Take 2: Keys to Oregon-USC showdown

November, 2, 2012
11/02/12
12:00
PM PT
What are the keys to Saturday's showdown between USC and Oregon? Glad you asked.

Ted Miller: USC can beat Oregon on Saturday, but it needs to play efficient, disciplined football.

That sounds like coach-speak, and I don't like it any more than you. But after watching USC's bafflingly sloppy effort at Arizona, it's clear that we can't really know these Trojans, who unquestionably have loads of talent, until they get out of their own darn way. Or perhaps they're just a group that is incapable of doing that.

[+] EnlargeXavier Grimble
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesSloppy with the ball all season, USC's 18 turnovers are the most for all but two Pac-12 teams.
Consider the numbers. USC is the nation's most penalized team. That includes 18 personal fouls, which is horrid and doesn't speak well for the Trojans or their coaches. They've turned the ball over 18 times. Only Washington State and Colorado have more in the Pac-12. The Trojans are tied for the league "lead" with 10 fumbles. Quarterback Matt Barkley has eight interceptions, one more than he threw all of last year.

USC needs to win the turnover battle and avoid the yellow hanky to beat Oregon. That alone won't guarantee victory, seeing the way the Ducks have been playing, but it's impossible to imagine that the Trojans' can win if their effort doesn't have that as a Point A.

That won't be easy. The Ducks force a lot of turnovers -- 23 -- and are tied for the Pac-12 lead with 15 interceptions. The Ducks have returned four of those picks for touchdowns.

Of course, there is more than one way to skin a cat. USC can win the turnover battle 5-2 just as it could win it 3-0. USC has also forced 23 turnovers this season and grabbed 15 interceptions.

The Trojans don't have to be perfect. They just need to be more perfect than Oregon. More disciplined, more efficient.

If USC pulls the upset, here's a confident bet that it will have fewer turnovers and penalties than the Ducks.

Kevin Gemmell: One of the cool things about working for ESPN is we have access to all kinds of obscure stats. So a tip of the cap to the ESPN Stats & Information group for coming up with this little gem that I will now share with you: On 42 of De'Anthony Thomas' 113 career carries, he hasn't been touched until he was 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That means 37.2 percent of the time he carries the ball, he's getting 5 yards without so much as a finger finding fabric. And that goes a long way toward explaining his 9.7 career yards-per-carry average.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Scott Olmos/US PresswireThe big fellows up front are key in getting De'Anthony Thomas, right, into the clear untouched.
What's the point, you ask? Well, if you're looking for keys to the game for Oregon, you'd probably start with Kenjon Barner and finish with Thomas. Barner, who has four consecutive 100-yard games, and eight touchdowns over that span, is the key to the Oregon offense. He'll pound away at USC's defensive line inside and out, but it's Thomas who can deliver the proverbial knockout punch with one of his trademark jaw-droppers.

So the key to the game for Oregon: just keep doing what it has been doing. For USC, it's all about getting penetration from the front four. Easier said than done, right?

Ah, but peel back the layers and you find it's not just about Thomas and Barner.

I think back to the fumble Will Sutton caused in the first series of the game at Arizona State. Sutton blasted up the middle and disrupted the play in the backfield, causing a fumble that led to the subsequent ASU touchdown. Unfortunately, Sutton was injured on the play -- and much of the Sun Devils' defensive game plan revolved around moving Sutton up and down the line. I still think Oregon would have won that game regardless of the Sutton injury, but this serves as an example that with good penetration, the Ducks can get rattled.

Try as it might, USC isn't going to make Oregon one-dimensional. It just doesn't happen that way. Oregon can fail on 20 consecutive plays and then go for an 80-yard touchdown on the 21st. And then when you figure out what happened on the last series, they've scored again. It happens that fast.

So while this game might be chock-full of big-name players at the skill positions, it's the five up front for Oregon and the four up front for USC (and the many who will shuffle in throughout the game) that will really make the difference. And therein lies the true key to the game. After all, Oregon's front five are a big reason why Barner has 100-plus his past four games and Thomas can jaunt 5 yards without getting touched. For all the fancy stats and numbers, it still comes down to one undeniable truth: Win at the point of attack, win the football game.

Ted Miller | email

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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
Friday, 8/29
Saturday, 8/30