Herbert leads No. 7 Ducks past USC 56-24 to 8th straight win
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Oregon's defense began the game by giving up a 16-play touchdown drive. Justin Herbert then threw only his second interception since last November.
The Ducks had barely survived back-to-back close games in the previous two weeks, and their winning streak appeared to be in peril again when they fell 10 points behind Southern California after the first quarter.
A calming little chat on the Coliseum sideline kept Oregon firmly on track in the College Football Playoff race with another blowout win.
Herbert passed for 225 yards and threw three touchdown passes to Juwan Johnson in the second half, and No. 7 Oregon recovered from a slow start to cruise to its eighth consecutive victory, 56-24 over USC on Saturday night.
Oregon (8-1, 6-0 Pac-12) obliterated that early deficit by scoring a touchdown after each of four turnovers by USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis during a 19-minute stretch spanning halftime. Freshman Mykael Wright also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown shortly after Brady Breeze returned an interception 32 yards for a score late in the second quarter.
But the Ducks looked shaky in the opening quarter until they settled down and got to work.
"We just looked at each other," Herbert said. "We knew that we're a special group, and we just needed to calm down and say, 'This isn't us. We're going to do better.' And we addressed that and got to move the ball pretty well. We knew we were better than that. We just had to fix things."
Herbert and receiver Jaylon Redd rushed for touchdowns in the first half for Oregon, which remained on track for the Pac-12 North title and a good shot at a playoff spot.
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal claimed he won't pay much attention to the first playoff rankings, but he has opinions.
"Without question, I feel we need to be in that conversation," Cristobal said. "And we need to keep getting better. ... We started a little bit slow. But once we got going, we really got going."
Herbert went 21 for 26 despite that ugly early interception, which was thrown straight to USC's Isaiah Pola-Mao. It ended Herbert's streak of 133 straight passes without a pick, the second-longest in the nation. Herbert had thrown just one interception in his previous 362 pass attempts in Pac-12 road games during his four-year career.
Oregon also committed 12 penalties for 157 yards and had two defensive players ejected, but racked up more than enough points to stay perfect since its season opener.
Slovis threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns on a USC-record 57 pass attempts, but his three interceptions and a fumble erased the Trojans' solid start. Slovis and Air Raid offensive coordinator Graham Harrell surpassed Todd Marinovich's single-game record of 55 attempts for the Trojans, set in 1989.
"You can't commit turnovers like that, but sometimes it happens," Slovis said. "You've just got to move on and play the next play."
Michael Pittman Jr. and two-sport freshman Drake London caught first-half touchdown passes for USC (5-4, 4-2), which fell out of first place in the Pac-12 South with its third loss in five games.
"We made enough mistakes tonight against a top-10 team," USC coach Clay Helton said. "You can't win a ballgame turning it over four times and have the penalties that we had and expect to beat that team. We just didn't execute like I know we can."
The Ducks finally got moving in the second quarter after Verone McKinley III intercepted a pass that ricocheted off London's hands. Pola-Mao was ejected for targeting during the ensuing drive, which ended with Herbert's 10-yard TD run, his first of the season.
Slovis then fumbled on a play from the Ducks 3 while trying to avoid a sack. Oregon responded with a 92-yard TD drive, and Breeze got his pick-6 moments later.
Pittman made a TD catch 20 seconds before halftime, but Wright responded with Oregon's first TD kickoff return since the 2017 season opener.
"They provided all the momentum," Cristobal said of the Ducks' two TD returns. "Those two plays took us into the locker room with a lot of juice and a lot of energy."
Pittman's younger brother, Oregon receiver Mycah Pittman, caught a TD pass from Tyler Shough with 6:50 to play.
Touted USC freshman Kyle Ford then made his first career catch for a 20-yard touchdown with 3:11 to play.
Johnson, the Ducks' senior Penn State transfer, had seven catches for 106 yards after making just six previous receptions all season.
"I don't know if Oregon has had a receiver like him in quite a while," Herbert said. "The way he runs and moves for a 6-5 guy is something special."
Herbert left the field slowly during the third quarter after taking a big hit in the thigh, but he returned just two plays later. "I knew that it wasn't anything bad, but it was just really painful," Herbert said.
Oregon: The Ducks' defense and special teams responded splendidly to the early test with one big play after another. USC's shakiness was a credit to the Ducks' steadiness, and they'll need it during their finish against the Arizona schools and Oregon State before a probable trip to the Pac-12 championship game.
USC: The Trojans didn't have the toughness or the perseverance to pull off an upset, and Helton's five-year tenure could draw to a close this month if USC's new athletic director agrees with his demanding new fans. Despite it all, the Trojans are just one game off the Pac-12 South lead, but would need help from Utah's remaining three opponents.
Oregon: An off week, followed by a visit from Arizona on Nov. 16.
USC: Visit Arizona State next Saturday.