To preview Saturday’s game against Oregon, the Daily Trojan spoke with associate sports editor Jarrid Denney of the Daily Emerald about things to watch for.
Daily Trojan: Oregon has very much followed the USC template this season at the quarterback position, replacing Dakota Prukop with true freshman Justin Herbert. So far, Herbert has shined. Was the switch the right move and what do you make of Herbert thus far?
Jarryd Denney: Oregon’s decision to switch to Herbert was most definitely the right move. Prukop was far from Oregon’s biggest problem; he threw eight touchdowns and just two interceptions in five games while boasting a 153.19 QB rating. But with losses piling up, Oregon needed to look to the future, and Herbert looks like a superstar in the making so far. Herbert has revitalized Oregon’s blur offense, and has the Ducks moving at a tempo that Prukop never reached this season. He is taking more shots downfield and using all of his playmakers. Since August, Oregon players have been talking about how special they thought Herbert could be, and how “catchable” of a ball he throws; it’s easy to see why now.
D.T.: Some USC critics say Sam Darnold has saved Clay Helton’s job. How hot is Mark Helfrich’s seat, and can Herbert do for him what Darnold did for Helton?
J.D.: After Oregon’s blowout loss at Washington State on Oct. 1, there was definitely a sense that Helfrich may not survive the season. Many Oregon fans felt like the offense had become stale, recruiting was lacking and that Helfrich simply wasn’t fit to be a head coach at major program. Since Herbert has taken over as Oregon’s starter, a lot of that speculation has disappeared. Herbert gives Duck fans something to be excited about; it helps that he grew up playing at Sheldon High School, less than 2 miles from Autzen Stadium. Along with Herbert, the Ducks are starting four freshmen offensive linemen, and their two most consistent defensive players are true freshman. Even if Oregon misses out on a bowl game, I think Helfrich’s job is safe for at least another season due to the potential that Herbert provides.
D.T.: We’re so used to seeing Oregon as a national powerhouse. How strange and frustrating has this season been?
J.D.: It has been very strange to see Oregon collapse this quickly. Fans in Eugene have become so accustomed to seeing the Ducks run up the scoreboard, and there’s a sense that this simply isn’t the same program that it was when Chip Kelly was running the show. It was apparent early in the year that Oregon’s defense was inexperienced and simply not very good. But issues on the offensive end have been much more alarming. Oregon superstars Royce Freeman and Darren Carrington haven’t put up numbers this year, and the offense looked really, really slow at the start of the year. Herbert has alleviated a lot of the early frustration, but a lot of Oregon fans still see this as a lost season.
D.T.: Aside from Herbert, who are some key players to watch for from Oregon
J.D.: Reserve running back Tony Brooks-James has been fantastic for the Ducks over the past two weeks and ran for 132 yards on just nine carries last Saturday. Just 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Brooks-James is beginning to remind Oregon fans of former Duck great LaMichael James. He hasn’t taken the starting spot from Royce Freeman yet, but with Freeman struggling of late, it may not be long before he does. Freshman linebacker Troy Dye has been Oregon’s most consistent tackler this year, albeit while struggling a bit in the passing game, and is the Ducks’ best playmaker on defense. Redshirt junior cornerback Tyree Robinson returned an interception 84 yards last weekend and is a dangerous playmaker in the secondary.
D.T.: Final score prediction and why?
J.D.: Final score: USC 49, Oregon 35
While Oregon looked much improved last week, its run defense is still abysmal and Ronald Jones is going to have a field day. The Ducks don’t have a player who is capable of covering JuJu Smith-Schuster and he won’t have any trouble getting open deep. Herbert will continue to show flashes of brilliance during his first game in a truly hostile environment, but it doesn’t matter how well he plays if Oregon can’t get the USC offense off the field.