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October 25, 2007

Game 8: Duck Hunting

USC travels to Eugene, Ore., for its most difficult conference test in three seasons.

The USC Trojans (6-1, 3-1 in the Pac-10), ranked eighth in the USA Today poll, No. 9 in the AP poll and 12th in the BCS, close out a two-game road trip Saturday, Oct. 27 by facing the consensus No. 5 Oregon Ducks (6-1, 3-1) at Noon (PDT) in Autzen Stadium and before a national Fox Sports Net cable television audience. This is the 54th meeting between the Trojans and Ducks, with USC leading the series 36-15-2. This is also the first match-up of top-10 teams in Autzen Stadium history. The Trojans have won the past three meetings - including two straight at Autzen (2002 and 2005) - but the Ducks had won four in a row and five of six before that stretch. Last season, in the Coliseum, then-No. 7 USC throttled then-No. 21 Oregon, 35-10, on Nov. 11.

A week ago, the Trojans used stifling defense and the arm of reserve quarterback Mark Sanchez to deal rival Notre Dame its second-worst home loss ever, 38-0. The Trojans' margin of victory was its biggest ever against the Irish, and the game marked USC's first shutout of ND in South Bend since 1933. Sanchez threw four touchdown passes, and the Trojans rushed for more than 220 yards. Meanwhile, the Ducks toted up 465 rushing yards in a 55-34 win at Washington. The game was tied at 31 after three quarters before Oregon pulled away late.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his seventh season at USC (71-13, 45-8 Pac-10) having led the Trojans to five consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Oregon headman Mike Bellotti (103-49, 63-38 Pac-10) is in his 13th season in Eugene. After collapsing in the second half of the 2006 season, Bellotti has engineered a great turnaround thus far in 2007 - especially on offense, with the help of new coordinator Chip Kelly. The Ducks lead the Pac-10 in scoring, total offense, rushing and passing efficiency - and rank in the national top 4 in all categories. However, the Ducks defense remains questionable, allowing nearly 400 yards per game, and Oregon was unable to hold on to a 17-10 fourth-quarter lead at home against California - allowing 21 points in the final frame to come up short, 31-24, in their only loss of the season.

Oregon Offense
Kelly's arrival from Division I-AA New Hampshire has spurred formerly inconsistent senior quarterback Dennis Dixon to new heights (fellow senior Brady Leaf is experienced, if less mobile, and has appeared in all seven games this season). Dixon's athletic ability has always been unquestionable, but his decision-making skills and the ability of opponents to rattle him were his bane - until 2007. Dixon leads a Ducks' offense that's averaging more than 550 yards per game, including 294 on the ground. Dixon himself has rushed for 416 yards, a 5.5 average, and seven scores out of the Ducks spread-option attack. He's also passed for 1,728 yards, notching a stellar completion percentage of 69.3, and has thrown 16 TD passes with just three interceptions (last year, Dixon had 12 TDs and 14 picks). And he's done this all while losing two of his top three receiving targets.

Fortunately for Dixon, his leading target, Jaison Williams is not among the walking wounded. The 6'5", 240-lb., junior is a physical force, has caught 31 passes, averaging more than 16 yards per grab, and has scored five touchdowns. The loss of Brian Paysinger and Cameron Colvin to season-ending injuries has mucked things up for the rest of the Ducks' receiving corps. Sophomore tight end Ed Dickson and senior wideout Garren Strong are the leading active receivers behind Williams, with 19 catches apiece. Smallish freshman Aaron Pflugrad has been pushed into duty, and has 10 grabs in his four games since the loss of Paysinger.

Injuries have also affected the Ducks' backfield - but, again, have left alone its leading light. Physical junior Jonathan Stewart is the Pac-10's leading rusher, averaging more than 134 yards per game, and more than seven yards per carry. He's also caught 12 passes on the year. The loss of junior back-up Jeremiah Johnson in the Washington State game two weeks ago slotted somewhat untested sophomore Andre Crenshaw up a spot. However, the Ducks put on a rushing clinic a week ago in Seattle, with Stewart taking on a full load and gaining 251 yards in 32 carries. Crenshaw notched his first career 100-yard game, carrying 15 times for 113 yards, while Dixon gained 99 yards on the ground.

Oregon's offensive line deserves its share of credit for the Ducks' success this season. A fine mix of experienced veterans and quality newcomers has done a spectacular job. Senior RT Geoff Schwartz, senior LG Josh Tschirgi and junior C Max Unger have combined for 88 starts as Ducks - and Schwartz and Unger are all-conference candidates this season. Tschirgi missed three games earlier in the season and senior Pat So'oalo filled in well. Junior transfer Fenuki Tupou has played well at left tackle, while junior Mark Lewis has put a stranglehold on the RG spot.

Oregon Defense
On the other side of the ball, the Ducks' attacking 4-3 defense has had its ups and downs in 2007. While the Ducks rank 10th nationally with more than eight tackles for loss per game, are third in the Pac-10 with 19 sacks and are third in the conference in scoring defense (22.6 ppg allowed), Oregon is giving up more than 396 yards per game. It's a high-risk, high-reward type of scheme - the Ducks have nine picks and seven fumble recoveries, but are susceptible to the big play.

Up front, senior end Jeremy Gibbs and his counterpart, junior Nick Reed are the leaders. Reed has 7.5 sacks already this season and has been a disruptive force. Will Tukafu, a sophomore, has added 3.5 sacks as a part-time starter. Gibbs can also shift inside, where senior David Faaeteete and junior Cole Linehan are the regular starters. This group has been gashed for 143 rushing yards per game, and Washington notched 164 yards a week ago on almost 5.7 yards per carry.

At linebacker, another injury has removed a key playmaker from the Ducks, as weakside starting linebacker A.J. Tuitele was lost during the Washington State game. His replacement, undersized senior Kwame Agyeman , who has started 15 games in his Oregon career, has stepped up well. Junior MLB John Bacon and classmate Jerome Boyd, on the strong side, have started every game this season, and combined for 68 tackles.

As usual, the linebackers receive a lot of help from the Ducks' rover (or strong safety) position, which the coaching staff loves to move into the box to help against the run. The play of sophomore cornerbacks Jairus Byrd (three interceptions, two fumble recoveries) and Walter Thurmond III (60 tackles) has allowed junior Patrick Chung to thrive in that role. With 60 tackles and two interceptions, Chung has been stellar as the rover. Free safety Matthew Harper, a senior, leads the team with 66 tackles, and also has two sacks and an interception.

Oregon Special Teams
Junior Matt Evensen handles the placekicking and kickoff duties. He's perfect on PATs and nine-of-12 on field goals, with two of three misses from longer than 40 yards. Opponents are averaging just 21 yards per kickoff return. Junior punter Josh Syria averages 42 yards per boot, and teams are returning fewer than 40 percent of his punts for less than eight yards per. Stewart and Crenshaw handle kickoff returns. Stewart is especially dangerous and is the main reason the Ducks rank in the national top 15 in the category. Senior Andiel Brown averages 10 yards per punt return, with Pflugrad serving as the backup.

USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense regained some personnel - as well as some confidence - in last weekend's whitewashing of Notre Dame. Sanchez looked the part of starting quarterback, throwing for four scores and leading the team on a solid two-minute drill drive for a field goal in the second quarter. If not for a few drops by his receivers, he may well have even had a better game. The return of running back Stafon Johnson to duty was a big boost. Not only is Johnson a breath of fresh air on almost every touch, but it seems his performances push Chauncey Washington's buttons as well. Washington ran with much more purpose and definition after Johnson picked up a few carries in South Bend. Add to that the home run capabilities of Joe McKnight, and it appears USC has finally defined its running back rotation.

With John David Booty's return to the lineup still up in the air and Sanchez facing his toughest test yet if he is to start Saturday, those running backs will need to have a solid, if not spectacular performance in Eugene. The Trojans will need to control the clock as much as possible in order to keep the Ducks' offense tethered to the sideline. The possible return of Chilo Rachal to his starting guard spot will be a boost, and the confidence gained by tackle Butch Lewis, who played solidly in place of All-American Sam Baker a week ago should help. If Baker can play effectively, it would be an even bigger plus.

USC should be able to run the ball effectively on the Oregon defense. After that, it is crucial that Sanchez and/or Booty get the support they need from the receiving corps. The Trojans cannot afford to drop passes as they have in recent weeks. Outside of Fred Davis, who has been the man in 2007, Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazelton and David Ausberry all must be sure-handed this week in order to keep drives going. If they are, the Trojans rushing attack will be even more effective - opening up the opportunity for some big plays in the passing attack in the second half.

USC Defensive Gameplan
This is the hyped match-up of the week - and for good reason. The Ducks' "ridiculous" offense (according to Carroll) comes up against a Trojan defense ranked third nationally in total defense, fourth against the run, ninth in pass efficiency defense and 10th in scoring defense. It's the old irresistible-force-versus-immovable-object story. And while the Trojans' yards-against numbers are likely to take a hit this weekend, Carroll only cares about those points allowed.

Again, players returning from injury provided a boost at Notre Dame, with LB Brian Cushing and CB Shareece Wright both making plays against the Irish. Cushing's return is more notable, especially this weekend. Perhaps the Trojans' most effective performance in 2006 using their 3-4 "elephant" set on defense was against the Ducks. With Cushing back last weekend, USC showed the "elephant" a number of times in South Bend, and I expect to see it a number more times this week. Against the Oregon offense, the play of USC's outside linebackers and defensive ends will be crucial in slowing down Dixon and Stewart on the ground. While no one expects USC to hold Oregon to 64 yards on the ground (the Trojans' average allowed in 2007), the Trojans would love to cut the Ducks' rushing attack in half - meaning around 150 yards on the day.

If USC can slow down the Oregon ground game to something less than the light speed it's been playing at, that puts the game in the hands of Dixon and his banged up receiving corps. Dixon has been fantastic throwing the ball this season, but USC would much rather have him looking for reserve receivers than running around free in the secondary. And, remember, in the Ducks only loss of 2007, Cal - a much poorer defensive team than the Trojans - held Oregon under 200 yards on the ground and picked off Dixon twice in the fourth quarter.

The Pick
For the first time in many a season, the Trojans are an underdog in a Pac-10 game - and for good reason. USC's loss to Stanford is still haunting to many prognosticators who see the Ducks as the first good team the Trojans have played in 2007. And that Duck offense, especially in Eugene, presents a challenge the Trojans haven't seen since Vince Young in Pasadena 21 months ago. At the same time, this game appears to be a defining moment for this current group of Trojans - much as the outcome of the 2004 Cal game defined the Leinart-Bush era.

That 23-17 USC win in the Coliseum three Octobers ago continued a lengthy USC winning streak and led to one BCS title and another BCS title game appearance. For a USC team that, during the past two seasons, has sought its own identity and leadership, this Saturday provides a clear opportunity to define itself as another great Trojan team with a chance at winning a national championship - or a chance to finally slip from the heights of the past five seasons.

Carroll is clearly relishing the opportunity for this USC team to define itself. The challenge of facing an offensive juggernaut such as the 2007 Ducks is the type of thing Carroll lives for. The question is: does this current group of Trojans have what it takes to make a stand against such a challenge? The Trojans have struggled against lesser opponents in recent seasons - but stepped up in the biggest games of all. With Carroll again designing a defense that's held Oregon to 23 points the past two seasons (against much of the same offensive personnel), it says here that the 2007 Trojans finally will step forward as one this Saturday. USC 27, Oregon 21.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for seven years. He is the editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine in the television advertising industry and is a graduate of the USC School of Journalism (1994). He 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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