USC can prove its defensive capability against Oregon

Junior safety Talanoa Hufanga has an interception in each of USC’s last four games, and his four picks on the season leads USC. The Trojans’ eight interceptions are the most in the Pac-12. (Photo courtesy of John McGillen / USC Athletics)

No. 13 USC has a date with destiny tomorrow as it faces a potentially explosive Oregon offense in the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

The Trojans have emerged as a top defense in the Pac-12 under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. They’ve allowed the second-fewest points per game in the conference with 25 but face an Oregon team with the third-most points per game at 34.2. 

“Oregon’s explosive, [offensive coordinator] Joe [Moorhead is] very creative, it’s always been that way,” Orlando said in a virtual press conference Tuesday. “They can pace you, they look over to the sidelines, they can change plays and it’s just they utilize their personnel extremely well.” 

Sophomore quarterback Tyler Shough has the second-most passing yards in the conference behind USC sophomore Kedon Slovis. Shough also has the third-most touchdowns in the Pac-12 and is able to scramble out of the pocket for extra yards, as he’s logged 256 rushing yards this year. 

Sophomore receiver Devon Williams has been Shough’s favorite receiver this year. The former USC transfer leads the Ducks in receiving yards with 264. Senior Jaylon Redd falls right behind Williams with 235 yards but has the most receptions on the team with 20.  

But Oregon’s offense runs off its ground game, which can make defenses dizzy. Shifty and agile, junior running back Travis Dye is a key part of this, capable of blowing past opposing defenses. Dye leads the Ducks in rushing yards with 336 and is third in receiving yards with 204, averaging a whopping 40.8 yards per reception. 

The Trojans have struggled to contain opposing rushing attacks, allowing 157 yards per game. However, they’ve been outstanding in creating turnovers, forcing three miscues a game — second-best in the Pac-12. 

Redshirt junior safety Talanoa Hufanga, who leads the Pac-12 in interceptions with four, said he and the defense will look to continue to thrive on takeaways against Oregon. 

“A big emphasis this year just for our whole team is to run and hit and create turnovers,” Hufanga said. “As much as we can to help the offense out, I gotta make the most of all my opportunities.”  

The Trojans were steamrolled by Oregon last year, giving up 56 points. But it is a different defense this year, and the players look forward to another challenge.

“I think we’re pretty excited to play them,” redshirt junior defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu said. “We know the outcome [from] last year, so I think we’re just gonna try to go out there and play the ball that we’ve played this whole year.” 

According to Hufanga, this Trojan defense is closer as a group than last year’s, showing they have the ability to come up with crucial stops and bring a new level of aggressiveness. 

Against UCLA, the Trojans allowed only 3 points in the fourth quarter — imperative for USC’s eventual comeback victory. 

“Us as a team, we don’t lose faith in each other when we’re down, we just keep playing,” Tuipulotu said. “The offense does their thing, and then the defense, we try to run ahead, so I think we’ve done a good job of that.”

The championship game is a tremendous opportunity for the defense to shine. But for Hufanga it holds a different meaning, as he is from Oregon and went to high school there.

“I’m ecstatic,” he said. “I think this is going to be super cool, I think it’s a great opportunity and a great experience just to go out there and compete. We’re playing against a great team and for me, it’s a team from my home state, so I know a bunch of guys on the team, and I’m really excited to go against them and I think I’ve been dreaming of this opportunity.”

Hufanga’s dream will come true as the Trojans face Oregon Friday at 5 p.m. for the Pac-12 crown.