At last. It's finally here.
With all due respect to Oregon State and Stanford, the Pac-12 conference's two powerhouse teams are about to square off in Los Angeles. Also, with due respect (sort of) to Alabama and LSU—who cares? I would much rather be in L.A. on Saturday than Baton Rouge, and it's a good thing, because that's where my plane is headed.
The Ducks are preparing to fly south in big flocks for this one. Oregon fans are packing their Rose Bowl green and yellow beads (note to Nike: In case you missed it, those are the Oregon colors), lucky Duck socks and must-have O earrings.
USC fans are flocking to Craigslist to see how much they could get for their tickets. Just kidding, Trojans; we know you wouldn't desert your team at this crucial juncture in the season.
Here comes a preview of this big-time Pac-12 matchup.
Who: Oregon (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) at USC (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) — Game No. 9
When: Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, 4:00pm (PDT)
Where: Los Angeles, CA
Stadium: L.A. Memorial Coliseum (Natural Grass) Capacity: 93,607
National Rankings: Oregon BCS No. 4; USC BCS No. 17
National TV: FOX with Gus Johnson (pxp), Charles Davis (analyst), Julie Alexandria (reporter)
National Radio: 710 ESPN with Bill Rosinski (pxp), David Norrie (analyst), Joe Schad (reporter)
Local Radio: Oregon IMG with Jerry Allen (pxp), Mike Jorgensen (analyst)
Satellite Radio: Sirius 128, XM 85
Spread: Oregon by 7 1/2
SE: 2 Robert Woods — 8 George Farmer
LT: 70 Aundrey Walker OR 75 Max Tuerk — 72 Chad Wheeler
LG: 66 Marcus Martin OR 50 Abe Markowitz — Giovanni Di Poalo
C: 78 Khaled Holmes — 50 Abe Markowitz
RG: 59 John Martinez — 74 Jeremy Galten
RT: 77 Kevin Graf — 76 Nathan Guertler
TE: 82 Tandall Telfer OR 86 Xavier Grimble — 88 Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick
FL: 9 Marqise Lee — 15 Nelson Agholor
QB: 7 Matt Barkley — 13 Max Wittek
FB: 31 Soma Vainuku — 38 Jahleel Pinner
TB: 25 Silas Redd OR 22 Curtis McNeal — 30 D.J. Morgan
DE: 96 Wes Horton — 93 Greg Townsend Jr.
NT: 90 George Uko — 99 Antwaun Woods
DT: 94 Leonard Williams — 90 George Uko
DE: 91 Morgan Breslin — 58 J.R. Tavai
SLB: 18 Dion Bailey — 34 Tony Burnett
MLB: 55 Lamar Dawson — 51 Will Andrew
WLB: 10 Hayes Pullard — 56 Anthony Sarao
CB: 21 Nickell Robey — 23 Kevon Seymour
FS: 7 T.J. McDonald — 19 Drew McAllister
SS: 29 Jawanza Starling — 24 Demetrius Wright
CB: 4 Torin Harris OR 26 Josh Shaw — 16 Anthony Brown
P: 35 Kyle Negrete — 35 Kris Albarado
PK: 48 Andrew Heidari — 46 Craig McMahon
SNP: 61 Peter McBride — 18 John Manoogian
HLD: 6 Cody Kessler — 7 Matt Barkley
KOR: 9 Marqise Lee AND 15 Nelson Agholor
PR: 21 Nickell Robey OR 2 Robert Woods — 9 Marqise Lee
WR: 16 Daryle Hawkins — 11 Bralon Addison
LT: 64 Tyler Johnstone — 74 Kyle Long
LG: 60 Ryan Clanton — 58 James Euscher
C: 55 Hroniss Grasu — 78 Karrington Armstrong
RG: 61 Nick Cody — 54 Hamani Stevens
RT: 75 Jake Fisher — 71 Everett Benyard III
TE: 15 Colt Lyerla — 80 Koa Ka'ai OR 85 Pharaoh Brown
WR: 1 Josh Huff — 19 Eric Dungy or 18 Dwayne Stanford
WR: 89 Will Murphy — 7 Keanon Lowe
QB: 8 Marcus Mariota — 2 Bryan Bennett
RB: 24 Kenjon Barner — 6 De'Anthony Thomas
DE: 66 Taylor Hart — 44 DeForest Buckner
DT: 65 Isaac Remington — 9 Arik Armstead
DT: 92 Wade Keliikipi — 90 Ricky Heimuli
DE: 96 Dion Jordan — 91 Tony Washington
MLB: 47 Kiko Alonso — 34 Rahim Cassell
WLB: 46 Michael Clay — 22 Derrick Malone
SLB: 25 Boseko Lokombo — 33 Tyson Coleman
CB: 27 Terrance Mitchell — 3 Dior Mathis
FS: 21 Avery Patterson — 4 Erick Dargan
SS: 12 Brian Jackson — 4 Erick Dargan
CB: 14 Ifo Ekpre-Olomu — 13 Troy Hill
PK: 93 Rob Beard — 41 Alejandro Maldonado
KO: 41 Alejandro Maldonado — 93 Rob Beard
P: 49 Jackson Rice — 41 Alejandro Maldonado
KR: 6 De'Anthony Thomas AND 7 Keanon Lowe
PR: 6 De'Anthony Thomas — 11 Bralon Addison
LS: 39 Drew Howell (punts) AND 59 Jeff Palmer (PAT/FG)
HLD: 49 Jackson Rice — 2 Bryan Bennett
Regarding injuries for this key game, who the heck knows? Neither Lane Kiffin nor Chip Kelly will discuss injuries, so we are all in the dark until kickoff.
Oregon's star defensive end, Dion Jordan, was injured last week and has been seen at practice in pads but with a shoulder brace. The Ducks' primary QB chaser, Jordan missed last year's USC game in Eugene—one of the main reasons why Matt Barkley was able to just stand there and throw the ball all night.
Missing from Monday's practice at Oregon was linebacker Kiko Alonso, the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl. Alonso is thought to have a wrist injury, and he did not play in the Colorado game.
For the Trojans, here's what the OC Register had to say after Tuesday's morning practice:
Offensive tackle Aundrey Walker, who did not play at Arizona because of an apparent neck injury, returned to practice today. Running back Curtis McNeal, who didn’t make the trip to Arizona, walked into practice in pads but wasn’t carrying a helmet. Receiver Marqise Lee did not practice in order to prepare for an exam. Running back D.J. Morgan left practice after 30 minutes for reasons unknown but did not appear to be in any discomfort.
The only thing I would add to the OC Register's quote is that Marqise Lee does not need to practice.
USC was stunned last Saturday by Rich Rodriguez and his Arizona Wildcats team in Tucson, 39-36. Too many mistakes by the Trojans overshadowed a brilliant performance by flanker Marqise Lee.
Lee set a Pac-12 Conference record with 16 catches for 345 yards and two touchdowns. But five turnovers and a bazillion penalties were just too much to overcome, even for a player of Lee's ability.
Arizona QB Matt Scott had a good day both running and passing. Receiver Austin Hill was the beneficiary of most of Scott's passes, hauling down 10 catches for 259 yards.
USC QB Matt Barkley had one last gasp to try to pull it out, but his throw was knocked down. In the Trojans' two defeats this year, Barkley has been unable to lead his team back from being down in the fourth quarter.
USC dropped to No. 17 in the BCS rankings and are likely out of the national championship game discussion.
Let's just say that The Duck had to do an awful lot of pushups last Saturday.
Oregon completely steamrolled Colorado, 70-14, and it wasn't as close as that score sounds. If Chip Kelly was an ogre, the Ducks might have scored triple digits quite easily. Oregon clicked on all cylinders last weekend, and coupled with a not-very-good Colorado team, it made for short work for the Ducks starters.
Oregon was ahead 56-0 at halftime, the largest halftime point total since 2010's 59-0 against New Mexico. The Ducks were able to empty their bench with less than six minutes remaining in the second quarter.
The only hard work for Oregon the entire weekend was no doubt watching the BCS rankings show on Sunday and seeing the Ducks remain No. 4 despite last week's No. 2 Florida's loss to Georgia.
This game has huge repercussions for both teams.
If USC wins, it vaults back up the BCS rankings and may still end up in a BCS bowl game. A win over Oregon would almost guarantee the Trojans representing the South Division in the Pac-12 Championship game. And if USC can get to that game, anything can happen.
If USC loses to the Ducks, the Trojans could go into a real tailspin, with tough games against Arizona State, UCLA and Notre Dame to close out their season. We are already beginning to hear rumblings about Lane Kiffin wasting all the talent on this squad; lose to the Ducks, and those rumblings may become roars.
For the Ducks, they simply have everything on the line Saturday. There is a growing public outcry about Oregon's BCS ranking, but the only thing the Ducks can do about the BCS formula is to keep winning. Beat a top 20 team, and Oregon both helps itself in the computer rankings and also solidifies the view that the Ducks are indeed the rightful No. 2 team in the country.
If Oregon loses, it is still the odds-on favorite for the Rose Bowl. But this team and coaching staff have higher aspirations, and Duck fans believe this is their year. Proving it starts this Saturday.
If you're looking for glowing words about the offensive stars for both the Trojans and the Ducks in these two slides, you should skip ahead. This big game is going to be decided by defensive players making great defensive plays on both sides of the ball.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota had better be aware of where No. 91, defensive end Morgan Breslin, is at all times, or he may be wearing a 91 tattoo by the end of the day. Breslin has 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks so far this season, so the dude knows how to rush the QB.
Breslin is determined, and frankly, he looks a little mean to me.
The key player for the Ducks in this game is actually two players: cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
No matter how the Oregon CBs line up against USC's star receivers, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, this matchup is the key to the game. If Matt Barkley has all the time in the world to throw—which, of course, remains to be seen—Mitchell and Ekpre-Olomu's ability to contain Lee and Woods will be crucial.
This game is the ultimate test of defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti's "bend don't break" philosophy. Woods and Lee are going to get their catches; the Ducks just need to make sure that they come at the wrong times, not the right times, and that they happen in permissible areas on the field (not in the red zone, for instance).
Mitchell and IEO must start fast and try to interrupt USC's big plays in the first quarter. If the duo can break up Barkley's passes early on, the Trojans will have to establish their running game. Most pundits don't believe that USC can run on Oregon's defense, at least not enough to come out victorious.
...it can keep the Trojans offense on the field for lengthy periods, thereby slowing down the Ducks offense.
Other than faking injuries to their defense to slow Oregon's pace (and Kiffin's not that silly, is he?), keeping Oregon's offense on the bench is the best strategy. Expect USC to put together long, slow drives, probably a mix of Silas Redd runs and short slants.
Speaking of Kiffin, he needs to do a better job in this game if he hopes to out-coach Oregon's Chip Kelly. That's all I'm going to say on this particular topic.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is a true dual-threat QB. USC will also help its chances for a win if it can put sufficient pressure on Mariota. At the very least, the Trojans must hurry him.
Beyond pressuring Mariota, USC's entire defense must step up this week. This seems a good place to note that Oregon beat Arizona 49-0, while the Trojans allowed the 'Cats to score 39 points. If USC's defense does not bring its A game, the Ducks will do to it what they've done to everyone: score a lot of points and rush off to their next victim.
...cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell do their job and contain Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Also in the secondary, free safety Avery Patterson needs to continue his high level of play and be on the lookout for ball-hawking opportunities, like those short slants we discussed earlier.
Matt Barkley has proven that he is capable of throwing interceptions, and Oregon has been a very opportunistic team in that regard. If the Ducks secondary can get a pick early on and rattle Barkley, it could be a long day for the Trojans.
Conversely, if Barkley is allowed to do everything he wants and the Ducks secondary gets burned repeatedly (2011 game, anyone?), it could be a very disappointing day for Oregon. The Ducks will have a better chance at the win if DE Dion Jordan is healthy enough to pressure Barkley and allow the DBs to do their thing.
Another key for the Ducks to get the win is that Kenjon Barner must run the ball effectively. USC is more efficient at pass defense than at stopping the run. If Barner can get on track, it will open up more stuff for Mariota, De'Anthony Thomas and the other Oregon offensive weapons.
Admittedly, I have seen the Ducks play more this season than I've seen USC. However, when I have watched both teams, Oregon has seemed better prepared than the Trojans. Beyond the Ducks' preparation, they also execute their plan to the letter.
And then there's that speed thing. Everyone talks about De'Anthony Thomas' speed—and, make no mistake, DAT is scary fast—but overlooked in the discussion is how fast guys like Kenjon Barner, Marcus Mariota and most of the defense are. If you have slow-to-medium speed, you are not on the 2012 Oregon team.
Motivation-wise, this puppy is probably dead-even. Both teams feel that they are fighting for their lives (an exaggeration, I know, but that's how we talk in college football). But there is a difference between fighting to win for winning's sake and fighting not to lose.
You have to give the Oregon Ducks the edge in that department.
Prediction: Oregon 43 - USC 28
Kay Jennings is a member of the Football Writers Association of America https://twitter/KayJenningsPDX.