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USC holds Oregon to a seven-year low and wins fifth in a row

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Breaking down USC’s 45-20 victory over Oregon, plus looking ahead to the Trojans’ game next Saturday against Washington. For the record: Washington led California 21-20 in the second quarter at time of taping. 

Of all the positions in all of college football, being the punter at Oregon is one of the most thankless. Oregon’s ruthless efficiency has rendered the position an anachronism, a useless pinkie toe on the foot of the game’s best offense.

And so it was unusual to see the Ducks’ punter, Ian Wheeler, trot onto the Coliseum field with less than 90 seconds elapsed in USC’s game Saturday evening. And then again on Oregon’s next drive, after only three plays. And again on the next one, another three-and-out.

It was hard not to wonder if his leg was getting tired. By the time Oregon gained a first down in USC’s 45-20 rout, USC led by 17 points. Wheeler had the ignominious distinction of becoming Oregon’s star player for the game. He punted eight times, the most for an Oregon team since 2012, not long after the last presidential election.

USC was overwhelming. The Ducks managed only 288 yards, the first time they failed to surpass 300 yards since 2009. And that total included 137 in the fourth quarter, when USC pulled most of its starters.

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“Just a suffocating defense right now,” USC Coach Clay Helton said.

USC (6-3, 5-2 in the Pac-12) has improved steadily after a 1-3 start. Since then, the Trojans have won five games in a row, a feat neither Steve Sarkisian nor Lane Kiffin accomplished in their tenures. They now hurtle toward a game against No. 5 Washington next week that could help decide the Pac-12 South and, for Washington, a national playoff berth.

USC’s offensive turnaround, evidenced by Ronald Jones II’s four-touchdown performance Saturday, has been apparent. But its defense too has come along.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was the architect of the first defense to slow down Oregon’s blur offense when he coached California’s defense in 2010.

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His plan then? Stop the run. His plan Saturday? Stop the run.

“One of the things I think Coach Pendergast does an unbelievable job of is focusing on taking away the strength of a team,” Helton said.

Oregon (3-6, 1-5) led the Pac-12 in rushing, but Saturday’s effort was futile. The Ducks rushed for 85 yards, averaging 2.8 per attempt. USC allowed only two touchdowns until the Ducks managed a meaningless score late. USC punched into Oregon’s backfield and funneled Oregon’s speedy rushers back inside.

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“Every week you see we are able to get more pressure,” linebacker Michael Hutchings said.

USC has taken care of business in middle of its schedule. It has dismantled inferior teams, a run of cupcakes briefly interrupted by a close but convincing victory over Colorado.

Before Saturday, USC had already faced two of the nation’s five worst defenses in total yardage: California (124th) and Arizona State (125th). Oregon (127th) waited like a benevolent boss in a bad video game, one final level of ineptitude.

If California couldn’t defend the run, and Arizona State couldn’t defend the pass, Oregon couldn’t do much of either.

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Jones followed last week’s performance, when he rushed for the most yards by a USC runner since Reggie Bush, with the most touchdowns in a game since Lendale White.

He shot a gap, slipped an arm tackle and ran 23 yards in the first quarter. He absorbed a hit by two defenders, pirouetted, bounced outside and scored from three yards out later in the period. Watching from the sideline, injured running back Aca’Cedric Ware shook his head in disbelief.

Jones hopped, hit daylight and planted one cut that made the safety looked like a kicker on season-long 66-yard score in the third quarter. And in the fourth, he burrowed in from one yard out.

When injured starter Justin Davis returns, USC will have to figure out how to share. Helton called Jones an “every-down back.” His four scores tied a USC rushing record. He rushed for 171 yards in 20 carries.

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“My offensive line did a great job coming off the ball,” Jones said. “So it was easy to make reads and just run in the open field.”

Quarterback Sam Darnold completed 70% of his passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns, with one pass intercepted.

And he posted those numbers in an off game.

Typically, Darnold is all bravado, read and pass occurring almost simultaneously. But from the game’s first drive, Darnold eyed his first read, then pivoted to his second or third without releasing the ball. He tapped the ball as if he were burping a baby.

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But he scrambled to prolong drives. USC converted nine of 14 third downs. Late in the third, with hardly a glance upfield, Darnold found tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe for a 37-yard connection after breaking the pocket to extend the play.“The maturity of his game right now is just staggering,” Helton said.

Greater challenges await. A Pac-12 championship remains a distant possibility. To keep that possibility alive, USC must win out. And to win out, USC has to defeat Washington next week in Seattle.

“We’ve played our way into a really big game in November, and that’s what you hope to do,” Helton said. “We’re gonna give them a heck of a shot.”

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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