EUGENE, Ore. – USC lost to Oregon, because the Trojans turned the ball over. Or so they say.
"As you look at this game, the turnovers were the story for us," coach Pete Carroll said, after USC's 24-17 loss Saturday at Autzen Stadium. "In the second half, when you have to play right, do things right, we gave them a couple of easy shots, and they took advantage of it and played a very good football game."
Fullback Stanley Havili fumbled in the third quarter on his own 15-yard line, setting up an Oregon touchdown. Mark Sanchez threw both of his interceptions in the second half, in Ducks territory. Oregon responded to the first by driving 58 yards for its final touchdown. The second came with fewer than 20 seconds remaining, sealing USC's loss.
"There's no excuse for picks like that," Sanchez said. "It kills the team. I let the other 10 guys on the field and the other 11 on defense down. There's just no excuse for that."
After entering the game with a minus-.6 average turnover margin, the Trojans gave the ball away three times to Oregon's two.
Despite USC's company line, that stat hardly tells the story. Carroll talked about the need to "do things right" in the second half. But if the Trojans had done that in the first half, they would have had more room for error.
USC recovered an Oregon special teams fumble in each of the first two quarters. The Trojans' average starting field position after those turnovers was the Ducks' 27-yard line. They managed a combined three points on the two drives.
Oregon coach Mike Bellotti called it a "defensive victory. We put the defense in a difficult spot twice in the first half, and they held USC to only a field goal."
Said defensive end Nick Reed, "We showed our colors today."
Oregon was decked out Saturday in all green – the color of emeralds. With another loss, USC (6-2, 3-2 conference) could be headed to the Emerald Bowl, host of the fourth or fifth place PAC-10 team, Dec. 28.
Here's the PAC-10's bowl breakdown. For a shot at the Rose Bowl, USC must win out and probably needs Oregon to play for the national championship (the Sugar Bowl).
-1st place – Rose Bowl (Jan. 1, Pasadena)
-2nd – Holiday Bowl (Dec. 27, San Diego)
-3rd – Sun Bowl (Dec. 31, El Paso)
-4th of 5th – Emerald Bowl (Dec. 28, San Francisco)
-4th or 5th – Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 22, Milwaukee -- just kidding)
-6th – Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 31, Fort Worth)
Along with the turnovers – and their inability to score off Oregon's – the Trojans brutalized themselves with penalties. They were flagged six times for 80 yards, while Oregon's lone infraction was a false start at the beginning of its final touchdown drive.
All of them were costly.
-Three plays into the game, following Andre Crenshaw's fumble of the opening kickoff, it's third down and five from the Ducks' 16: Chauncey Washington runs for the first down, but it's negated by a personal foul penalty that gives USC a third and 20 from the 31. Joe McKnight takes a short pass 19 yards, then he's stuffed on an end-around on fourth and one.
-Nearing the end of the first quarter, McKnight runs through a gaping hole in the left side of the line, makes a guy miss on the sideline and is gone for a 65-yard touchdown. Holding is called on Drew Radovich, giving the Trojans a second and 19 on their own 28.
-Clock ticking below 2:00 in the first half, and Oregon has a third and four from its 34-yard line. Dennis Dixon throws incomplete to Jason Williams, but Terrell Thomas is flagged for pass interference. Fifteen yards, first down Oregon at midfield. The Ducks kick a field goal before the break.
-Oregon has a first and 10 from the USC 30, and Kyle Moore sacks Dixon for a loss of eight yards. The play is negated, because Brian Cushing grabs Dixon's facemask on the way down – first and 10 Oregon on the Trojans' 15. Six plays later, the Ducks take a two-touchdown lead.
-USC starts the next drive on its own 20-yard line. Sanchez rushes for six yards, but the play is negated by a holding call on Chilo Rachal, putting USC in a first and 20 from its own 10. The Trojans go three and out.
-As the Trojans get the ball back for their final drive, McKnight fair catches an Oregon punt at his own 32-yard line. Face mask on USC, backing the Trojans up to their own 17, with 3:10 remaining.
Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com