Over four seasons and 193 combined starts, Oregon quietly built college football’s best offensive line, through a mix of time and old-fashioned repetitions, slowly building the chemistry that’s helped the Ducks soar over the Pac-12 Conference this season.
USC didn’t quite have that luxury. As their season began, the Trojans had just one returning starter, Austin Jackson, to anchor an offensive line that needed to be rebuilt overnight. They added a graduate transfer, Drew Richmond, at right tackle and plugged in three new starters on the interior. Then, chemistry-wise, they hoped for the best.
So far, those prayers have unexpectedly been answered. As USC’s offense has endured countless injuries, a previously precarious line has emerged as a stabilizing force amid the mayhem.
And on Saturday at the Coliseum, as USC (5-3 overall, 4-1 in the Pac-12) and No. 7 Oregon (7-1, 5-0) meet in an anticipated matchup of division leaders, the stability of each team’s lines will be tested, with huge stakes on the line for both.
The Ducks need a victory to preserve any hope of sneaking into the College Football Playoff. Clay Helton, USC’s coach, could need one just to preserve his job, with a new athletic director soon to determine his fate.
“I’ve watched us grow,” Helton said. “Now it’s time for us to grow a little bit more against a good Oregon team.”
The Ducks have won seven in a row since losing their opener to Auburn. But over the last two games, the nation’s No. 9 scoring defense has showed signs of vulnerability. Last week, Washington State torched Oregon for 406 passing yards. The week before, a balanced Washington offense managed 414 yards.
Where Oregon has not wavered is along its offensive line. In the last two games, the Ducks playmakers ran wild with ample protection and helped the offense pile up 962 yards.
Against Washington State, Oregon chose to lean on the run game, and sophomore C.J. Verdell racked up 257 yards and three touchdowns.
“This is a team that can get up on people in a hurry,” Helton said, “and then carry the heavy load and just start running the ball.”
That could be an issue for a USC defense that’s struggled to stop the run all season, even before injuries took their toll. The Trojans are allowing 4.84 yards per rush, second-worst in the conference.
Last week, against Colorado, a depleted defense struggled to catch its breath over the course of long drives. While the possible returns of defensive end Christian Rector and linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV should help fortify that front, Oregon is sure to follow that lead, with better backs and a better line.
USC will look to its offensive line to extend drives, in hopes of countering that strategy. It’ll have to find that rhythm again without its top three backs, leaving freshman Kenan Christon to carry the load again. It also must count on freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis to come up big against one of the nation’s most aggressive secondaries.
But it’s the test that awaits in the trenches that should ultimately determine whether USC can continue to control its standing in the Pac-12.