During an unprecedented display of undisciplined, immature football, the Oregon Ducks got their heads straight and manhandled a decimated Southern California team 56-24 in a game that started out looking like a post-Halloween nightmare after USC sauntered to an early 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
Oregon, on its first drive of the game, looked more like the seventh-place team in the Pac-12 rather than in the country. First play, so predictable: 2-yard loss on a zone running play; the second, a sack as the offensive line looked a bit dazed; and the third an incompletion. Three and out for the offense. Then the defensive group missed tackle after tackle while the Trojans marched 77 yards in 16 plays for the go-ahead score and added a field goal on their third drive, after being kept out of the end zone by the Duck defense that faced a first-and-goal situation.
The Ducks finally got some pressure on freshman quarterback Kevon Slovis, which came when Oregon defensive linemen started to remember to get their hands up on the rush. Quarterback Justin Herbert began to set his feet, just about the same time as offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo began to get a rhythm to his play calling. Herbert led two straight scoring drives: 59 yards and a beauty of 92 yards in nine plays. Before the crowd could recover their senses, the Ducks were up 14-10.
The Ducks rung up 12 penalties for 157 yards, including 10 15-yard personal foul penalties that often gave the Trojans better field position and the Ducks worse. The television and radio commentators good naturedly passed off the misbehavior saying that since so many players came from California and knew each other from high school, it explained the temper tantrums that permeated the first half and part of the second, when players finally began to cool down.
The Ducks had two players ejected: safety Nick Pickett of Los Angeles and defensive tackle Austin Faoliu of Santa Ana. The Trojans could not match the total foolish behavior of the Ducks but did have one player ejected for targeting and their defense roughed Herbert two times.
The flood of flags seemed to disrupt the momentum the Trojans had established in the first part of the game more than the Ducks, who somehow found ways to get their heads straightened and go ahead, 21-10. USC scored near the end of the second quarter to make it 21-17, and pundits prepared for a barnburner in the second half. Nobody told Mykael Wright that, and he ran the kickoff back for an unexpected touchdown with eight seconds left on the scoreboard clock.
The Trojans are a decimated football team and the players trying to chase Wright were not the same class of athletes as the Ducks who were blocking. And, by the way, the blocking was very good, a tribute to the kickoff return team that in this new era of fair catches and touchbacks did not relax and assume there would be no return attempted.
In the first half there were at least 22 missed tackles as Duck defenders tried hard, but seemed to have their eyes shut when they got in the vicinity of Trojan ball carriers; lucky for the Ducks, great tailbacks are not currently enrolled at Southern Cal.
Lacking healthy running backs, Clay Helton, coach of USC, had his true freshman fill the air with footballs on first down in the first half and the results were not good: Slovis was only 6 of 18 and was continually having to make plays on third down to save a drive, which he finally did right before halftime when USC chipped Oregon’s lead to 21-17.
The Ducks committed seven 15-yard penalties in the first half, including two on Troy Dye for personal fouls that were, in fact, dirty football. Not to be outdone, Austin Faoliu picked up a pair himself, plus an ejection.
Evidently, if you’re a player who is from California, it appeared that a prime consideration was to impress your relatives by being singled out publicly and on national television for cheap-shot penalties. The lack of discipline was made worse when the Ducks could not contain their immaturity after Wright’s kickoff return and picked up a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration, which is usually a solo “how about me?” performance that better belongs on a daytime television quiz shows.
Cristobal might have spent most of his halftime speech discussing the foolish, selfish personal fouls his lads chalked up — several that came on third-down conversion attempts that otherwise would have been stopped and given the Duck offense more time on the field. There were many pushing and shoving contests after even inconsequential plays; it looked a lot like old-time hockey in the National Hockey League before they decided to play hockey instead of playing stupid.
It came to pass that Herbert looked sharp in the second quarter as he began to settle down and stop throwing off his back foot. As Herbert’s feet go, so goes the football. After a miserable start, Justin gathered himself up and ended 23-of-29 passing with one interception and started another streak of scoring passes with three. He was especially effective on play-action throws that were coming off the gradually longer gains of Oregon’s rushing attack. Herbert scored on an athletic, 10-yard run, which was sort of a surprise because everyone knows Cristobal doesn’t have his quarterback run the ball in his “run first” offense.
The television announcers gushed over Herbert’s potential, allowing that one caveat was doubts about his leadership potential: “the pros need someone who will command the attention of his teammates.” It sounded as stupid as the talk about Marcus Mariota graduating to the pros and wondering if he would be able to handle a direct snap from center and being in a huddle rather than calling the plays from the line of scrimmage.
All you have to do is watch how Herbert’s teammates look at him and react to him on the sidelines — he is idolized, and that doesn’t come from the tone of his voice. Players respect the leadership of a quarterback who is prepared, dedicated, works hard and puts the team above himself.
Oregon’s defense showed a great deal of improvement from its showing against Washington State’s Air Raid offense last week with the performance against the Trojan’s version of the Air Raid. The secondary closely covered the Trojan receivers who are reputed to be NFL guys playing in the Pac-12 conference. The longest completion allowed was only 20 yards as the Ducks kept the receivers from gaining extra yardage after the 32 catches they had. For comparison purposes, WSU had 32 completions for 406 yards. USC had the same number of completions for only 264 yards, and ‘SC’s receivers are much more dangerous after the catch.
Besides tackling better, the Oregon pass rush would get much better if the defensive linemen would pay more attention to where the quarterback is and when he starts his throwing motion, momentarily give up the focus on getting a sack and concentrating on getting their hands up to tip or block the ball and otherwise interfere with the vision of the quarterback. Future Duck opponents are going to have more experienced quarterbacks and the secondary needs all the help they can get in throwing off the timing and confidence of the passer.
It’s time for a bye this next week and Cristobal can take a breath and feel a great deal of satisfaction with the job he, his staff and team have done in beating Stanford, Washington and USC on the road. There’s still a couple left: Arizona State in three weeks and the Southern champ in the Pac-12 Conference title game.
The Ducks are coming down the homestretch with the wind at their back. Only a lack of discipline can derail this Oregon juggernaut into a bunch of jugheads. In the last three games, the Ducks have had many challenges of which, in the end, they have overcome. Herbert needs to continue to shine and the rest of the flock need to focus a bit better and being as good as they can be.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years. He conducts a weekly coach's corner from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the 6th Street Grill.