How the Trojans’ offense stacks up against Oregon’s defense

With redshirt senior running back Vavae Malepeai likely out for Friday’s game, redshirt sophomore Markese Stepp is expected to step up in the running game. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

Having completed an undefeated regular season, the No. 13 USC Trojans will face the Oregon Ducks (3-2) in the Pac-12 Championship Game at 5 p.m. on Friday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

In one of the most unorthodox Pac-12 seasons to date, a five-win USC team will face three-win Oregon, which is replacing Washington in the championship game. The Huskies were unable to field 53 scholarship players due to coronavirus cases and were forced to withdraw from the game Monday.  

The first facet of the championship game to analyze is how the USC offense and Oregon defense will match up. 

Fourth quarter offense has been USC’s saving grace on three occasions this season, scoring 14 points against both Arizona State and Arizona and 20 against UCLA in the final quarter of play. Head coach Clay Helton praised the team’s growth from last season and the determination displayed in tight games. 

“I credit this bunch because they have experience. They went through some trials and tribulations last season as a young team,” Helton said Monday. “2020 has taught a lot and taught us how to deal with adversity … There’s no situation that we don’t think we can overcome.”

Sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis has been at the center of a proficient Trojan passing attack. His relationship with receivers such as sophomore Drake London, redshirt senior Tyler Vaughns and junior Amon-Ra St. Brown has allowed the air attack to carry the team, even when other components such as the run game aren’t operating at a high level. 

The game-winning touchdown pass against UCLA came on a fade route to St. Brown after Slovis called an audible at the line of scrimmage. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell recognized his quarterback’s assuredness and how it has led to the team’s success. 

“I think the biggest difference is the confidence [Slovis] has. Last year he would chuck a fade, throw it and he might get a touchdown, then he’d come off to the sideline and ask ‘Hey, was that a good idea?’” Harrell said. “When he picked that fade to [St. Brown], he threw that ball with total confidence — there was never any hesitation in that throw. When you have that freedom and you attack with the confidence that he [does], most of the time you’re gonna be right.” 

The Trojan run game, while inconsistent throughout the season, has emerged as a key to unlocking the rest of the offense by making opposing defenses respect the ground game. Running backs redshirt senior Vavae Malepeai, senior Stephen Carr, redshirt sophomore Markese Stepp and sophomore Kenan Christon have all been given carries. Rotation at the position has been a huge component in balancing out a sometimes pass-reliant offensive scheme. 

Malepeai suffered an MCL sprain toward the end of the UCLA game, casting doubt over his availability for Friday. Helton said that the starting running back’s chances of playing Friday “[do] not look good.” 

“I met with [Stepp] yesterday and said, ‘This is gonna be an unbelievable opportunity if [Malepeai] can’t go,’” Helton said. “[I told him] that you have to take the approach that each opportunity being that physical-style back [is something] we’re gonna need in this game.” 

The Oregon defense has been largely unsuccessful at containing opposing running attacks this season, allowing a staggering 184 rushing yards and just over two touchdowns per game to opposing rushers.

One of the bright spots, however, is the Ducks’ tendency to make tackles for loss. Freshman inside linebacker Noah Sewell and sophomore defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux have five and five-and-a-half tackles for loss on the season respectively, totaling a loss of 42 yards. 

Oregon has fared worse when its opponents rushed more often. Conversely, the Trojans have had their closest games when they rush more often. Against Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA, they had their highest rushing attempt totals of the season (40, 32 and 33, respectively). This dichotomy will make for an interesting matchup in the ground game.  

Oregon’s defensive unit as a whole has taken a step back from its Pac-12-winning squad of last season. Against conference opponents in 2019, the Ducks conceded over 25 points just three times, a number which they’ve already equaled this season despite playing five fewer conference games.

If the matchup unravels in any way like last season’s 56-24 Oregon blowout win over USC, the Ducks won’t have to be perfect defensively but will want to do more bending as opposed to breaking against a potent USC offense. 

With only three full days of preparation knowing who their opponent would be, both the Trojan offense and the Duck defense will be forced to make more in-game adjustments. Oregon does have the advantage of not having played since Dec. 5, whereas the Trojans have had two consecutive short weeks of practice. According to Harrell, the lack of preparation time and congested schedule hasn’t phased the USC offensive group. 

“A lot of times, especially offensively, we feel like we just do what we do,” Harrell said. “We have an identity and a base offense that we can run and expect to execute against anyone. From that standpoint, I feel like, offensively, that at least gives you a chance when you’re in a situation like this. There is some disadvantage to not knowing your opponent [who you’re playing against] opponent is in three days [of preparation], but we expect to do what we do at a high level.”