Heading into the 2015 season, USC vs. Oregon was the predicted match up for the Pac-12 Championship.
What a difference ten games can make. Or less even. Both teams are 7-3 overall and 5-2 in the Pac-12. How did they get here? These two were suppose to be undefeated heading into this game.
USC lost three games and a head coach before the second half of the season began. Oregon lost a Heisman trophy winner and couldn’t seem to find their webbed footing.
Heading into Saturday’s matchup, USC has somewhat righted the ship under interim head coach Clay Helton. Despite the loss at Notre Dame that saw USC blow a touchdown lead heading into the fourth quarter, Helton’s Trojans have been quite resilient.
The Trojans have trailed early in four of the five games Helton has coached. SC has gone 4-1 in that time frame including four straight wins with the crowning jewel being a resounding victory over a then-undefeated Utah team in the Coliseum. However, it is rather disconcerting knowing that SC has dug themselves in and out of holes for three straight games.
Digging a hole against the Ducks in Eugene is asking to get blown out.
A year ago at this time Marcus Mariotta was lighting the world on fire and leading the Oregon Ducks to an undefeated regular season, a Pac-12 Championship and a spot in the National Title game. Of course, the Ducks did what they tend to do when facing a fast and furious front seven. They laid an egg.
November 14, 2015; Stanford, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. (3) passes the football against the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium. The Ducks defeated the Cardinal 38-36. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Fast forward to now, Oregon has had a few hiccups in their system. For one, they got a transfer QB in Vernon Adams Jr. from Eastern Washington University. Everyone was expecting plug and play, as Chip Kelly’s offense had showcased. Apparently, Mark Helfrich didn’t get the memo and injuries haven’t helped. The Ducks defense has been downright atrocious with the offense showcasing Jekyll and Hyde tendencies, the Utah thumping at home of 60-20 being a key example.
Before this past weekend, everyone looked at USC and Oregon as two underachieving teams for completely different reasons. Oregon was coming back down to Earth, as they simply couldn’t sustain success with an up-tempo gimmick. Meanwhile, a bad administration and a coaching staff hampered USC. However, all of these things can be seen as an excuse.
Pac-12 juggernaut Stanford, a team that was a perfect 7-0 in conference play heading into this past weekend, hosted Oregon. The Ducks pulled off the upset, when absolutely no one gave them a shot. This sounds eerily similar to USC’s hosting of Stanford way back in Week 3.
Is the Pac-12 down or is the Pac-12 that good? Quite frankly, the argument is moot. The Pac-12 won’t be represented in the Final Four this year, and with a committee that makes decisions based on human perception, it’s safe to say only two teams had a real shot at it anyway.
USC. Oregon. No substitutes. Both these schools have been very good over the last 15 years and a ton of money has been spent on promotion for each program. Everyone knows who they are and everyone will watch them.
With their victory, Oregon has something to play for and they’ll be at home. USC is going on the road and they’ll be down two linebackers due to season ending injury. Freshman Cameron Smith, who leads USC in tackles, as well as senior Lamar Dawson are now lost for the year.
The Trojans under Helton have faced nothing but a stacked deck and losing players on defense is not what SC needs heading to Eugene. This may or may not be a key reason why defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox hasn’t been keen to blitzing. Depth is still not at 100 percent and the blitz storm in Boulder may have cost USC its shot at glory.
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If Stanford beats Cal on Saturday, Oregon will only have pride to play for. USC has to beat a Duck’s team that is seemingly on the verge of retaking flight, and they must do so in one of the most difficult environments in college football.
If they don’t, the 2015 season for the Trojans will be a wash, and a deflated USC will have to host Jim Mora’s UCLA Bruins. These are the same Bruins that have blown USC out for three consecutive years.
Oregon’s Pac-12 hopes are on life support even after beating Stanford. USC is in the driver’s seat, but it doesn’t feel like it.
USC’s playoff may have started weeks ago, but the real game begins on Saturday. Either the Trojans find a way or they fall into the abyss of being just another program headed to just another bowl game, and the Clay Helton experiment will be officially over.