USC football finished their shortened 2020 regular season campaign with a 5-0 record, winning the Pac-12 South and earning a trip to the Pac-12 Championship game. They hosted the 3-2 Oregon Ducks, who got into the game after the Pac-12 North winners in Washington had to cancel their trip due to positive COVID-19 cases within the program.
Coming into the game, USC had struggled against the Ducks, losing five of their last seven meetings dating back to Halloween night of 2009. Last Friday, it became six of eight as the Trojans could not overcome a poor start, falling to the Ducks 31-24. Here is my breakdown of USC’s first appearance in the Pac-12 Championship game since 2017.
In USC’s previous five games, the offense has usually carried the slack as the defense struggles to stop opposing offenses. Against Oregon, this was not the case as the defense had one of its best games, while the offense made many mistakes, putting USC in a hole they never climbed out of.
Last year, quarterback Kedon Slovis threw his first three-interception game against Oregon in USC’s 56-24 loss. In his second game against Oregon, he once again threw three interceptions, including two in the first seven minutes. This allowed Oregon to jump out to a 14-0 lead as the Trojans spent the rest of the game playing catch up. This is yet another instance of Slovis starting slow and unlike their two games against the Arizona schools, they could not come back and pick up the win. While I love the in-game adjustments, the slow starts are puzzling, making me wonder how prepared the coaching staff was coming into games.
While Slovis started slow and threw three costly interceptions, the offensive line did not make his job any easier with their worst performance of the season. The Ducks sacked Slovis three times while constantly applying pressure, disrupting the rhythm of the offense. To make matters worse, the receivers had a difficult time creating separation from the Oregon defensive backs, aside from the busted coverage, which led to Amon-Ra St. Brown’s 47-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.
No receiver eclipsed 80 yards receiving as Bru McCoy finished as USC’s leading receiver with 76 yards and a touchdown. Drake London and St. Brown finished with 75 and 74 yards while Tyler Vaughns was held to 24 yards receiving. Their lack of separation made the offense stall even more, leading to turnovers and their lowest point total of the season.
Once again, the running game did little to help out Slovis and the passing attack. The team totaled 38 yards on the ground, their second lowest of the season. Vavae Malepeai, coming off his only 100+ rushing performance, missed the game with a knee injury. The rest of the team could not pick up the slack as Markese Stepp and Stephen Carr combined for 65 yards on 25 carries. Oftentimes this season, USC was one-dimensional and their loss to Oregon was no exception. A lackluster running game, an offensive line which struggled to block, receivers struggling to gain separation and a poor start from Slovis all contributed to USC’s worst offensive performance of the season, resulting in their only loss.
As previously mentioned, the offense was the main reason USC fell to the Ducks as the defense, for the most part, played a good game. Talanoa Hufanga continued his stellar season with two sacks, disrupting the Ducks’ offense all night long. Kana’i Mauga recorded his first interception of the season to set up USC for a scoring chance at the end of the first half. The defense held Oregon to 243 total yards, the fewest the unit has allowed all season. They did not allow the Ducks to get comfortable offensively, preventing their quick-strike attack.
However, the defense was forced into defending short fields throughout the game as three of Oregon’s four touchdown drives began in Trojan territory. While Oregon was not explosive on offense, they scored when it mattered most as Oregon went four-for-four on scoring touchdowns in the redzone. This doomed the Trojans as game could have turned out differently if they forced Oregon to settle for field goals. It was a good showing from the defense but ultimately, it was not enough to overcome the failures of the offense.
The special teams unit have made huge plays this season, particularly in their comeback wins over Arizona State and UCLA. Against Oregon, the unit’s contributions were mainly negative. Parker Lewis missed another field goal, this time from 41 yards out after Mauga’s interception. This would have cut the deficit to four points, a huge missed opportunity heading into the halftime locker room. Also, in the second quarter, Oregon deflected a Ben Griffiths punt which they downed after it traveled 38 yards. This set up Oregon in Trojan territory, capitalizing to stretch the lead 21-7.
Due to COVID-19 concerns within the USC program, the Trojans opted out of bowl season, ending their 2020 campaign with a 5-1 record. They will lose key players such as Vaughns, Malepeai, Carr with other possible underclassmen declaring for the draft. Slovis is set to return for the 2021 season as the coaching staff looks to remain intact. 2021 will be a crucial season for the program as college football looks to return to normalcy.