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O/NSO: Oregon edition

The Obvious from Los Angeles: The moment of truth has arrived. Whomever and whatever this 2019 USC Trojans team (5-3, 4-1 Pac-12 South) is under head coach Clay Helton will either be revealed or exposed, when the Men of Troy welcome the No. 7 Oregon Ducks (7-1, 5-0 Pac-12 North) on Saturday night (5 p.m. PDT) into the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. a Pac-12 game that has a completely different set of goals and objectives for each club.

The Not So Obvious: For the Oregon Ducks, they are still in the hunt for a possible CFP post-season ticket. Having already virtually locked up the Pac-12 North Division, the mallards from Eugene see themselves making a statement to the nation and the CFP committee, especially with the first CPF rankings to be released shortly. As for the Trojans, they absolutely need to win on Saturday to control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South, although tied with Utah but holding the tiebreaker having defeated the Utes back in September in the Coli. And it goes without saying that Trojans beleaguered head coach needs to probably win out to keep his job. A victory over the Ducks would be a huge step for Clay Helton in making the argument that he should remain the USC head football coach in 2020.

The Obvious: Meanwhile also on Saturday, No. 9 Utah plays at Washington (1 p.m. PDT/FOX).

The Not So Obvious: Here’s the skinny. Depending on the outcome of the Utah at Washington game earlier in the day, there are three possible outcomes depending on the result of the Oregon/USC game. (1) If both USC and Utah win or both USC and Utah lose on Saturday, nothing changes in the current Pac-12 South Division standings and just another week is ripped off the Pac-12 calendar. (2) If USC win and Utah loses on Saturday, the Trojans are essentially up by two games with three games to go. Although the Trojans would be up by just one game in the loss column over the Utes, the fact that Troy beat the Utes back in September gives the Cardinal and Gold the division tiebreaker. (3) The worse case scenario is if the Trojans lose to Oregon and Utah bests Washington, the Trojans would fall to second place, one game behind the Utes with three games to go for both teams in the division race. Regarding the final three-game schedule for both teams, the Trojans play at ASU, at Cal, and UCLA. Utah battles UCLA, at Arizona, and Colorado. Little argument that Utah has the easier schedule based on opponent and location.

Prior to the USC/Oregon game on FOX (5 pm PDT), the network will also be televising the Utah at Washington game (1 pm PDT) in Husky Stadium (photo above), which could have huge Pac-12 South Division implications for the Trojans and Utes by the end of the day.

The Obvious: Oregon opened a 7-point favorite to defeat the Trojans.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans hold a 38-20-2 record in its series with Oregon, dating to 1915 (not including Troy’s 2005 victory that was later vacated due to NCAA penalty; original record: 39-20-2). However, the Trojans lost 4 of the past 6 meetings, 5 of the last 8 and 10 of the past 16 meetings (not including the 2005 vacated win; original record: 10 of the last 17). Troy has a 24-8-1 record against Oregon in Los Angeles (and 1-0 in Pasadena).

In the Coliseum (photo above), the Trojans have dominated the Oregon Ducks (24-8-1).

The Obvious: Saturday night’s game will be televised on FOX (5 p.m. PDT/8 p.m. EDT).

The Not So Obvious: The FOX broadcasters will be Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analyst) and Jenny Taft (sidelines).

The Obvious: Saturday night’s Trojans’ radio game broadcast from the Coliseum will air live on KABC 790 AM (5:00 p.m. PDT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), Shaun Cody (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline). John Jackson will provide selective perspective.  

The Trojans’ overall KABC AM 790 broadcast from Los Angeles will begin with a two-hour pregame show at 3:00 p.m. (PDT). Joining the pregame broadcast crew will be Jason Schwartz, former Trojans’ quarterback Max Browne, and Julia Adams. Following the game, there’ll be a two-hour post-game show.

The Not So Obvious: The Oregon broadcast can be heard on Ducks’ flagship station KUGN 590 AM with Jerry Allen (play-by-play), ­­­­­­­­­Mike Jorgensen (analyst), and Joey McMurry (sideline).

ESPN radio will also broadcast nationally the game (5 p.m. PDT) with Sean Kelley (play-by-play), Barrett Jones (analyst), and Ian Fitzsimmons (sideline).

Saturday’s game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (channels 137/197) or online channel (959) and on the Tunein Radio app.

The Obvious: Saturday’s Los Angeles weather forecast calls for a high of 84 and a low of 56 degrees, 14 percent humidity, and 0 percent precipitation. Temperature for kickoff is expected to be sunny and 76 degrees.

It’s expected to be a beautiful day in Los Angeles and the Coliseum (photo above) on Saturday for the 5 p.m. kickoff between the Trojans and the No. 7 Ducks.

The Not So Obvious: The real weather report is whether the Trojans are truly ready to play their game of the year and do so on the biggest stage with the nation watching. We’ll see what this USC team is made of and such on much the coaching staff is on top of their game. On paper, the Ducks are the superior team with a first-round NFL quarterback leading the way, a dangerous running back, the best offensive line in the conference, and the best defense as well. We’ll see if all the Trojans offensive weapons can stay even with the Ducks on the scoreboard. Perhaps as important as anything, while keeping their poise, we find out whether this USC team want a victory more than Oregon. As stated above, each team is under extreme stress to come out with a victory for different reasons.  

Offensively, we’ll see whether the vaunted Oregon defense can shut down the Trojans’ offense. We’ll see whether Trojans’ true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis adjusts to what will be his biggest game to date in his young career. The kid has played and performed relatively well in games at Notre Dame and last week in Colorado. However, as the stakes get higher, will Slovis be able to stay poised and rise to the next level of competition? Slovis can’t fumble like he did at Colorado and expect Lady Luck to bail him out. Repeat against Oregon, it’s probably a doomsday scenario for his team. Last week, Trojans’ offensive coordinator Graham Harrell got created with his offense – largely due to the lack of depth at running back – and the results were quite effective, as sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown turned up at times in the backfield as a running back and scored on a sensational 37-yard run. We’ll see whether Harrell has some more surprises for the Ducks’ vaunted defense. It should be interesting to see how the Ducks defend the Trojans’ offense. The Ducks defense isn’t Colorado, so we’ll see whether they play Trojans’ senior star receiver Michael Pittman Jr. man-to-man, zone, or a combo. Last week, Trojans true freshman running back Kenan Christon saw his first start and made an impact by receiving a 3-yard touchdown pass from fellow freshman Slovis.  

Oregon’s defense will have its hand full trying to contain Trojans’ all-star wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (photo above by Laura Domingue)

As it does in big games, Trojans’ offensive line coach Tim Drevno will need for his O-line to play its best game of the year. What isn’t known is whether this USC offensive line is capable of playing at a level that they’ve not yet performed at. IF the Trojans’ line can give Slovis time and IF the Trojans can mount any semblance of a running attack, we’ll find out how the Ducks defense handles the USC offensive line. Watch out for former local true freshman standout defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (Westlake Oaks Christian HS), who was not recruited hard his senior season by the Trojans or at least that’s how the story goes for public consumption.

Oregon true freshman defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux (photo above – No. 5), a local SoCal product from Westlake Oaks Christian, has made his mark in his first season up in Eugene.

Based on statistics, we’ll see whether Graham Harrell’s offensive game plan can dent an Oregon’s defense that ranks in the national Top 25 in scoring defense, rush defense and total defense, as well as in interceptions, turnover margin, red zone defense and tackles for loss. Leading tacklers are ILB s Troy Dye, a junior who has 351 career tackles, and sophomore Isaac Slade-Matautia, along with junior CB Thomas Graham Jr. and sophomore safety Jevon Holland, who is second in the nation in punt returns and eighth in interceptions.

Defensively, we’ll see whether the Trojans defense can handle Oregon’s future No. 1 draft pick, senior quarterback Justin Herbert and his vaunted offensive line, which consists of left tackle Penei Sewell (6-6, 325, Soph), and a former USC recruit), left guard Shane Lemieux (6-4, 316, Sr.), center Jake Hansen (6-5, 295, Sr.), right guard Dallas Warmack (6-2, 310, Sr.), and right tackle Calvin Throckmorton (6-5 309, Sr.). Although Herbert get a lot of press as a quarterback, perhaps a bigger threat to the Trojans will be sophomore running back C.J. Verdell (5-9, 210) from Chula Vista (Calif.), who is lightening quick, strong, and extremely shifty. He reminds the O/NSO somewhat of former star UCLA running back Maurice Jones-Drew. This does not bode well for a Trojans defense that is still weak against the run and very susceptible on the edges. We’ll see whether the Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can dial up a game plan that can work for all four quarters against the powerful Oregon offense. We’ll find out if the Trojans inside defensive tackles led by Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu can hold the point of attack and whether the Trojans linebackers, especially on the inside, can handle the Duck’s offensive line. Look for the Ducks physical O-line to concentrate on attack USC inside linebacker John Houston Jr., who will be hard-pressed to hold his own physically against the Ducks attacking line.

Trojans’ sophomore defensive tackles Marlon Tuipulotu (above photo left – No. 51) and Jay Tufele (above photo right – No. 78) will have to play at the top of their game when competing with the vaunted Oregon offensive line.

Obviously, the Ducks are going to test the Trojans’ secondary, which is no longer totally inexperienced but improving. The question is whether they’ve improved enough and healthy enough to withstand Herbert’s array of talented receivers. It remains to be seen whether the Trojans’ secondary can contain Oregon junior WRs Jaylon Redd, who has 7 TD catches, and Johnny Johnson III. We’ll see how improved the USC secondary is. Against Colorado, they stayed competitive but did miss strong safety Talanoa Hufanga badly, perhaps their best defensive player who is out with a shoulder injury. No matter how much better the Trojans secondary looked last week against the Buffaloes, they still had their hands full with Colorado quarterback Steven Montez and Montez is no Justin Herbert. We find out whether the Trojans weak run defense and suspect secondary doesn’t – in the long run – do then in.           

On Trojans’ special teams, we’ll find out whether this part of both teams doesn’t ultimately be the difference in the game if its close. The Trojans have a clutch field goal kicker in sophomore Chase McGrath (8 of 9), who surprisingly missed a potentially key field goal at Colorado for his only miss on the season. McGrath is a competitor, and the O/NSO doesn’t expect there to be a carryover on Saturday night against the Ducks. For the most part, Oregon’s placekicking has been relying on true freshman Camden Lewis (5 of 8), who last Saturday kicked a winning 26-yard field goal on the last play of the game for Oregon’s pulsating victory. As in any big game, we’ll see whether the Trojans can control field position via the punting leg of Ben Griffiths (41.91 avg.), who seems to be rounding into the punter we all saw in spring ball and training camp. Griffiths could be a difference-maker. Oregon chimes in with punter Blake Maimone (43.7 avg.).

Trojans’ punter Ben Griffiths (photo above) continues to showcase his kicking ability, averaging 46.0 yards per punt at Colorado last Friday night.

The Obvious: The Trojans offense averages 31.25 points while the Oregon defense allows 14.8 points per game.

The Not So Obvious: Oregon’s offense averages 36.0 points per game while the Trojans’ defense allows 24.88 points per outing.

The Obvious: Clay Helton is the Trojans’ fourth-year head coach and his current record at USC is 40-23.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Oregon Ducks vaunted offensive line, Helton says, “The thing that I think that Coach Cristobal has done a nice job is upgrading the offensive line. Obviously, he’s an offensive line coach by trade, and he’s done a nice job of recruiting that position. That group is doing a wonderful job. You saw last night (Washington State) how you look up and the running back (CJ Verdell) has over 200 yards rushing, and they controlled that line of scrimmage very well on that last (winning) drive. That’s the biggest thing that I see of what coach has made at the offensive line position.”  

Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton (photo above by Laura Domingue) has a lot of respect for Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal and how the Ducks second=year head coach has built the Oregon O-line.

The Obvious: Shane Lemieux is the starting left guard on the Oregon offensive line.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Trojans’ defensive line, Lemieux told The Oregonian, “A lot like Auburn, they’re really good pass rushers but they’re really good at stopping the run too. They’re not as big as Auburn but I think they’re just as physical, just as athletic, just as talented. … They had some guys that were beat up this last game and I’m sure they’re going to come back and I hope they’re back because I want to face the best team possible. Even their back-up edge rushers are great players, their linebackers are hitters and secondary, they’re young but they’re experienced already in the games they’ve played and they’re really good at covering.”

Senior Oregon offensive guard Shane Lemieux (photo above – No.68) has a lot of respect for the Trojans’ defense.

The Obvious: Before the season, the Trojans’ schedule was considered one of the toughest in the nation.

The Not So Obvious: Oregon will be Trojans fifth AP-ranked opponent of the year (Troy has split the first 4 games).

The Obvious: The starting quarterback for the USC Trojans is true freshman Kedon Slovis (6-2, 200).

Trojans’ true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above by Laura Domingue) was not highly recruited out of high school.

The Not So Obvious: Slovis attended Scottsdale (Ariz.) Desert Mountain High and selected the Trojans over offers from Oregon State and Vanderbilt. Who says they all have to be 5-star recruits?

The Obvious: The starting quarterback for Oregon is senior Justin Herbert (6-6, 237).

The Not So Obvious: Herbertattended Sheldon High in Eugene, Oregon and chose Oregon over Montana State, Nevada, Northern Arizona and Portland State. Who says they all have to be 5-star recruits.

Oregon’s senior quarterback Justin Herbert (photo above – No. 10) was not considered a 5-star prospect coming out of Eugene (Ore.) Sheldon High, yet many predict he will be a high first-round NFL draft pick in the spring.

The Obvious: The starting running backs for USC and Oregon are Kenan Christon and CJ Verdell, respectively.  

The Not So Obvious: Both backs played their high school ball in San Diego County.Redshirt freshman Verdell played his high school ball at San Diego Mater Dei High (2016 his senior season) and selected Oregon over Arizona, Arizona State, Baylor, Boston College, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Oregon State, UCLA, Utah, Washington State, Wisconsin and others. The Trojans true freshman Christon played at Madison High (2018 his senior season) and had offers from Alabama, Fresno State, TCU, Cal, Nebraska, and Utah State.

Trojans’ true freshman running back Kenan Christon (photo above by Laura Domingue) played his high school ball at San Diego Madison High.
Oregon running back CJ Verdell (photo above – No. 7) played his high school ball at San Diego Mater Dei.

The Obvious: Senior Michael Pittman Jr. is the star wide receiver for the Trojans and redshirt outside linebacker Eli’jah Winston is an up-and-coming linebacker.

The Not So Obvious: Oregon wide receiver Mycah Pittman is the brother of the Trojans’ Michael and Ducks’ outside linebacker La’Mar Winston Jr. is the brother of the Trojans’ Eli’jah.

The Obvious: The Trojans have four players from the state of Oregon.

The Not So Obvious: Those Oregon “Trojans” include S Talanoa Hufanga (Crescent Valley HS), DL Brandon Pili (Westview HS), DL Marlon Tuipulotu (Central HS) and OLB Eli’jah Winston (Central Catholic HS).

Trojans’ junior defensive tackle Brandon Pili (photo above – No. 91) is one of four USC players from the state of Oregon.

The Obvious: One of Oregon’s recruiting lifelines is mining the prep and JC talent in California.

The Not So Obvious: Oregon has 48 Californians on its roster.

The Obvious: There will be a number of promotions and recognitions for the Oregon game.

The Not So Obvious: It’s Trojan Family Weekend, with thousands of parents and family members joining their USC students at the game. There will also be a pre-game flyover by the Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 35.

The Obvious: And finally, by the end of Saturday evening, we’ll have a better perspective on just where the remainder of the Trojans’ Pac-12 South Division season may be headed.

The Not So Obvious: And as a public service reminder, however, don’t forget on Saturday night to also turn your USC football clock back one hour, as daylight saving time comes to an end. If you forget which way the clock should be adjusted, just remember “spring ahead, fall back.”

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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