USC vs. Oregon matchups: Trojans’ secondary looks to stop Oregon’s pass attack

Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough throws against UCLA.
Stopping Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough will be one of USC’s top objectives in the Pac-12 title game on Friday at the Coliseum.
(Chris Pietsch / Associated Press)

Breaking down the on-field matchups between No. 13 USC (5-0) and Oregon (3-2) heading into Friday’s Pac-12 title game at the Coliseum at 5 p.m. PT (TV: FOX).

Marquee matchup

USC secondary vs. Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough: Of the five quarterbacks USC has faced this season, only one ranks in the Pac-12’s top seven in passing yards per game. The Trojans had little issue shutting down that one quarterback, Washington State’s Jayden de Laura. But for the most part this season, USC’s pass defense hasn’t been tested much. That changes against Shough and the Ducks, who have consistently ranked right behind USC in all the conference’s major passing categories. Where they’ve consistently been better is on explosive and downfield pass plays. Shough is averaging a conference-best 9.6 yards per attempt. His favorite downfield target is receiver Devon Williams, who left USC early last season.

The senior running back suffered a knee ligament sprain last week against UCLA and hasn’t practiced this week.

Dec. 16, 2020


Getting offensive

USC (428.4 ypg, 35.2 ppg): If USC started every game down two touchdowns, its offense might very well be the best in college football. When losing by more than a touchdown, Kedon Slovis has completed 29 of 37 passes (78.4%) this season for 358 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll have to be sharp from the start in this one, with USC’s backfield expected to be hampered again. After its first impressive rushing performance of the season, Vavae Malepeai, the leading rusher, is expected to miss the game, providing redshirt sophomore Markese Stepp a golden opportunity to make a statement at the end of an otherwise disappointing season. With a high-scoring affair expected, USC could abandon the run early and rely mostly on Slovis, whose 70.3% completion percentage and 320.2 yards per game both rank in the top eight nationally.

Oregon (467 ypg, 34.2 ppg): Establishing its run game has forever been the hinge point of Oregon’s offense, and this season has been no different. The Ducks looked like they might dominate the North after rushing for 538 yards over their first two games. But ever since, that ground game hasn’t quite looked the same. That step back has coincided with a smaller role for CJ Verdell, who has dealt with injuries this season. Verdell is averaging only 4.38 yards per carry, while Travis Dye, the Ducks’ leading rusher, is averaging 7.47 in 20 fewer carries. Both could find success against a USC defense that was dusted last week by UCLA’s Demetric Felton.

Getting defensive

USC safety Talanoa Hufanga, right, sacks Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura.
USC safety Talanoa Hufanga, right, sacks Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura during the Trojans’ win on Dec. 6.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

USC (395 ypg, 25 ppg): USC gave up a season-high 549 yards to UCLA. That’s more than 100 yards above its previous high, and yet, the defense came out of the gamefeeling good about how it clamped down at the end. USC can’t afford to come out flat against an Oregon offense that proved in their meeting last season just how quickly things can get out of hand. Forcing turnovers and getting pressure on Shough could go a long way. Sophomore edge rusher Drake Jackson was all over the field against UCLA, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him moved around again to keep Oregon off-balance. Junior safety Talanoa Hufanga, who had 17 tackles, a forced fumble, a sack, and an interception last Saturday, should be especially motivated. Not only is this probably his last game in the Coliseum, but Hufanga hails from Oregon and has never played either team from the state during his career.

Oregon (419.8 ypg, 28 ppg): In a narrow win over UCLA and an even narrower loss to Oregon State, a central issue on Oregon’s defense seemed to emerge. Both teams ran for at least 267 yards, and Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson averaged almost eight yards per carry. But the Ducks did successfully slow California’s rushing attack in their last outing, and against USC it only has to contain the conference’s least effective run game. The pass defense has been more effective, limiting two of Oregon’s last three opponents to fewer than 200 passing yards. Sophomore edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux only has two sacks this season, but he’s still an uber-talented player up front. Oregon has had trouble forcing turnovers. It has only four this season, fewer than USC forced against Washington State.

Something special

USC signed 19 players and added a transfer, which placed its class at No. 11 in the national rankings. Two other top prospects are also considering the Trojans.

Dec. 16, 2020

Until two weeks ago, Oregon kicker Henry Katleman had never played in a football game. Katleman is a walk-on who was a high school soccer standout at Malibu High. But when Camden Lewis was benched, Katleman came in against Oregon State, kicked a 21-yard field goal, and five extra points. He has yet to miss a kick.

Of note

However Friday’s game turns out, it’s been a good week for Mario Cristobal. As speculation mounted over whether Cristobal might consider coaching elsewhere, Oregon acted quickly, extending his contract through 2025. Cristobal’s salary will increase from $2.7 million to $4.3 million in January. On average, he’s set to earn $4.55 million per season, a total that’s comparable to Clay Helton’s contract that saw him paid more than $4.5 million in 2018, according to the latest available tax records.


Injury report

Malepeai, who last week became the first USC running back to reach 100 yards in a game this season, will miss the game with a knee ligament sprain. Otherwise, USC is coming into the Pac-12 title game with a mostly clean bill of health. Williams, who played two years at USC before transferring, should be good to go for the matchup with his former team. Oregon linebackers Noah Sewell and Dru Mathis are also expected to play.