If it felt like Oregon running back Kenjon Barner kept his jersey clean most of Saturday night and ran his 38 carries with little resistance, it’s because he did. Barner gained 273 yards before contact against USC — 12 more yards than he registered in that category in his previous five Pac-12 contests combined.
“It’s disappointing after playing them so well last season for three quarters,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said of the disastrous defensive performance.
Despite the latest humbling figure to emerge out of the 62-51 loss to the Ducks, Kiffin, in his weekly conference call with the media, praised two overshadowed facets of the game: the Trojans’ containment of all-purpose weapon De’Anthony Thomas and special teams play.
Thomas carried the ball three times for just only yards and caught five receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown. The game marked the third fewest combined receiving and rushing yards Thomas has posted in 2012, behind his 29 yards at Arizona State and his 59 yards against Arizona.
The Trojans’ kickoff coverage against Thomas was arguably even more impressive. USC clearly schemed to kick the ball deep into the end zone for touchbacks in order to keep the ball out of Thomas’ hands, but on the three occasions he did return the ball, the former Crenshaw High School star averaged only 22.7 yards.
“We did a great job of coverage with obviously a very dangerous returner in De’Anthony — to limit him to 136 yards combined on offense and special teams,” Kiffin said.
Sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee — Thomas’ counterpart — set a Pac-12 record with 251 kickoff return yards. Of course, the record represents a double-edged sword, because it’s mostly the product of his fielding several kickoffs after touchdowns. Still, in 2012, Lee leads all Pac-12 kickoff returners with a 29.43 yards-per-return average, which is nearly three yards more than second-ranked UCLA wide receiver Damien Thigpen’s 26.86 average.
Amazingly, Lee has recorded 877 total all-purpose yards in his last two games.
“I don’t know that you can ever imagine a kid having two games like we’ve seen,” Kiffin said. “I don’t think Reggie [Bush] ever even put two games back-to-back together like that.”
Lee could have added eight yards to that total when senior quarterback Matt Barkley threw him an eight-yard fade to the back of the end zone on a first-and-goal on the Trojans’ second offensive series. Unfortunately for USC, Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu intercepted Barkley.
A day later, Kiffin was still perplexed that Ekpre-Olomu was not flagged for pass interference on the play.
“We can’t turn the ball over, though I’m sure everyone that was watching saw pass interference on the interception,” Kiffin said.
When asked about the play after the game at the press conference, Lee hesitantly remarked that it was “great defense,” to which Kiffin brusquely responded, “Quit it with the ‘great defense.’”