It initially looked as though USC had a solid chance to upset No. 7 Oregon at the Coliseum Saturday night, surging to a 10-0 lead as the Ducks’ offense struggled to wake up in the first quarter. But it’s hard to outscore a team that comes away with a touchdown on eight consecutive possessions, and that’s exactly what Oregon did in its 56-24 win.
Once again, turnovers were the killer for the Trojan offense, resulting in 28 Oregon points. After Oregon’s offense drove for two second-quarter touchdowns to take the lead, freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis threw a pick-six that extended the Ducks’ lead to 11.
While the Trojans initially showed their resilience after the pick-six — driving down the field in less than two minutes for a touchdown — Oregon freshman cornerback Mykael Wright ran the next kickoff back 100 yards to give the Ducks an 11-point lead heading into halftime.
“That’s super tough, for them to score back to back, really close,” redshirt sophomore center Brett Neilon said. “You’re just kind of salty that you could have had seven, and it could’ve been a totally different ballgame. That stung; there’s no sugarcoating it. We just didn’t get it done. We made some mistakes that lost us the game.”
Slovis had two other interceptions and lost a fumble, mistakes that shifted the momentum in favor of the Ducks after USC’s strong start.
On the 16-play opening drive, Slovis looked like a veteran, weaving expertly around Oregon defenders and hitting freshman wide receiver Drake London in the end zone. The early momentum continued when redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao picked off Oregon senior quarterback Justin Herbert, setting up a field goal to put the Trojans ahead 10-0.
It was clear from the start that the Trojans were relying on offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s pass-heavy Air Raid strategy, likely due to the absence of their top three backs to injury. Slovis had 57 pass attempts – a school record – compared to 26 for Herbert. It was too much of a burden for a true freshman to carry, and the offense suffered accordingly.
“We started off the game swinging,” junior offensive tackle Austin Jackson said. “Making those turnovers, that’s really what swung them back into the game and allowed them to separate.”
The Trojans took the physicality of the game a bit too far at times, and it ended up costing them. In the second quarter, Pola-Mao was ejected for targeting on a helmet-to-helmet hit, and sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct foul on a play that was blown dead before the snap.
Oregon capitalized on these turnovers and penalties to score 28 points in the quarter, the most USC has allowed in one frame since its 2016 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. But Oregon did not step off the gas as USC’s defense essentially laid down, allowing 14 points in each of the final two quarters.
“Every time we go back out there, we try to get the ball back and get it in the offense’s hands,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Christian Rector said. “The best place for [the defense] is on the sidelines. We weren’t able to win the turnover battle.”
Following the loss, the Trojans no longer control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South. They will have to count on a Utah loss and likely win their remaining games against Arizona State, Cal and UCLA to have a chance at a title berth.
“[We’ll] go onto the next game just like we’ve done,” head coach Clay Helton said. “We’ve got to play an Arizona State team that’s had a week off and they’re in preparation for us … They’re at home with a talented offense, and we’ve gotta go back and clean up the things we did today and be ready to win the next one.”