Trojans fail to pull off comeback against Oregon in Pac-12 Championship Game

Slovis fell victim to the pressure applied by Oregon’s defensive front, throwing three interceptions and suffering three sacks throughout the game. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

The No. 13 Trojans lost to the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship Game Friday by a score of 31-24. The Trojans’ record now falls to 5-1 with this marking their first loss of the season.

It was a game of catch-up from the start for USC. Sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis threw an interception to senior cornerback Lenoir Deommodore on USC’s first drive to put the Ducks in the red zone. Three plays later, the Ducks scored. 

Costly penalties and the Ducks’ aggressive defense proved suffocating for the Trojans. USC advanced a net two yards in its first three possessions. On the Trojans’ next possession, Slovis threw another interception deep in USC territory, which allowed the Ducks to jump ahead with an early two-touchdown lead when sophomore quarterback Tyler Shough connected with senior tight end Hunter Kampmoyer from 14 yards out. 

Penalties cost the Trojans 98 yards by the end of the game.

“It was an emotional game,” redshirt junior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao said. “Coach always says, ‘When emotion goes up, intelligence goes down.’ You know, things happen, and I think we just have to lock in in the moments and really just be in the game and just be smart.”

Offensive momentum was spotty and short-lived throughout the game for USC. The team failed to capitalize on a number of golden opportunities right down to the final minutes. 

A 34-yard interception return by junior inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga could have turned the tide and made it a 4-point game going into the second half, but the drive resulted in a missed field goal from 41 yards by freshman kicker Parker Lewis. A gutsy onside kick recovered by redshirt freshman wide receiver Bru McCoy in the third quarter ended in a sack nine yards behind the drive’s starting point, resulting in another missed opportunity for the Trojans.

After Slovis hit McCoy for a 4-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal and USC forced an Oregon punt, the possibility of adding another fourth-quarter comeback to the season’s previous three became real for USC.

However, Slovis’ attempt to throw the ball away on a potential game-tying drive ended up in the arms of Oregon’s sophomore safety Jamal Hill, proving the last- minute magic for the quarterback was gone.

“We didn’t have any doubt at all,” sophomore wide receiver Drake London said. “We believed in each other, and we just tried to go out there and execute it and unfortunately we ended up short.”

Slovis’ performance resembled his outing against Oregon in his freshman season. In total, Slovis now has six interceptions in two games against the Ducks, throwing for a 56% completion percentage in USC’s 56-24 loss last year and 53% Friday compared to his season average of 70%. 

After a Hail Mary attempt proved impossible on the last play of the game, Slovis wound up on his back next to the Oregon sideline as the Ducks rushed to the field. The refs penalized Slovis for intentional grounding and he was slow to his feet after the play. According to Helton, the quarterback is currently undergoing X-rays.

Slovis managed to spread the ball nearly evenly between junior wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, London and McCoy. The three receivers finished with a combined 225 yards, and St. Brown scored in his third straight game.

But USC could not produce a run game to match the efficacy of Oregon’s. USC only used two running backs with the absence of redshirt senior Vavae Malepeai. Senior Stephen Carr and redshirt sophomore Markese Stepp mustered a total of 68 yards on 25 rushing attempts. 

The offensive line’s inability to contain Oregon’s pass rush, led by championship game MVP sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux, proved to be similarly troubling as Slovis was sacked three times for a loss of 27 total yards and looked uncomfortable in the pocket all evening.

The Ducks’ drives were dominated by a rushing attack spread across six different players. Oregon’s rushing offense included receivers, running backs and two quarterbacks who helped the team drain the clock late and ultimately rack up 135 yards on the ground. 

The Trojans’ defense couldn’t make up for the deficit created by offensive struggles. Short field position after Trojan turnovers allowed Oregon to have offensive success despite below-average production for the Ducks both on the rushing and receiving fronts. Despite the early struggles, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s squad did provide the Trojan offense with two opportunities to tie the game within the last five minutes. 

Junior safety Talanoa Hufanga strengthened his campaign for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year with two solo sacks and 12 total tackles. Mauga, along with snagging the team’s sole interception, finished with 14 tackles. 

The loss evaporates USC’s slim hope for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The team has not won a Pac-12 Championship in three years, and head coach Clay Helton is now 45-23 in his career at USC. 

“It’s something that I know our kids wanted extremely badly — to win a championship — and we came up a play too short today,” Helton said. “These kids have taken this and laid the stepping stone, a foundation, to what a championship team is gonna look like.”

The future remains uncertain for the Trojans heading into bowl season.