So the annual conference road opening letdown is over, and we are left with a question that has had to be answered in the past as well: how will the Trojans bounce back? Can the offensive line re-establish a solid running game? Can the front seven overcome a very poor performance? Can Mark Sanchez go back to performances from his first two games? More importantly, if things go poorly, can this coaching staff adjust before halftime? All questions that only games can answer. In the past, the Trojans have bounced back and turned things around. 2003 is a good example. 2006 featured strong USC performances after the loss to Oregon State…until the UCLA game. Will this team be more like 2003 or 2006? The game this week will tell us a lot because the Ducks are pretty good.
Oregon Offense vs. USC Defense
Like the Beavers, Oregon's running game has to do with disguise, misdirection and finesse, not pure power. It's a completely different style though. They line up in a shotgun spread and run read option, triple option, and speed option principles. They can line the back up a yard and a half diagonal from the quarterback, and then either run the back up the middle or run the QB outside. When they put the back next to the QB, they can run the back to outside or the QB up the middle. They will motion receivers into the backfield and use the triple option. They will occasionally line up in the "pistol" as well, which is a shotgun formation with the back three yards directly behind the QB. They can run play action out of all these formations. Last season before Dennis Dixon was injured, they were dominant with this look, and have been pretty good with it this season as well.
The problem for Oregon has been injuries at the quarterback position. Nate Costa went down before the season, and then Justin Roper got dinged up in the Purdue game. They were hoping to have Roper back for this game, but Roper had the flu early in the week, and it kept him from practicing. He probably won't play. That means that Jeremiah Masoli, a JC transfer, will start again this week. He's done a pretty decent job this season, completing close to 60% of his passes with four TDs and no INTs. He's a pretty good runner. The coaches and the team have confidence in him. He has not been asked to win a game with his arm though, and he hasn't had 20+ attempts in any game. This will be his first test in the respect.
The Ducks took the redshirt off Darron Thomas in the Boise State game, and he rewarded them by getting Oregon back into the game. He is very raw though, and does not run as well as Masoli. Chris Harper got bypassed by Thomas on the depth chart after the Boise game. We could see these guys, but I think for the most part, Masoli will be the man.
The Ducks are very good at running back with Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount. Johnson is a little scatback with quicks, and Blount reminds some of Jonathan Stewart when it comes to style, but he doesn't have the same body type. Jaison Williams is still the team's leading receiver, and he's still a drop machine. Terrence Scott has infused some talent into equation as well. The Ducks use the tight end more than the Beavers, and have a capable one in Ed Dickson.
Make no mistake though: the running game butters Oregon's bread. They run for 309 yards per game, and they run it about 60% of the time. They brutalized Washington State last week with the ground attack, but WSU is a terrible football team. If the Ducks become one dimensional, the Trojans will bury them because none of their available QBs is a tested passer.
With the misdirection aspect of this offense though, Rey Maualuga's injury complicates things. Brian Cushing will man the middle, and Michael Morgan finally gets his chance on the strong side. I also suspect that we will see more of a 3-4 look from the Trojans, which means more Clay Matthews and less Everson Griffen on the weakside. The linebackers have to be quicker to diagnose than they were last week, and the defensive line has to break penetration in tackling position.
Oregon Defense vs. USC Offense
The Duck defense is very similar to what it was last year. The weakside linebacker is basically on the line. The other two backers play close to the line of scrimmage. The strong safety plays in a cheat position, halfway between up and back. Patrick Chung is the strong safety, or rover as they call him. He is their best defensive player, can cover, support on the run, and blitz when called upon. The Ducks play to stop the run, and they are confident that their corners can play physical with receivers and take away the timing route games. It's why they had success last year against SC.
They will mix in a good portion of blitzing unlike the Beavers, and on passing downs, they will go to a three man line and often drop eight guys into coverage. They don't really try to disguise much of what they do. They want to outman you in their running game and beat your receivers up. Where that makes them vulnerable is on the intermediate and long game, especially the former. In that way, they are similar to Oregon State. Boise State really got after Oregon with the intermediate game.
The Trojans can really got after Oregon's linebackers, who in my opinion are no better than average. The Ducks are solid at end and good in the secondary. It will be hard to run the ball early in the game. The only team that has had success on the ground against Oregon was Purdue, and that was in a pread shotgun look that the Trojans don't use much. If USC is going to have success in this game, it will be throwing the intermediate balls early and forcing the linebackers to back up, and then using the running game more in the second half.
The Ducks have rolled up huge numbers on some bad football teams. Washington, Utah State, Purdue, and WSU are a combined 4-15, and the four wins have come over Northern Colorado, Central Michigan, Portland State, and Idaho. Boise won their game with the Ducks by throwing the ball early and capitalizing on Oregon turnovers. That's what the Trojans need to do. Oregon's defense is not any better than last year's group. If you protect the passer, as the Trojans have done pretty well this year, you can hurt their secondary, even though it is a solid group. You may not break any rushing records, but Oregon's defense is what I would classify as a "break but don't bend" system. They are high risk, high reward.
Last year, Mark Sanchez was not prepared to perform against this kind of defense. In 2008, he is ready, and will show it. He will take his shots up the field, and the Trojans will offset the early throwing by sticking with inside running. I think we'll see a lot of blast plays in this game even though you usually don't see them in a zone blocking scheme.
I think where USC will win this game is on defense. Unlike Oregon State, the Ducks have a young quarterback who is not quite as accurate. He has not faced an elite defense before. Oregon will try to win the running game in the spread looks, and the Trojans will neutralize it for the most part because Masoli can't run like Dixon. That will force some passing, and then the turnovers will inevitably come, creating some short fields and some confidence. The Ducks will have their moments on offense with the running game, but they will not be able to sustain it consistently, and this year, 24 points won't win the game for Oregon.
Frankly, I don't think this game will be close. I think the Trojans will be focused after the loss, I think Mark Sanchez now has the ability to go through the reads in the intermediate game where he was not in 2007, and I think Oregon won't do any better than the 3.9 yards per carry that they averaged last season with a better group, which won't be enough to keep the Ducks from having to throw the ball more than they want to.
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