USC knew what was coming.
The Trojans studied the Oregon up-tempo, dynamic, spread offense for two weeks. They conditioned to be ready for the fourth quarter. They practiced tackling.
But they still couldn’t stop the Ducks.
No. 1 Oregon (8-0, 5-0) ended the game with 24 unanswered points to defeat the Trojans 53-32. The Ducks capitalized on three turnovers from a Trojan offense that couldn’t find its rhythm throughout the game.
“We did a terrible job on third down and gave the ball back way too many times,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I think our defense at times played well enough to win, but I thought our offense was terrible today, and obviously that starts with myself.”
The Trojans (5-3, 2-3) started the second half on a 15-0 run as junior defensive tackle Jurrell Casey’s interception and senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson’s 55-yard punt return set USC up for two quick scores. Yet, after explosive games against California and Stanford, the offense stalled after taking a 32-29 lead in the third quarter as sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley never looked entirely comfortable in the pocket.
“It wasn’t consistent,” Barkley said. “We needed four quarters of solid football and it seems like only the first quarter, and the start of the third quarter where we were rocking and the stadium was in it. Finishing was what we didn’t do at the end of the first half and end of the second half and you can’t win when you don’t do that.”
Despite the 21-point defeat, USC was still in the game at the start of the fourth quarter. The Trojans had the ball on the Ducks 36-yard line and were driving for a touchdown that would’ve gotten them within four points.
The drive ended when a shotgun pitch to senior fullback Stanley Havili went for a loss of four yards on third and five and the subsequent fourth-down pass completion came up short.
Those two plays after a strong drive personified the Jekyll and Hyde game the Trojan offense played.
“We were in the four-down range, we were hoping to run and get some yards and unfortunately we lost three or four yards,” Kiffin said. “Obviously it wasn’t a very good call under field pressure.”
Although USC’s offense got caught in a ditch, Oregon’s offense continued to show the speed that’s been its trademark this year. Multiple Trojan defensive players said that fatigue wasn’t a big issue because of the increased conditioning workouts in the past two weeks, but that it was missed assignments and players not sticking in their position that did them in.
“They didn’t run a lot of plays, they just ran the same plays to perfection and we had too many breakdowns as a defense,” senior cornerback Shareece Wright said. “There’s times when we didn’t break down and they didn’t have a chance against us, and times we did and they capitalized on it.”
Even if Oregon ran only a few plays with variations, it worked. Running back LaMichael James ran 36 times for 239 yards and three touchdowns while quarterback Darron Thomas went 19-for-32 for 288 yards and four touchdowns.
“I thought it had the feeling like we couldn’t even breathe out there,” Kiffin said. “It was so fast we couldn’t even get lined up.”
Oregon took advantage of blown coverage multiple times to find wide open receivers, mostly Jeff Maehl who had eight catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns, down the middle of the field.
“We had blown coverage on the first touchdown and on the second touchdown we blew the coverage,” Wright said.
Spotty coverage isn’t going to beat the No. 1 team in the nation, and Saturday’s game showed that to beat Oregon, teams need to play nearly perfect football.
“They’re flawless,” Barkley said.