USC last won in the state of Oregon in 2005.
Much has changed since then. Both coaching staffs have been overhauled. Oregon has won consecutive conference titles, while USC serves the second year of its postseason ban. In short, both teams seemed to be headed in opposite directions.
The two teams are set for a collision course Saturday in a nationally televised primetime matchup. No. 18 USC (8-2, 4-2) has won five of its last six contests, while No. 4 Oregon (9-1, 7-0) has reeled off nine straight wins since losing to No. 1 LSU in early September.
“[Oregon is] probably the hottest team in the country especially if you put them in their place,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I don’t know that anybody could tell you that there’s a better team right now, when they play at home, than Oregon Ducks. So it’s an awesome challenge for us and we’re excited to go up there.”
At Autzen Stadium, Oregon has won 21 consecutive home games. This season the average margin of victory for the Ducks at home is 31 points.
Its offense is a big reason why as Oregon ranks third nationally, averaging 46.7 points per contest, and ninth nationally in total yards with 498.3 per game.
“For the most part since the opener, really nobody has slowed them down for an entire game,” Kiffin said. “They do it at times. Now we have to find a way to put it together and rotate a bunch of guys in there and keep our gaps and not let the ball get out in space.”
Quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James lead Oregon’s offense. Thomas has thrown for 1,704 yards and 22 touchdowns this year. James leads the nation with an average of 150.9 rushing yards per contest, and has tallied 1,207 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Ducks’ other tailback, De’Anthony Thomas, committed to the Trojans early before wavering on his decision and choosing Oregon. Thomas has totaled 789 yards from scrimmage, recording 12 touchdowns. With so many weapons on offense and the speed at which Oregon plays, the coaching staff realizes that its defense will face a tough task.
“You see the tempo on tape and hear about it, but you really have to play against it in person,” assistant coach Monte Kiffin said. “They’re so good and they’re so explosive and do so many things, but you can’t stop everything. You have to be sound in what you do and hopefully [we] can slow them down.”
Though Oregon boasts one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, the USC defense has come alive of late. In three of the Trojans’ last four matchups, they have allowed fewer than 20 points and fewer than 270 yards of total offense. USC has also shut down the running game, allowing opponents to rush for just 88 yards per contest in its last five contests.
“We have a lot of confidence going into this game,” sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. “But this offense is very talented with a lot of explosive guys. We have to get lined up because of the fast-paced offense and we have to have a sense of urgency at all times.”
USC’s defense might be clicking, but its offense has also been a strong point of the team all season. More recently, the Trojans’ running game has performed well, totaling more than 200 rushing yards in three of their last four games. Junior tailback Curtis McNeal has been a key reason for USC’s recent success via the ground, totaling more than 100 yards in three of his last four games. With the play of the offensive line and the tailbacks as of late, the coaching staff understands establishing the running game on the road will be key for the Trojans’ offense.
“It’s important,” running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu said. “[Oregon is] the leading rusher in our conference. They run the ball well and that’s their success. We have to at least bring our best up there, make sure we can run and be efficient. If we’re effective and efficient, it will help us.”
USC’s success running the ball has alleviated some pressure from the passing game, although the Trojans have not had to throw the ball much in their last two games. Junior quarterback Matt Barkley finished just 18-of-28 for 174 yards and one touchdown against Washington and his top target, sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, recorded just two receptions for five yards. Woods, however, has been dealing with a nagging shoulder and ankle injury and could sit out Saturday’s game after not practicing all week.
“He’s going the wrong direction,” Kiffin said. “If we just keep practicing him, even though we limited his practice, he’s not getting better. He’s just worn down and the kid is trying to do everything that he can. A lot of kids wouldn’t even be playing right now, but he just keeps throwing himself back in there.”
If Woods were to sit out, Barkley still has plenty of other weapons to choose from, including freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee, junior wide receiver Brice Butler, and tight ends redshirt freshman Randall Telfer and freshman Xavier Grimble.
“We have a great team and we have guys willing to step up,” junior left tackle Matt Kalil said. “We have a lot of depth and talent. We’re playing great, but we have to keep doing that and get after it [on Saturday].”
Though faced against a top-five team in the nation, the players are not backing down and have a positive outlook about Saturday’s game, especially with the progression the team has made throughout the season.
“We have a lot of respect for this team,” Telfer said. “They have a great offense, but we’re very confident in our defense as well. As the season has progressed, our camaraderie is a lot stronger and we’re definitely coming together as a unit. Hopefully we can come home with the win.”
Kickoff is at 5 p.m. and the game will be televised on ABC.