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O/NSO: Pac-12 Championship Game – Oregon/USC edition

The Obvious: The undefeated Pac-12 South Division Champions and No.13 USC Trojans (5-0) will entertain the North Division representative Oregon Ducks (3-2), a replacement for COVID ridden Washington, for the Pac-12 Conference Championship on Friday night (5 p.m. PST) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Men of Troy will be looking for their first conference title since 2017.  

The Not So Obvious: The Oregon Ducks, who have lost two straight, never had the opportunity to outright win the North Division last weekend after their game with the Washington Huskies was canceled due to UW’s bout with the virus. Ironically, the original preseason Pac-12 picks to meet for the title game, USC and Oregon, have come to fruition. The key, however, is that Oregon has had two weeks off to rest and prepare for the Trojans while the Men of Troy will be playing another game with just five days “rest.” Is that called an unfair competitive advantage, Larry Scott?

The O/NSO’s point of view is that the Trojans have now drawn a much tougher foe for Friday night than Washington would have provided. While Oregon had to replace QB Justin Herbert, now the starting QB for the LA Chargers, it’s still hard to figure that the Ducks won’t come to the Coliseum full of confidence, given that last season they pasted the Trojans 56-24, in L.A.   

The Obvious: Oregon opened a 3-point favorite to defeat the Trojans.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans lead the all-time series with Oregon with a 38-21-2 record, but the Ducks are just 8-24-1 in L.A. The Trojans are also 1-1 in Pac-12 Championship Games, having lost to Stanford, 41-22, in 2015, and returning the favor with 31-28 victory over the Cardinal in 2017. Historically, the Pac-12 North Division representative has defeated the South entry in all but one of the nine conference championship games. Trojans head coach Clay Helton will be gunning for his second conference title as the USC head coach. A win on Friday would give Troy its first 6-0 overall start since 2006.

The Obvious: Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game from the Coliseum will be televised on FOX (5 p.m. PST/ 8 p.m. EST).

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (photo above) will be hosting its first Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday night.

The Not So Obvious: The FOX broadcasters will be Joe Davis (play-by-play) and Mark Helfrich (analyst).

The Obvious: Friday night’s Trojans’ radio game broadcast will air live on KABC 790AM (5 p.m. PST) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), Shaun Cody and John Jackson (analysts) and Jordan Moore (sidelines).

The Trojans’ overall KABC 790AM broadcast will begin with a two-hour pregame show at 3 p.m. (PST). The pregame broadcast crew will also include Sam Farber and former Trojans’ quarterback Max Browne. Following the game, there’ll be a two-hour post-game show.

The pregame show will also be simulcasted on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube). The simulcast, called the Trojans Tailgate Show, will also feature performances by the USC Song Girls, Trojans Marching Band, Spirit Leaders, and will also provide viewers with fan involvement, which will also include prizes courtesy of the USC Athletic Department.

The Trojans Song Leaders (photo above) will appear as part of the streamed Trojans Tailgate Show.

The Not So Obvious: The Oregon broadcast (5 p.m. PST) can be heard on local KUJC-FM (Eugene) 95.3 and KFXX-AM 1080 (Portland) with Jerry Allen (play-by-play) and Mike Jorgensen (analyst), and Joey McMurry (sidelines).

There will be a live national radio broadcast on ESPN Radio (5 p.m. PST) with Sean Kelley (play-by-play) and Barrett Jones (analysis).

Friday night’s game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (channel 80/84) and on the Tunein Radio app.

The Obvious: This weekend is being billed as Pac-12 Championship Weekend.

The Not So Obvious: Below is this week’s Pac-12 schedule, television channels, and kickoff times.  

Friday, Dec. 18: Pac-12 Championship Game
Oregon at USC (5 p.m./FOX)

The USC Trojans and the Oregon Ducks (photo above) headline the Pac-12 Championship Weekend, which begins on Friday night (5 p.m. PST/FOX) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Saturday, Dec. 19
WSU at Utah (10:30 a.m./FS1)
Stanford at UCLA (5 p.m./ ESPN2)
Arizona at Cal (canceled)
ASU at Oregon State (7:30 p.m./ ESPN)

Note: All times above are Pacific Standard Time.

The Obvious: Friday’s Los Angeles weather forecast calls for sunny with a high of 67 degrees, a low of 42 degrees, 43% humidity, and 0% precipitation. Temperature for the 5 p.m. (PST) kickoff is expected to be clear and 61 degrees.

It figures to be a beautiful, clear Los Angeles Friday night (photo above) for the Pac-12 Championship Game. (Photo by David Zanzinger)

The Not So Obvious: The real weather report is whether the Trojans can match the physicality of Oregon with a basically one-dimensional offense and a defense that is a blitzing feast or famine outfit. In total offense, Oregon and USC are ranked No. 1 (467.0 pg.) and No. 4 (428.4 pg.) in the Pac-12, respectively. We’ll also see whether the Trojans defense (395.0 ypg), ranked No. 6 in the Pac-12, can outplay the Oregon defense (419.8 ypg.), ranked a surprising No. 7 in defense in the conference pecking order.

We’ll find out whether the Trojans can take their No. 2 conference ranking in pass offense (319.2 ypg.) and outduel Oregon’s passing attack (277.8 ypg.), which is ranked No. 3 in conference passing. The big difference is Oregon’s ability to run the ball compared to the Trojans. The Ducks are No. 4 in the conference (189.2 ypg.) compared to the Trojans, who are last in the Pac-12 (109.2 ypg.).  

We’ll see whether USC’s offense can be strong for four quarters against a Ducks defense that has issues, which led to two losses (Oregon State and Cal) in their last two games. For the Trojans, the formula remains the same with sophomore quarterback sensation Kedon Slovis (149 of 212 for 1601 yds., 70.3%, 320 yds. per game, 1601 yds. 15 TDs, 4 int.),who is 14-1 against Pac-12 teams. Slovis must get rid of the ball, avoid taking a sack or a direct hit, and keep his team putting points on the board.

Trojans sophomore quarterback standout Kedon Slovis (photo above) will take his Air Raid offense against the Oregon Ducks in Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game. (Photo by Jose / MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

It figured that Slovis would get some relief from senior running back Vavae Malepeai (47.6 rushing per game/ 4.4 yd avg./ 3 TDs, who ran violently last week against UCLA, rushing for 100 rushing yards, which included a tough 10-yard TD run. However, Malepeai suffered a sprained knee ligament late in the UCLA game and is highly doubtful for Oregon.  If Malepeai is out completely, it would mean that senior Stephen Carr (4.0 avg./3 TDs) would probably start and backed by sophomore Markese Stepp (4.4 avg./ 2 TDs). We’ll see whether the probable loss of Malepeai plays a major factor. If Carr starts, it won’t be shocking if Stepp carries the load for much of the game, provided No. 30 is close to totally healthy.

With Trojans running back Vavae Malepeai not expected to play against Oregon, USC may turn to powerful sophomore Markese Stepp (photo above) to carry the rushing load against Oregon. (Photo by Jose Marin / MarinMedia Pool for USC Athletics)

One thing for sure, the Trojans offensive line will be getting a stiff test from the Ducks athletic defensive front. We’ll see – again – whether the O-line can keep Slovis healthy for four quarters. This may be the Trojans most physical test of the season.

Besides Slovis, the biggest threat to Oregon’s defense will be USC all-star trio of wide receiver featuring junior Amon-Ra St. Brown (11.2 yds per catch/ 6 TDs), senior Tyler Vaughns (12.3 yds. per catch/ 3 TDs), and big sophomore Drake London (17.1 yards per catch/ 3 TDs). It figures that Oregon will have the best secondary the Trojans will have faced in 2020. With the type of pass rush that Oregon provides, we’ll see whether the Ducks will bring enough heat to drop back eight defenders to limit damage from Slovis, who certainly has had enough experience against 3-3-5 defenses.    

Trojans senior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (photo above) has been red hot the last couple of games for the Trojans. (photo by Jose / MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

We’ll find whether Oregon’s defense, led by junior OLB Isaac Slade-Matautia, freshman ILB Noah Sewell,and sophomore DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, the former SoCal star, who last season against USC recorded four solo tackles and a sack, can do the job.

The Trojans figure to have their hands full on Friday with Ducks defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (photo above), who is a local Southern California product.

The Oregon offense has scored over 50 points in each of its last three wins over the Trojans on the road, averaging 57.0 ppg. in those games. In fact, Oregon is averaging 45.9 points per game in its last seven meetings. We’ll see whether Troy’s DC Todd Orlando’s defense can withstand the pounding of the Ducks’ physical offense that is directed by talented young freshman dual-threat QB Tyler Shough (6-5, 221). In fact, Shough leads the Pac-12 with 1,645 yards of total offense, which is the most by an UO QB through their first five starts.

It should be a challenge for Trojans’ Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando (photo above) to scheme against the Oregon high-powered offense in the Pac-12 title game. (Photo by Jose / MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

Last week, the Trojans had trouble containing UCLA’s dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. In a backup role during Oregon’s rout of the Trojans in 2019, Shough was 2 of 3 for 41 yards which included a 35-yard TD pass to Mycah Pittman, brother of former Trojans great Michael Pittman Jr. Mycah will return against the Trojans on Friday night.  

Shough has got a stud in the backfield in junior RB C.J. Verdell (5-10, 210). A tough, quick running back, Verdell is a “home run” hitter but was held to 12 yards rushing last season against the Trojans. We’ll see whether Verdell, who last season had four receptions against Troy for 56 yards, challenges the Trojans linebackers as a receiver. However, you can bet the Trojans will have an eye on the Ducks other back, junior Travis Dye, who last time in the Coliseum against the Men of Troy had six carries for 12 yards but four receptions for 56 yards.

The Trojans’ defense will be strongly tested by Oregon running back C.J. Verdell (photo above – No. 7).

The Ducks wide receivers are led by the return of Pittman and senior Jaylon Redd, who had four catches for 31 yards for one TD and a TD on the ground. One familiar face for Trojans fans will be former receiver Devon Williams, now a sophomore at UO. We’ll find out whether it’s any advantage for the Trojans secondary, having gone against Williams when the big kid (6-5, 205) was a cardinal and gold practice opponent.   

We’ll also see whether special teams play a huge part for either team. No doubt, if Trojans true freshman placekicker Parker Lewis thought last week’s UCLA rivalry game was a pressure cooker, this week brings the conference title game on national television. Heading into the title game, Lewis is 8 of 11, hitting on 72.7% of his field goal attempts. This could be yet another game when Trojans punter Ben Griffiths (45.9 avg.) provides much-needed field position. The Ducks feature two placekickers in sophomores Henry Katleman (2 of 2, long of 33 yds.) and Camden Lewis (1 of 4, long of 23 yds.) and sophomore punter Tom Snee (43.2 avg.) who is from Melbourne, Australia.   

Trojans punter Ben Griffiths (photo above – No. 24) could be a big factor in Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

The Obvious: In 2020,the Trojans offense is averaging 35.2 points per game, while the Oregon defense is allowing 28.0 points per game.

The Not So Obvious: Oregon’s offense is averaging 34.2 points per game while the Trojans’ defense is allowing 25.0 points per contest.

The Obvious: Clay Helton is in his fifth season as the Trojans’ head coach (45-22) and is currently 18-12 in his last 30 games. 

Trojans head football coach Clay Helton (photo above) will be looking for his second Pac-12 Conference title when the Men of Troy play the Oregon Ducks on Friday night in the Coliseum.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Oregon Ducks, Helton said, “Mario (Cristobal) has done a nice job of recruiting, especially offensively. You look at that offense and you see the running backs, the wideouts and how much speed is on the field. We know (QB) Tyler Shough and what he’s able to do, and he can get streaky hot and when he does, he’s a really talented player. Hopefully, we can do our job and get them behind the chains a little bit and force Tyler off his spot a little bit.

Defensively, they give a variety of looks. They bounce in and out of four down, then odd structures. They bring pressures from everywhere, movement from everywhere, disguise coverages extremely well. It will be a good challenge for us offensively. These are two good teams competing against each other in a championship game, and that’s the way it should be.”   

The Obvious: Mario Cristobal, who this week received a new six-year, $27 million contract extension, is in his third season as UO’s head coach.

Oregon’s third-year head coach Mario Cristobal (photo above) is having a successful run as the leader of the Ducks.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Trojans’ offense, Cristobal said, “What you see on the tape is the most talented team in the conference, explosive at all positions, a very big, physical offensive line, a tremendous amount of poise and accuracy and command of their offense by their quarterback (Kedon Slovis) on offense. His throws in those late comebacks and when he’s in those difficult situations, he’s as cool as can be. He’s performing and executing on a very high level. He’s complimented by a great supporting cast. They call a get game, and they coach it really well. They’re a tremendous operation.”   

The Obvious: The Trojans will start sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis (6-2, 200), considered the best quarterback in the Pac-12.

The Not So Obvious: Slovis may have started this mini season with questions about his physical and mental health, but don’t tell that to the UCLA, ASU, and Arizona, all of whom learned the hard way about Kedon’s competitive nature. However, Slovis figures to have his hands full against Oregon. Last season against Oregon as a true freshman, Slovis was 32 of 57 for 264 yards and three TD passes. 

Trojans starting quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) is considered the best quarterback in the Pac-12 Conference, something that will challenge the Oregon Ducks defense on Friday Night in the Coli. (Photo by Jose/MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

The Obvious: The starting quarterback for Oregon is sophomore Tyler Shough from Chandler, Arizona.

The Not So Obvious: Through his first five career starts, Shough (pronounced “Shuck”) is one of three FBS QBs averaging 250 yards passing and 50 yards rushing per game this season. Shough has passed for 200 yards and rushed for 50 in the same game three times, which is more than Oregon’s total from its previous QBs from 2015-19.

The Trojans’ defense will again face a dual-threat quarterback in Oregon’s Tyler Shough (photo above), who will test the Trojans DC Todd Orlando’s schemes.

 The Obvious: The Trojans running attack is led by four capable backs in seniors Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr, and sophomores Markese Stepp, and Kenon Christon.

The Not So Obvious: This could be the most challenging game for the Trojans running attack, and it will be interesting to see if Troy’s offensive coordinator Graham Harrell throws in a wrinkle or two on the ground to confuse the Ducks. The Ducks, while talented, are ranked in the bottom half of rush defense (9th) in the Pac-12.

The Obvious: There are a number of “connections” between USC and Oregon.

The Not So Obvious: Here are a few of the connections between the Trojans and the Ducks: USC cornerbacks coach/defensive pass game coordinator Donte Williams was the cornerbacks coach at Oregon in 2018 and 2019; Oregon assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Keith Heyward was a USC assistant (2014-15).

Last season, current Trojans secondary coach Donte Williams was the secondary coach for the Oregon Ducks (photo above).

USC ILB Eli’jah Winston’s brother, La’Mar Jr., was an outside linebacker at Oregon (2016-19); USC TB Vavae Malepeai’s uncles, Silila (1990-94), Pulou (1993-95) and Tasi (1994-96), played football at Oregon; Troy OL Bernard Schirmer’s uncle, Matt Toeaina, played defensive tackle at Oregon (2003-06); USC DL Jamar Sekona’s uncle is Haloti Ngata, who played defensive line at Oregon (2003-05, earning All- American honors in 2005).

The Obvious: The Trojans have three players from the state of Oregon, strong safety Talanoa Hufanga (Corvallis), defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu (Independence), and linebacker Eli’jah Winston (Portland).  

Trojans defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu (photo above) is one of three players from the state of Oregon.

The Not So Obvious: Oregon has 46 players from California on its roster. In case you were wondering, that high Cali number equates to 41.6% of the Ducks entire roster.

The Obvious: And finally, there’s nothing like celebrating one’s birthday if you’re a Trojans’ football player, especially when part of the celebration is Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game.

The Not So Obvious: Two Trojans celebrating their birthday on Friday are S Kaulana Makaula and OL Bernard Schirmer. And for good measure, let’s also include offensive quality control analyst Seth Doege.

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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