Oregon will be taking their seven-game winning streak to USC on Saturday. A win in this game will put even more of a stranglehold on the Pac-12 North. However, this game is also a chance for Oregon to keep their names in the College Football Playoff race.
Oregon vs USC: Keys For an Oregon Win
Improve the Pass Defense
Through the early part of the season, the Oregon defense was as good as anyone in college football. However, things have not played out that way in the past two weeks.
In the win over Washington, the secondary struggled, until figuring it out just in time to hold Washington scoreless for the last quarter and a half.
Last week, Deommodore Lenoir was back in action after missing the second half in Seattle, but the pass defense didn’t perform much better. Granted Mike Leach and the air raid are a very difficult offense for most in college football to match up against, the performance still left some to be desired, especially on the final drive of the game, even with the horrible pass interference call on Lenoir.
Part of that struggle has also been in the pass rush. The defense only has one sack each of the past two weeks. Those sacks did, however, come at big times. The sack by Popo Aumavae in Seattle set up the final defensive stand, and the sack by Mase Funa last week set up the Jevon Holland pick-six.
True freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis is having a solid season, and he has possibly the best trio of wide receivers in college football. LSU and Alabama have something to say about that. However, Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns, and Amon-Ra St. Brown are the real deal.
Oregon has faced some very good receivers this season, but this is the best group.
Continue the Run Game
Many were wondering where the run game was behind this offensive line. The past three weeks it has shown up big time. It is largely responsible for completing the comeback in Seattle, and it’s the main reason for last week’s win over Washington State.
Following last week’s National Player of the Week performance of 257 rushing yards and 56 yards in receiving, CJ Verdell now leads the conference in rushing.
Not to be forgotten though are Cyrus Habibi-Likio and Travis Dye. Habibi-Likio didn’t see as many touches against Washington State as he did against Washington, but he was still effective with his touches. Dye, of course, left the game early last week, but the week before he was effective.
There’s a chance for Oregon to wear down a USC run defense, that ranks 10th in the conference in rush yards allowed per game and 11th in yards per carry allowed.
Play With Passion Not Emotion
This has been a problem at times this season. Playing with passion is always a good thing, but not when that boils over into emotion.
Last week was the worst game Oregon has had this season in terms of penalties after the play. However, that wasn’t isolated. After the play penalties have been a problem at different times this season. Johnny Johnson had one in the Cal game that knocked the offense out of the redzone and Justin Herbert ended up throwing an interception. There were also a couple of bad penalties against Colorado.
With a lot of players on this roster being from Southern California, they will be going back home to play this weekend. That has a chance to be a great thing. They can play motivated in what will be the final game of a tough three-game stretch before a bye week. Of course, motivation shouldn’t be a factor when you’re a one-loss team, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the team is a little worn down. Playing in front of friends and family can be the extra motivation needed.
However, it can also be a bad thing if that boils over into emotion. If players are coming out wanting to make statements against players they grew up playing against and are more focused on beating that player than doing their job, it can be a bad thing, but it could also lead to after the play penalties. USC is a talented team and if Oregon gives them 15 free yards the Trojans have the chance to make them pay for it.
Troy Dye Being Back
Troy Dye has been such a steady force since his first game at Oregon in 2016. Him not being on the field last week was a weird scene, and even though he’s a linebacker, him not being on the field clearly hurt the pass defense. It was notable how open the middle of the field was at times.
USC runs the ball more than Washington State, but they run a very similar system. Having Dye on the field to communicate will be critical. He also knows how to time up his blitzes and while you need to be careful blitzing an air raid offense, this is far from the first time Dye has seen an air raid.
Assuming Dye plays, which Cristobal said he was good to go this week, just having his leadership back on the field should help the defense.
Oregon vs USC: Overall Thoughts
This is a game Oregon should win. However, USC is extremely talented and if Oregon comes in sleepwalking after back-to-back tough wins over Washington and Washington State, USC can definitely win this game.
Oregon has to be dialed in on special teams and continue to win on third downs. Expect this game to be close. When a game is close, as the past two weeks have been third downs, special teams and turnovers are deciding factors.
If Oregon is sloppy in any of those phases they can lose. A loss certainly wouldn’t destroy hopes of winning the Pac-12. Oregon has a huge lead in the Pac-12 North. What it would do though is destroy any talk of a College Football Playoff.
This is a big test for Mario Cristobal and his staff. They have proved a lot over the past two weeks, but this is a different test.
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