Duck hunt gone awry
On the game’s sixth play, Marcus Mariota, Oregon’s first-year starter at quarterback, took the snap, paced back not more than two steps and effortlessly floated a pass that hung in the air for about 20 yards over the middle of the field. The ball landed in the hands of a wide-open De’Anthony Thomas for a touchdown.
An announced sellout Coliseum crowd that had waited months for a titanic clash between the Pac-12’s two premier programs was suddenly quieted. Sixty-five seconds in, the No. 4 Ducks were on the scoreboard, already leading an overwhelmed USC team 7-0.
“We knew they were extremely fast,” sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard said after the game. “We know their speed.”
Pullard finished with a team-high 14 tackles last November as part of an upset road win over Oregon in Autzen Stadium, keeping the much talked about high-octane offense at bay. But a year later, that same group was pummeled and shredded by a new-and-improved spread attack, and for essentially all of Saturday, USC played catch up as a result.
“They’re way better this year,” Pullard said of the Ducks, who have scored at least 50 points in all but three games this season. “They grew and they matured.”
In a fight for conference supremacy Saturday, Oregon’s offense flexed its muscles and raced past a Trojan bunch that looked exhausted just trying to keep pace. In the end, it couldn’t and then-No. 17 USC (6-3, 4-3) was outslugged, 62-51.
Pullard, along with the rest of the Trojans’ defense, surrendered the 62 points on nine touchdowns and 730 total yards — all single-game USC opponent records.
And so it was left to the offense to, essentially, match Oregon point for point, a tall order even for the Trojans’ prolific group.
“We felt it would be like a heavyweight championship fight, and there would be huge blows dealt throughout the day,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We needed to sit down, take deep breaths between rounds and go back and do it again.”
For much of the game, USC, which of course boasts talented playmakers of its own, was in fact able to trade blows. Though trailing 21-3 by 14:48 in the second quarter, the unit would score three touchdowns in the second quarter behind a dynamic passing attack, engineered by senior quarterback Matt Barkley, who would connect with wide receivers Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and Nelson Agholor on touchdown strikes throughout the period. And his throws to Lee and Agholor went for 75 and 76 yards, respectively, the third- and fourth- longest of his career.
Barkley, forced to shoulder much of the burden offensively just to keep up with Oregon’s dynamic unit, finished with 484 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions on 35-of-54 passing.
“We knew it would be a shootout,” the right-handed signal caller said. “We had to play perfect on offense and score every drive. And those three drives that weren’t productive came back to hurt us.”
Aided by the return of senior running back Curtis McNeal and sophomore tight end Randall Telfer from various injuries, the Trojans managed to collect 615 total yards. But that wasn’t enough to slow down Oregon, which re-asserted itself as the Pac-12’s top team, strutting past USC for its third win over the program in four years and seemingly putting itself on track to notch a fourth straight conference title.
That effort was spearheaded by running back Kenjon Barner, who amassed 321 rushing yards on 38 carries and scored five touchdowns — yet another USC opponent record against a unit that had given up just six rushing touchdowns in eight games in 2012.
“I swear, he’s faster,” said Monte Kiffin, the Trojans’ assistant head coach for defense.
Mariota added 96 yards on the ground, as well.
Before the game, many expected USC could follow the same template from a season ago. After all, Oregon was held to just 35 points in the last meeting and seven by halftime. But instead of producing a similar effort, the Trojans struggled just to keep up with a team that many players called “faster” than in 2011: faster passing downfield, faster running the ball and faster getting to the edge.
“It looked faster than it was because we gave them the edges,” senior safety T.J. McDonald said. “You get tired as a defense, you get worn down.”
Kiffin offered his own take, adding: “They’re better than we were because of the quarterback speed. He’s playing really well. We gotta find out how to make a sack and a fumble in those critical situations.”
Though sacked three times, Mariota was never exactly rattled, throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns while completing 87 percent of his passes.
Next up, the Trojans host Arizona State on Nov. 10 at the Coliseum. The game kicks off at noon and will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks. The Sun Devils are 5-4 this season.