Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Wednesday, Dec. 30, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Schlabach: Oregon vs. Wisconsin
McMurphy: Wisconsin vs. Oregon
THROUGH UPS AND DOWNS OF SEASON, VISIT BY TROJANS STILL LOOMS LARGE
By Rob Moseley
A late-season matchup between Oregon and USC that was expected to have major Pac-12 championship implications is upon us. And while the Ducks and Trojans remain in the hunt for the title, few could have predicted their paths to Saturday’s game in Autzen Stadium (12:30 p.m., ESPN).
The Ducks (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) won their fourth straight game over the weekend, 38-36 at then-No. 7 Stanford. Oregon has fought back from a 3-3 start marked by an injury to quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. and growing pains for the defensive secondary. On Sunday, the Ducks returned to the top-25 polls, at No. 22 according to coaches and No. 23 among the Associated Press.
One spot higher at No. 22 according to the AP are the Trojans (7-3, 5-2). USC has endured the dismissal of head coach Steve Sarkisian at midseason, and also brings a four-game winning streak into Saturday’s game in Eugene.
In the Pac-12’s preseason poll, Oregon and USC were overwhelming favorites to win their respective divisions, with the Trojans pegged as the likely conference title winner. Both teams are in the hunt for the title game should they win out over the next two weeks – Oregon also needs a Cal victory over Stanford, later Saturday – and while it hasn’t been the smooth sailing expected for either, UO coach Mark Helfrich said the Trojans remain an “exceptional” threat.
“You turn on the tape and quickly get slapped in the face with how good USC is,” Helfrich said Sunday in a press conference with media to review the Stanford game and peek ahead to this week. “Our guys will be excited about that challenge.”
The Trojans feature the most efficient passing offense in the Pac-12, led by quarterback Cody Kessler and receivers Juju Smith-Schuster and Adoree Jackson. Leading rusher Ronald Jones II averages 7.1 yards per carry, providing balance to the USC attack.
Defensively the Trojans are near the top of the Pac-12, though leading tackler Cameron Smith and reserve linebacker Lamar Dawson – a three-year starter whose career has been marked by injuries – were lost for the season after being hurt in a win at Colorado over the weekend.
Like the Ducks, the Trojans were a top-10 team in the polls earlier this season. Like the Ducks, they were unranked a week ago. Now both are ranked again, though Helfrich said Oregon won’t get too caught up in that development.
“I don’t think we ever look at somebody else’s impression of what we’re doing for validation, either way,” Helfrich said. “The biggest thing is, our guys have come to work every day and owned what’s good, owned what’s bad, and gone about their business.”
Both the Trojans and UCLA need only to win out to take the Pac-12 South division title. They face each other to close out the regular season next week.
Utah also is alive for the Pac-12 South, but needs help. The Utes play UCLA this week and then Colorado, both at home, and also needs USC to lose either to Oregon or the Bruins.
In the North, Stanford remains in control despite the loss to Oregon. The Cardinal must only beat Cal, on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., or have Oregon lose once.
Washington State is tied with the Ducks at 5-2, but the Cougars have been eliminated since last week; their best-case scenario is a three-way tie at 7-2 with Oregon and Stanford, a scenario the Ducks would win because they would only have one loss to a fellow North Division team.
Royce Freeman continues to rank among the best in the nation at his position statistically, and soon he could have some company from his backfield mate, Adams
Freeman is seventh nationally in rushing yards per game (139.2) and eighth in all-purpose yardage (161.6). He has 57 plays from scrimmage of 10 yards or more, most in the FBS.
Adams just misses the threshold to qualify for the national leaders – 75 percent of his team’s game – having played in seven of Oregon’s 10 games. His pass efficiency of 164.03 would be third in the FBS, and his yards per attempt of 9.45 would rank fifth if he qualified. He would reach the 75 percent threshold by playing against USC and Oregon State.
Darren Carrington also doesn’t qualify, but his average of 24.9 yards per reception would rank third in the nation. As a team, Oregon is fourth in rushing yards per game (297.4), eighth in total offense (532.6) and 10th in scoring (41.8).
Oregon’s players of the week for their preparation and play against Stanford were Carrington on offense; inside linebackers Rodney Hardrickand Joe Walker on defense; and specialist Matt Wogan, who put all seven of his kickoffs into the end zone.
Helfrich also noted the “huge play” provided by Kani Benoit, when the UO running back tracked down a linebacker at the end of a fumble return in the first half. What might have been a touchdown on the return eventually resulted in just a field goal after stout play by Oregon’s defense, a sequence that proved decisive to the outcome.
The scout-team players of the week were receiver Jhet Janis, defensive linemen Drayton Carlberg and Spencer Stark, and tight end Taylor Stinson for his play on special teams. Helfrich also made special mention of the scout-team offensive line, and the way the scout offense as a whole so capably prepared the UO defense for Stanford’s power run game.
“You’re getting six offensive linemen, seven offensive linemen, seven offensive linemen and a fullback,” Helfrich said. “… To get that coordinated, they did a fantastic job.”
QB Vernon Adams
By Rob Moseley
The amateur football career of Vernon Adams Jr. is winding down, and indeed is about to come full circle this week.
Adams, the senior transfer and UO starting quarterback, grew up an ardent USC fan in Pasadena, Calif., with a particular fondness for Reggie Bush. This week, with just a few days left in the final regular season of his college career, Adams gets a chance to face the Trojans for the first time.
“I’ve always dreamed of this, playing in the big games – Stanford, USC, Michigan State,” Adams said. “I’m just happy my dream is coming alive. It’s fun.”
In an interview after practice today, Adams noted that he has just a few practices and two home games left as a college player. He’s definitely soaking them in; during Monday’s practice, essentially a walk-through to preserve players' energy and prevent injury, Adams was bounding around the field and dancing between reps, as usual.
The pads went on Tuesday, and business was a little more serious. Again, Adams maximized his time, absolutely shredding the scout team during a 10-minute 7-on-7 session.
“I’m definitely excited and having fun and keeping the energy high,” Adams said afterward.
His teammates are following his lead. The Ducks are riding a four-game winning streak since Adams returned from injury.
“He’s getting more confidence in what he’s doing, which then filters down to everybody else,” UO coach Mark Helfrich said.
Adams seems to thrive in those big moments he always dreamed about, and another is on hand this weekend. The Ducks need a win to stay alive in the Pac-12 title race, against a USC team hoping to do the same.
Adams will also face more than half a dozen friends on the USC roster, including nose tackle Antwaun Woods, defensive end Greg Townsend, cornerback Kevon Seymour, running back Dominic Davis and receiver Steven Mitchell, whom Adams referred to as like a “little brother.”
“It’s going to be a fun game,” Adams said. “I know they have a lot of great athletes over there; we have a lot of great athletes over here, too. So it’s going to be a fun game.”