As of 2012, USC has compiled a 38-18-2 record against Oregon. Looking at the last few years, though, it’s easy to confuse the Ducks as the historically dominant program.
Despite a 38-35 upset win from the Trojans in Autzen Stadium in 2011, No. 4 Oregon (8-0, 5-0) has dominated the Pac-12 for the better part of the last four seasons. In that time, Oregon coach Chip Kelly has led the squad to two Rose Bowls and an appearance in the BCS national championship game against Auburn in 2011.
“They know what they’re doing,” USC defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said. “They’re really good -— [Kelly has] recruited well, coached well.”
No. 17 USC (6-2, 4-2), fresh off an upset loss at Arizona last weekend, is aware of just how good the Ducks are right now and appears motivated for its primetime matchup at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday.
“This is the best team in the country coming in,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “They’ve blown everybody out by halftime. … We have to be ready, and I think our players are.”
The Ducks, who feature a quick-strike, hurry-up offense, have never had offensive problems under Kelly; they have averaged more than 40 points per game the last three seasons. The biggest difference in the Ducks this year, however, is their defense, which is yielding just 19.4 points per game.
“[Oregon has] a really physical defense,” senior quarterback Matt Barkley said. “[They have defensive] ends who rush upfield and I think are some of the best players on their team. … They force a lot of turnovers, that defense. So it comes back to us protecting the ball.”
Ball security was one of the Trojans’ downfalls last Saturday in Tucson. USC turned the ball over five times and committed 13 penalties; as of now, the Trojans are the most penalized team in the entire country.
Mental mistakes have been a problem all season for the Trojans.
“We have to do a better job of making sure guys have the mentality of protecting the team,” Barkley said. “That’s the number one rule … If you’re making those mistakes you’re putting the team in harm’s way. So we just have to keep emphasizing that to the guys.”
Lost in the devastating upset was a record-setting performance by sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee, who caught 16 passes for a conference record of 345 yards against the Wildcats. Lee had a chance to catch a Hail Mary pass from Barkley as time expired, but was unable to come up with the circus catch. Fellow wideout junior Robert Woods is confident the close loss will not lead to a hangover against Oregon.
“I know a lot of guys have been waiting on this game,” Woods said. “We should have been playing well ahead of time just to get ready for this game. But hopefully we bring our ‘A’ game and it sparks the team up again.”
Though the Duck defense has improved this season, it is still their offense that gets the headlines, and rightfully so: Oregon averages 53.4 points per game, the highest clip in the country. They feature the nation’s No. 3 rushing offense, which is led by senior running back Kenjon Barner and sophomore sensation De’Anthony Thomas. Barner is No. 10 in the country in rushing yards while Thomas averages more than 8.5 yards a carry. Adding to the threat is redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose dual threat capabilities have given defenses fits all season.
“The main thing is we have to play disciplined,” senior safety Jawanza Starling said. “They get a lot of their big plays because somebody on defense gets out of position or makes the wrong read and they hit it for big plays.”
The Ducks high-tempo offense is based on putting players in space before the defense has a chance to catch its breath. USC, which gave up 15 points to Oregon in the fourth quarter of last season’s thriller, knows just how crucial tackling players in the open field will be Saturday.
“[Oregon tries] to put us all in space, that’s why we try doing tackling drills,” sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard said. “We’re going to play things slow. Just not try and be over aggressive, just trying to go get the running back … and the quarterback.”
Pullard, who finished with 14 tackles in last season’s meeting, also emphasized that the defense can’t commit penalties and give Oregon free yards.
“Every powerful offense thrives on explosion plays,” Pullard said. “So, the less of that, they actually have to earn every yard instead of a free 15 [yard penalty].”
The Trojans are aware this team is far different than last year’s Oregon squad. However, Kiffin believes that the ingredients to success remain the same.
“It will be just like last year,” Kiffin said. “You’re going to have to make those tackles in space. We did a really good job through three quarters last year of doing that. You saw a lot of plays out on the perimeter, and our outside backers and our DB’s made a lot of really good tackles in that game. We’re going to have to do the same again.”
Kickoff for USC’s matchup with Oregon is set for 4 p.m. at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The game will be broadcast nationally on FOX.
Nick Burton and Joey Kaufman contributed to this report.