Four burning questions: Oregon

No. 18 USC (8-2, 5-2) travels to Eugene on Saturday as a 15.5-point underdog to face the No. 4 Oregon Ducks (9-1, 7-0). According to Michael Lev of the Orange County Register, the Trojans have not been this big of an underdog since 1998 when they traveled to Florida State. In addition the forecast calls for temperatures in the 30s with a high chance of showers.

Can the Trojans hold on to the ball for extended periods of time?

Chip Kelly and Oregon do not need to worry about time of possession. The famed Quack Attack can score in an instant and match the pace of any high powered offense it faces. The secret to beating Oregon is limiting their number of possessions. It is a lot easier to score seven touchdowns when you have the ball twelve times instead of ten. As a result, USC must sustain drives and curtail the amount of chances the Ducks have to score.

The Trojans have shown the ability to light up the scoreboard the past few weeks, but the Ducks’ defense will likely be their stiffest test to date. Yet, there is reason for optimism: USC the best team in the country at avoiding 3-and-outs. Only 8.3 percent of their drives have ended after three plays. Moving the ball effectively over long periods of time will create a small margin for error on defense.

Will either team pressure be able to pressure the quarterback?

Ducks’ quarterback Darron Thomas has only completed 60.5 percent of his passes this season, and USC could cut Oregon drives short if it puts the Ducks passing situations on third down and then pressures Thomas to force incomplete passes or interceptions. By the same token, Oregon could disrupt the precision timing of Matt Barkley (66.8% completion percentage) and force him in to errant throws. Each team has done a fantastic job of protecting their quarterback to date. USC is third in the nation for sacks allowed (6), while Oregon is tied for sixth (7). Although USC has been slightly better at protecting the quarterback, Oregon has recorded nine more sacks that USC on the year and ranks fifth nationally.

How effective will Robert Woods be?

Robert Woods, a finalist for the Biletnikoff award given to the best receiver in the nation, sat out practice Thursday with injuries to his shoulder and ankle. Wednesday, head coach Lane Kiffin announced that Woods would not play unless he showed the ability to explode off of the line of scrimmage and beat coverage. Despite Kiffin’s comments, all signs point to the sophomore sensation playing. “I feel good to go,” Woods told reporters on Thursday. “I feel like I need to be there Saturday to help this team.” However, it remains to be seen how effective Woods will be. Playing with an assortment of injuries last Saturday, he only managed two catches for five yards.

Is there a way to stop either team’s rushing attack?

Since the season opening loss to LSU, the Oregon rushing attack has gashed defenses to the tune of 313.7 yards per game on the ground. The lethal combination of LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, and DeAnthony Thomas in a spread offense creates problems for defenses in the open field. James, a junior from Texarkana, leads the Pac-12 in yards per carry (7.9) and ranks 6th nationally. If USC hopes to slow down Oregon, it will need to: win the battle at the line of scrimmage and get penetration, stay disciplined and stick with assignments, and tackle well in space.

While the Ducks boast arguably the best running attack in the country, the Trojans enter Saturday with an impressive back of their own. Redshirt junior Curtis McNeal ranks second in the Pac-12 in yards per carry (7.0) and ranks 13th nationally. He set a career high with 148 yards in the Trojans’ most recent contest against Washington on 18 carries.

For the season, USC’s run defense (100.4 yards per game) ranks 10th nationally. Meanwhile, Oregon has allowed 143 yards per game (49th nationally).