QUARTERBACK: Matt Barkley, by many accounts, is going to be one of the first quarterbacks taken in next year’s NFL Draft, if not the first. He was the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in the preseason, and expectations for were so high that it’s funny to think he’s having a “down year” with 2,266 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
But for what Oregon does in Chip Kelly’s high octane spread, no quarterback has done it better than Marcus Mariota. He’s completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and is 17th in the country in pass efficiency, while also being a run threat. Lane Kiffin points to the redshirt freshman as the reason the Ducks have won nearly every game in the first half this season.
Barkley’s NFL future is a lot brighter than Mariota’s, but they aren’t playing on Sunday. Mariota has been as good on Saturdays as anybody in the country. It’s scary to think many felt Oregon’s offense was better with Bryan Bennett running the show last year when Darron Thomas was sidelined. With Thomas gone, Bennett couldn’t beat out Mariota.
RUNNING BACKS: Kenjon Barner spent the last couple seasons as the world’s greatest backup playing behind the departed LaMichael James. This season, as the featured back, Barner is 10th in the nation, averaging 121.8 yards per game. You add De’Anthony Thomas to that mix and the Ducks have lightning in a bottle. Both are semifinalists for the Maxwell Award.
On the USC side of things, Silas Redd, Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan all have not been gamebreakers. They have hurt the Trojans’ cause with their fumbles. They’ll have to be efficient and turnover free to help keep the Oregon offense off of the field.
WIDE RECEIVERS: The Ducks have seven players who have double-digit receptions on the season. Thomas, who’s listed as a running back but spends a lot of time in the slot, leads the group with 24 receptions.
USC wide receiver Marqise Lee had 345 yards last week, which is more than any Ducks receiver has this season. Oregon may be deeper, but it doesn’t have a receiver that comes close to the talent of Lee or Robert Woods, who are both supreme after the catch.
TIGHT ENDS: One of the largest mysteries this season has been the production, or lack therof, of the USC tight ends. Kiffin says he has two first rounders in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, but they haven’t been featured as much as expected. They have 23 receptions between them. Telfer has been hampered the last couple of weeks with an undisclosed injury and even missed a game. Colt Lyerla only has eight catches, but half of those were touchdowns for the Ducks.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The Ducks’ offensive line is banged up. They lost backup guard Mana Greig to a season-ending knee injury in the win over Colorado last week. Greig was playing in place of Nick Cody, who also was out with an inury. Oregon los Carson York for the season with a knee injury in September. However, their depth and versatility has allowed the Ducks to press on. Saturday they’ll face one of the toughest defensive lines they’ve faced all season.
All season long, the USC offensive line has been good but not great. That is, as long as center Khaled Holmes is in the lineup. With Holmes in the lineup, depth at guard with Abe Markowitz and not much drop-off last week with Max Tuerk at left tackle in place of Aundrey Walker, the Trojans should be able to hold their own against an underrated Ducks front seven.
DEFENSIVE LINE: At this point, you can call last Saturday’s performance by USC’s defensive line an aberration. At least, USC head coach Lane Kiffin hopes so. Arizona ran 90 plays, and USC had no sacks. And the Trojans allowed 5.1 yards per carry, which is up from the 3.5 yards they’ve allowed on the season. They have to perform well against the run-heavy Ducks on Saturday and keep the Ducks offensive line from getting their hands on the USC linebackers.
The Ducks’ defensive line is led by ends Dion Jordan and Taylor Hart, who lead the team in sacks with five each. They’ve combined for 13.5 tackles for loss. Jordan left the game against Colorado with a shoulder injury, but is expected to play.
LINEBACKERS: USC’s Dion Bailey moved from safety to linebacker for games and opponents like Oregon. In last year’s meeting, Bailey and Hayes Pullard gave the Ducks fits with their athleticism. Bailey is a playmaker defensively and leads the team with four interceptions.
Dion Jordan is a hybrid for the Ducks, lines up outside at linebacker as well and is a freak athletically. Oregon’s leading tackler, Kiko Alonso, didn’t play last week against Colorado because of an undisclosed injury, but reports out of Oregon say he returned to practice this week and is expected to be in the lineup. Alonso can do it all. He’s second on the team in tackles, but first in tackles for loss. Whoever makes the most plays out of this position group could very well decide the game.
SECONDARY: Oregon likely won’t throw to Nickell Robey’s side. After Robey, the talent at cornerback markedly decreases for USC. It could be glaring against a fast break Oregon team that will cause USC to rotate players to try and stay fresh. At safety, Jawanza Starling has been solid all season. The X-factor in this is USC safety T.J. McDonald. He’s been used in the box a lot more this season and as a result is leading the team in tackles. His contributions will be key in USC trying to limit Oregon’s huge runs.
There isn’t a cornerback tandem in the conference that can shut down USC’s Lee and Woods. Oregon’s Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu won’t be able to. Last season Woods and Lee had 15 catches, 240 yards and three touchdowns against the Ducks. However, this is a unit that makes plays for the Ducks. Safety Anthony Patterson has three interceptions, two of which have been returned for scores. The Ducks’ secondary has four pick-6s. Ekpre-Olomu, a Thorpe Award semifinalist, leads the conference in forced fumbles. Edge: Oregon
SPECIAL TEAMS: USC focuses heavily on special teams under special teams coach John Baxter. You wouldn’t know it at times, with failed two point conversions and lapses in kickoff coverage. The focus this week needs to be keeping the ball out of the hands of De’Anthony Thomas in the return game. He is lethal in the return game for the Ducks and returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in last year’s meeting between these two teams.
Last week, Thomas had his first punt return touchdown of the season, giving him three return touchdowns in his career. Lane Kiffin said he has no intentions of kicking the ball to Thomas. He better hope not. Executing that will be a huge success and half the battle. Kiffin has, arguably, the best kicker in the conference in Andre Heidari if he chooses to use him, and punter Kyle Negrete has been nothing short of amazing this season.
COACHING: Kiffin acknowledged USC was 6-2 after eight games last season, just as they are at the same point this season. However, last season USC didn’t enter the season No. 1 in the AP Poll. This season they did. Before the season, the meeting with Oregon was thought to hand either the Trojans or the Ducks their first loss of the season. The Ducks have held up their end of the bargain, entering the game undefeated. The Trojans have not.
You don’t know what you’re going to get from USC from week to week offensively. Will Barkley throw? Will the Trojans depend heavily on the run game? Through eight games, this Trojan team has yet to establish an identity. Each week Oregon steps onto the field, you know what you’re going to get. A fast-paced style, heavy on the run. The Ducks have a handful of run plays and they do them all well, which limits the mistakes of the offensive line. Edge: Chip Kelly