this edition to the vaunted 2002 Trojan team that finished an 11-2 campaign with a rout of Iowa in the Orange Bowl. That team was playing better than any other in college football by the end of that season, and many believe this USC team is in a similar position. Considering the Trojans are still denied the opportunity to compete in a bowl this season, they have to be thankful for the insight of Scott, as well as his gumption in standing up to the crooked vultures that make up the NCAA leadership, in allowing them the opportunity to compete in this game.

That said, it simply would be astounding to think that USC could again run out to a 24-point lead against Oregon. And though a few Ducks have mentioned that their turnovers are the reason USC led so handily, I wouldn't get into a turnover discussion in a game where my team was +1 in takeaways. And, yes, the Ducks have already clinched a Rose Bowl berth based on that same Scott ruling, but anyone who competes in any area knows the Ducks are still stinging from USC's win. I expect Kelly and his squad to come after USC with even more vigor than they did a couple weeks back - and I expect their offense to have more early success than it did.

However, this Trojan team is simply clicking on too many cylinders to imagine the Ducks' defense stopping it. This game will be an absolute shootout. And while many - including myself - couldn't imagine USC winning at Autzen, even fewer likely think the Trojans could beat the Ducks twice in three weekends. I'm not in that group - especially on the neutral turf of San Francisco (and the fact that Candlestick is real grass is definitely a factor, in case you're wondering).

Wait, back up a paragraph or two - did someone mention the 2002 Trojans?

USC 44, Oregon 33

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 11 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 or followed on Twitter at @thrants



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