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October 29, 2009

Shane's Words: The Oregon Trail

The Pac-10

The eighth week of the 2009 college football season is in the books. The Pac-10 continues to take shape with Oregon, USC, and Arizona still having an opportunity to control their destiny in the conference. Oregon is 4-0 and dismantled the Huskies last Saturday in Seattle 43-19. This is the same Washington team that gave the Trojans their only loss of the season earlier in the year. USC is currently 3-1 and played in an offensive shootout with Oregon State on Saturday, winning 42-36. Arizona is also within striking distance at 3-1 and continued the derailment of the Bruins in Tucson, Ariz. Stanford regained some traction with a lopsided victory over the Sun Devils in Palo Alto, Calif. and is now 4-2 in conference.

There is still plenty of football to be played as we move into the fourth quarter of the season, but there is a huge Pac-10 game coming this Saturday evening. The winner of the showdown on Halloween night in Eugene, Ore. between Oregon and USC will have the inside track for the Pac-10 Championship, Rose Bowl and a possible shot at a national title. It is well documented that Pete Carroll is 27-0 in November, but this flawless record will not be enough if the Trojans are not able to get the win this weekend.

The National Picture

The BCS picture still has a long way to go and it does not do a lot of good to analyze and speculate about where teams will end up at the end of the season. At the end of the day, the Trojans gave up control of their destiny with the ugly loss to the Huskies in September. However, it was early and Matt Barkley was not under center that day. It will be crucial to win out, but even in doing that, it still does not guarantee a shot to play in the title game.

The teams at the top of the BCS have been struggling, and there is no team that looks like they are in a class by themselves. Florida extended their current winning streak to 17 games but they struggled to beat a 3-5 Mississippi State team. Alabama needed a blocked field goal at the end of regulation to escape with a 12-10 win over Tennessee at home. Texas throttled Missouri 41-7 but struggled mightily last week against the Sooners, who lost their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford in the first quarter. The Trojans are now sitting at No. 5 in the BCS, jumping over TCU and Boise State. But undefeated Iowa leap-frogged the Trojans.

The other big game this Saturday in addition to USC-Oregon is Texas at Oklahoma State. It will also help the Trojans' cause to have Notre Dame and Ohio State continue their winning ways.

The Coaches

USC and Oregon State met last Saturday in what is becoming a classic match up of coaches, Carroll and Mike Riley. Oregon State has proven to be the best competition in recent years for Carroll and his Trojans. The Beavers had beaten USC two of the last three contests, but those were games played in Corvallis. USC came in with an overall lead in the series 58-10-4 with the last win by Oregon State coming in 1960 at the Coliseum. So, has it been more of a road curse affecting the Trojans, or has the gap narrowed between the two programs? After all, Oregon State ranks second only to USC in the PAC-10 for current players in the NFL.

In addition to the prowess that Coach Riley has on the recruiting circuit, he is proving to be equally effective matching wits with Carroll and the Trojans staff. It has become very apparent that Coach Riley knows how to match up against the Trojans better than anyone else in the conference.

First Half

So, the Trojans came marching into the Coliseum on Saturday evening after being on the road for close to a month to play in front of 89, 718 fans welcoming them home. It was warm October night, a big contrast from the recent away games at Cal and Notre Dame. The Trojans started strong with a great play by cornerback Josh Pinkard who peeled off a block and stripped receiver James Rodgers on a running play. Everson Griffen recovered the fumble and returned it nine yards. This set up a three-play, 24-yard touchdown drive culminating with an eight-yard touchdown pass from Matt Barkley to tight end Anthony McCoy. Barkley also threw a beautiful post corner touchdown pass to receiver Ronald Johnson, who stretched out for the 22-yard touchdown. It was great to see RoJo back in the saddle making plays downfield.

The key to the early part of the game was the bend-but-don't-break defense that gave up 3 field goals and one miss in the red zone by the Beavers' kicker. We could see the determination by the Beavers in the first half by their execution of seven, nine, and 12-play drives that all ended with field goals. This would prove to be a difference maker as the second half turned into a back and forth battle.

Second Half

In the second half, the game really turned into an offensive highlight reel. There were four touchdowns scored by the Beavers and three by the Trojans including a powerful 43-yard touchdown run by Allen Bradford and a spectacular 63-yard punt return for a touchdown by Damian Williams.

For a while, it looked as though the team with the ball at the end would win it. In the end, this did turn out to be the case with USC getting the ball back with the Beavers only down six points with 5:41 left in the ballgame. However, the Trojans converted two third downs, one a nice rollout pass from Barkley to Williams and also a heads-up play by Bradford around the left side, picking up the first down and then hitting the deck before going out of bounds to keep the clock ticking. It will be smart plays like these that the Trojans will need to win close games down the stretch.

The biggest let down of the game was the 70-yard kickoff return that was given up right after Williams' beautiful punt return for a touchdown. He had seemingly iced the game on this play, putting the Trojans up 42-23 at the start of the fourth quarter. The Trojans in the Pete Carroll era have perennially been second-half teams that know how to finish. There have been exceptions, but by and large, the Trojans make second-half adjustments and close out opponents. As I have said previously, each team develops its own personality as the season progresses. This year's team has found ways to win on the road in tough and hostile environments which will give them confidence and faith in big games like this coming Saturday. Barkley has assisted greatly in this with his composure, poise, and fun in seemingly extremely difficult circumstances.

In order for the Trojans to win this weekend and the rest of the way, they must start closing out games. The longer they let teams hang around, the more likely that they will be beat. There have been turnovers and big plays given up late in ball games that have made them vulnerable. They have to be able to pound the football late and control the line of scrimmage. The game is won and lost in the trenches, and they must out-physical their opponents down the stretch when it counts the most. If the defense moves everyone up in the box to take away the run late in the game, then move to play action, boots and rolls and exploit the defense.

Coming of Age

Barkley and the Trojans have gone on the road and won games against three ranked opponents: Ohio State, Cal, and Notre Dame. All of these teams were ranked when the Trojans played them, and they all have 5-2 records or better. This will serve them well against the Ducks this Saturday. Against Oregon State, Barkley made several big plays in this game not only with his arm but also with his feet. The pocket presence and poise that he is demonstrating is reminiscent of a veteran quarterback that has been playing the position for years. He has the physical size at 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds, and he will not be knocked down easily. He has the confidence to stay focused on his receivers downfield, while at the same time feeling the pressure and moving away from it.

Often, young quarterbacks might see pressure instead of feel it, and they will have a tendency to pull the ball down and run it prematurely. The maturity and the agility to move away from pressure and to stand tall and deliver is another step that he is taking in his growth. He finished 15-for-25 for 202 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The second interception came late in the game when USC needed to control the ball and keep the ball out of Oregon State's hands. Although I am not a fan of the call at that time, the pass was intercepted primarily due to him taking a seven-step drop instead of a five-step drop that changed the timing of the route and gave the defensive back more time to make the play. Barkley needs to stay focused on taking what the defense gives him. Often, when a quarterback has a strong arm and has been playing well, there can be a feeling of invincibility; that you can make any throw, anywhere on the field. It will be important for the coaches to make sure that they coach against this mentality. The Trojans will have a very tough time finding W's the rest of the way if they continue to lose the turnover battle.

Offense

The bright spot of the day was on the offensive side of the ball. The Trojans showed great balance with 429 total yards- 227 yards rushing and 202 yards passing. Bradford had a career day and rushed for 147 yards on 15 carries with 2 touchdowns. That equals 9.8 yards per carry.

He is like a runaway freight train plowing over defenders, picking up extra yards as well as dropping the hammer full speed and outrunning defensive backs. The second effort that he consistently displays is making him into a fan favorite as well as firing up his teammates. He also utilizes a stiff arm out in the field as a weapon to fend off would-be tacklers.

This tough running will be crucial this weekend against the Ducks. Joe McKnight banged up his hand in the first half but still managed 65 yards on 11 carries, good for 5.9 yards a carry. He should be ready to go for this Saturday night, and the Trojans should continue to pack this 1-2 punch.

Overall, the Trojans and Beavers tied on first downs each having 22, and the time of possession favored the Beavers 32:18 to 27:42 for the Trojans. USC did improve on third-down conversions, going six-for-nine, including two key first downs on the last drive to prevent the Beavers from having one last opportunity to score.

Kristofer O'Dowd did not play in the game and has not been able to get back to 100% following his dislocated kneecap that he suffered before the first game. Jeff Byers moved back to center, and Butch Lewis started in his spot. This again is a testimony to the depth that Coach Carroll has been able to assemble. Bradford stepped in for McKnight and Stafon Johnson, Byers and Lewis stepped in for O'Dowd and D.J. Shoemate started in place of injured fullback Stanley Havili. The offense scored five touchdowns and improved in the red zone, scoring four times when they were down inside the 25-yard line. USC had five penalties for 60 yards but caught a break with the no-call against Taylor Mays on the helmet rip on James Rodgers.

The Receivers and Tight Ends

It was a breakout game for a healthy Ronald Johnson returning to the starting lineup and back at full speed. He made several key catches off precision routes, including two picture perfect post corner routes that Barkley hit in stride. He and Damian Williams should become the dynamic duo that they would have been from the beginning of the season had he not broken his collarbone. RoJo's ability to stretch the defense will continue to be an asset in several ways. It will allow the Trojans to get the ball downfield, but it will also prevent defenses from loading up on defending Williams and underneath routes. Johnson and Williams finished with six catches each. This will be a key for the Trojans to hit their stride this Saturday night and throughout November. Brice Butler has quietly emerged as a dependable third receiver and should continue to contribute on offense. Tight end Anthony McCoy had a touchdown pass in the first quarter but was not utilized as much against the Beaver defense as he was at Notre Dame. He was taken off the field with a sprained ankle with in the fourth quarter.

This week Rhett Ellison and Blake Ayles will have to step up in the game at Oregon both physically with big blocks as well as with their routes and catching the ball. The Trojans did a great job in the previous week at Notre Dame getting the ball to nine different receivers. They only had four receivers that caught passes last Saturday. It will be key to get the backs and tight ends involved in the offense this Saturday, and it will be huge if Stanley Havili is back in action, especially with his ability to make plays catching the ball out of the backfield.

Defense

Defense wins championships. The Trojans have been leading with their defense all season, making many forget the significant losses of last year's Trojans that entered into the NFL Draft. On this night, particularly in the second half, it was the "Achilles heel" for the Trojans. It was a very uncharacteristic night for the USC defense; the unit that has been the strength of the team. I have heard some talk this week about this defense not being as good as everyone had thought. I am not buying it.

Mike Riley knew how to attack this defense: by playing conservative, ball-control football and by calling plays that would continue to keep the defense off balance. They called the tight end delayed screen three times and hurt the Trojans with it every time. The tight would block down, pause, and then release into the middle of the field, and they averaged more than 20 yards all three times they ran this play. They also called bubble screens to get the ball outside where they could pick up eight-to-10 yards a clip.

In the second half, Jacquizz Rodgers made his presence felt with his very low center of gravity. USC entered last Saturday fifth in scoring defense (11.7 points per game) and ninth in total defense (260 yards per game). The Beavers scored 36 points and netted 482 yards, the most since the Rose Bowl that we all want to forget in 2006. The defense surrendered 329 yards passing and three touchdowns delivered by their quarterback, Sean Canfield. He completed 30-of-43 passes, which was in line with his 68% passing he has completed for the season. Another first on the season was the 113 net yards rushing by Jacquizz Rodgers and 153 yards rushing for the Beavers. This marked the first game of the season a player or team to go over 100 yards rushing. The defensive line did get some pressure on the quarterback, sacking Canfield three times for 25 yards in losses. However, the Trojans could not consistently get pressure on him and consequently, they never disrupted his rhythm. USC lost the turnover battle again giving away two interceptions and only getting one fumble on the first drive. They caused three fumbles but only recovered one. The Trojans are currently last in the Pac-10 at minus three in turnover margin, and this will not get it done in Eugene on Saturday or the rest of the way. Everson Griffen did pick up another sack, had two tackles for losses and also recovered the fumble that Pinkard sprung loose in the first quarter. Malik Jackson also had a sack.

Linebackers

The play calling by the Beavers and their execution put a lot of strain on the defense. Sean Canfield consistently utilized shorter drops and distributed the ball to eight different receivers, which made it very challenging for the Trojans to get to the quarterback. The linebackers were taking deeper drops in the second half, which enabled Canfield to pick the defense apart and throw very accurately to his receivers underneath the coverage. They also utilized their tight end effectively, and he finished with nine catches for 127 yards.

The other area that is a concern is tackling. This was the sloppiest game that the Trojans had defensively, and they must get better going into this week's war against the Ducks' spread offense. Malcolm Smith finished with 10 tackles, Chris Galippo had seven, and Michael Morgan finished with five. They also had a difficult time getting low enough to stop the surge of Jacquizz Rogers, a challenge that every other team will face as well. The linebackers have good speed and range, but they must do a good job wrapping up the ball carriers and holding on to them if it is in the open field.

Defensive Backs

The DB's were not beaten deep but were consistently picked apart and on their heels, especially in the second half. Cornerback Kevin Thomas stepped up and played a solid game, finishing with 11 tackles. Taylor Mays also finished with 11 tackles, but it is time for him to start looking for opportunities to intercept balls and break up passes. With his unique combination of size and speed, there are times to lay receivers out but there are also times to play the ball instead of the man. Troy Polamalu was also a gifted Trojan safety that could deliver jaw dropping hits, but he also seized opportunities to pick off passes and create turnovers every chance he had. It is clear that Mays is a heat-seeking missile back in the middle, but it is important to employ the fundamentals of wrapping up and driving through the ball carrier. All of the defensive backs, especially the safeties need to start ball hawking in the second half of the season.

Special Teams

The special teams play was highlighted by the breakaway 63-yard touchdown return by Damian Williams at the start of the 4th quarter. He has turned into the rock of the special teams, not only with two punt returns for touchdowns (the first time since Reggie Bush in 2004) but also his dependable fielding of the football. The kickoff teams have continued to under achieve. The 70-yard return that the cover team gave up changed the momentum of the game, and let the Beavers climb right back into it. Jacob Harfman is doing a decent job kicking the ball deep, and he is the one that made the touchdown saving tackle on the long return. He also averaged 44 yards per punt, which will get it done. The Trojans need to improve in the kicking game going into the stretch, and this can be the difference maker in a tight ballgame.

The Duck Report

Coach Carroll has often said that his team prepares each week the same way to avoid the highs and the lows of a season. However, the run of seven straight PaC-10 Championships, seven straight BCS bowl games, seven straight top four or better finishes all comes down to Halloween night in Eugene this coming Saturday. The destiny of the 2009 Pac-10 conference will take major steps in this game with the No. 10 ranked Ducks and the No. 5 ranked Trojans squaring off for the inside track at the title. All eyes will be focused on this game as College GameDay will be setting up shop in Eugene for this showdown.

Oregon has had a huge turnaround since its opening loss and embarrassing black eye to open the college football season. They lost to Boise State, and their star running back LeGarrette Blount was suspended for the season for sucker punching a Boise State player. Since then, the Ducks have gained momentum by winning six-straight games including non conference wins over Utah and Purdue and are currently undefeated in conference at 4-0.

Their quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, is extremely effective at running the spread offense, which has traditionally challenged the Trojans defense. They will employ a hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense at times and will work to put a lot of pressure on USC. They have a very fast running back with LaMichael James who rushed for 154 yards against the Huskies last week. They have scored 19 rushing touchdowns in the first seven games. Their tight end, Ed Dickson, is also a big time player for them. The Ducks will try to jump all over USC, and they like to score in bunches. The Oregon defense is vastly improved from years past in which they won by simply outscoring opponents. They are led by Clay's brother Casey Matthews and they are ranked 19th in the nation in total defense and scoring defense.

So here come the Trojans into Autzen Stadium on Saturday night, taking on their fourth ranked opponent on the road this season. It will be crucial for USC to come in and play huge in the trenches. They must control the line of scrimmage and they need to impose their will on the Ducks. It will be crucial for the Trojans to win the turnover battle with Oregon, in a hostile environment with how well the Ducks have been playing. They must work on containing the run and staying on their assignments. The Trojans' speed should match up well with Ducks, but Oregon's spread poses a different challenge for the defense than they have seen all season. USC needs to bring enthusiasm and excitement but also discipline and intelligence. Coach Carroll will have the Trojans ready to play/ and they rise to the occasion for big games. The house will be rocking on Halloween night: College GameDay, national TV, fans in costume, Black and Green Duck uniforms and their desire to end the Trojans run. It will be a war, and it will offer another opportunity for the Trojans to "always compete" and to rise up and play like Trojans. No matter the conditions, circumstances or who the opponent is, it is an opportunity to play their best and to keep Fighting On!

Beat the Ducks!


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