By REED NELSON
It’s finally (almost) upon us.
The Game, billed in the pre-season as the potential “Game of the Year,” is less than a week away. One thing we know, however, is that this is no longer a serious nomination for Game of the Year.
It is no longer the worthy rival to the SEC’s heavyweight bout of the year, no longer the clash of the West Coast Titans, no longer is it the game that was supposed to pack enough punch to bring down the mighty captivating force that is LSU vs. Alabama.
It wasn’t for wont on Oregon’s side. The Ducks have blown out opponents by an average margin of 33.9 points per game. In fact, since Pac-12 play opened, Oregon has averaged 19.6 first quarter points. Their opponents have averaged just 16.4 points per game.
But while Oregon has turned its opposition into a weekly buffet of vulnerabilities, USC has struggled to meet their lofty preseason expectations. Matt Barkley has shown flashes of brilliance, dazzling footwork and a great rapport with his wide receiving corps, but he hasn’t done it consistently.
Marquis Lee and Robert Woods are easily the most talented receiving duo in the country, yet they struggle in the strangest — and most inopportune — times.
Silas Redd was supposed to be the piece that put the Trojans over the edge; the running back that sent them cascading down the mountainside of college football, the unstoppable avalanche of destruction called USC, but he wasn’t. He’s been good, but somehow the Trojans have lost two conference games already.
Matt Barkley has cried. Lane Kiffin has publicly freaked out no less than five times.
Marquis Lee shattered the Pac-12 record for receiving yards in a game last week, and still lost.
Now the Trojans find themselves stuck in a Hannibal-like hole, ranked 17th, putting lotion on the skin, with pride on the line and facing an Oregon team that is cruising and needs the win to keep their National Championship hopes alive.
Egad. This sounds familiar. If the venue hadn’t changed, I’d be outside in the rain, leaping off curbs to avoid deep puddles and shouting Puxatony Phil’s name.
But, even with the past looming, USC’s shine rusting and the rain coming down in depressing intervals, this is the biggest game of the season for the Ducks for two major reasons:
First, this is the highest ranked opponent they’ve faced yet. Sure, a No. 8 USC team would’ve been more beneficial, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Secondly, a Duck win screws with Notre Dame. In order for Oregon to reach the National Championship game, they need to pass Kansas State and Notre Dame (I’m writing off Alabama as a given at the moment. I’ll check back in 96 hours to see how that prediction went.) in the BCS rankings, which might be a tall task if both teams win out. The good news for the Ducks? Notre Dame’s only other headlining opponent this season is USC. Hell, it’s their only other ranked opponent. If Oregon beats USC, then they can effectively cheapen the ND-USC game on Nov. 24, while simultaneously gaining credit for the win over a “tough, ranked opponent.”
So, the stakes are outlined, the benefactors identified and the obligatory BCS reference is in the past. Now, what we are really here for — Part I of a four part USC-Oregon Preview, breaking down key matchups, position battles and much, much more.
Lane Kiffin vs. Chip Kelly
Quick story: Last year, in dampening November conditions native to the Eugene area, Matt Barkley marched his Trojans into Autzen Stadium, and gashed the Oregon defense for 323 yards and four touchdowns. USC won on a missed 37-yard field goal, pulled wide left by Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado. It felt like a funeral procession, leaving that stadium; Everyone was wearing black already, except at this point in the night, no one was talking. No one, that is, save Lane Kiffin.
The then-gregarious USC coach had this look about him, this glow. Like he knew much more about his own team than the rest of us, like he understood something we didn’t. If Darth Vader hadn’t been cursed with an emotionless mask, I assume he looked at Luke Skywalker with similar fatherly adoration following their fight in The Empire Strikes Back. Kiffin knew what he had in Barkley, even if the rest of the country refused to see it. He was Kiffin’s meal ticket on Nov. 19, 2011, and Kiffin knew it.
Flash forward eight months: Barkley is a 2-to-1 Heisman favorite, blessed with the best footwork in college football, hailing from a pro-style system with pro-caliber wide receivers to throw to. Barkley loves it, Kiffin loves it and the LA media can’t get enough of it. USC even buys a “Barkley for Heisman” billboard in Westwood. Forget throwing barbs, these cocky USC cats were throwing billboards.
Now, in true Christmas Carol fashion, flash forward with me another four months to meet the Ghost of Kiffin Present: Barkley’s record in the Pac-12 is now a pedestrian 4-2, his Heisman hopes have been dashed and the Trojans have just been dealt a brutal loss in Tuscon to an unranked Arizona team.
Lane Kiffin has made news for all the wrong reasons this season. The initial animosity toward him could have stemmed from his reported attempt to strip LA Times columnist Sam Wolfe of his press credentials. An act he then followed up by leaving a post-practice press conference less than 30 seconds in. It all culminated two weeks ago when USC was caught changing jersey’s on the sideline to “confuse” their “next opponent.” Yeah, right.
And what has Chip Kelly done this season? Well, he’s Chip Kelly. That is what he’s done.
He issues his standard, tersely cliche’d answers to all questions (“That’s it… We’ll see… Wait and see…”), no matter how brilliantly they might be postured. He’s “not into prediction.” He allows no media into his practices. Ever. Not his chair, not his problem, that’s what he says.
He gives away nothing when a microphone is on, because he understands the tactical advantage embedded in a surprise. He isn’t Hollywood. He isn’t even Bollywood.
He drinks Bud Light Lime, and sounds like Phil from the Rugrats, but from the All Growed Up episode. His visor went out of style with Pepsi Blue. His preferred interview locale is on the north side of the stadium, right near a construction zone sure to torture digital voice recorders. He is an enigma.
But he’s also won eight of eight in 2012 (42-6 on his career), coaching Oregon to blowout wins in every contest. His coaching style more closely resembles a Bruce Lee movie than Vince Lombardi; throat rips before body blows.
That’s why this matchup is so intriguing. Lane Kiffin, the Eddie Haskel of the NCAA, up against, shit, I don’t know… Boo Radley? Kelly does what he does, makes no apology for that, and believes that access is a privilege, not a right.
And on paper, these two are about as different as they are in front of a camera.
Oregon averages 82 snaps on offense, and 53.5 of those are designed runs, or 65 percent. USC, on the other hand, averages just 64 snaps on offense, running the ball just 47 percent of the time.
They also vary when it comes to clock management. USC might average 64 snaps a game on offense, but their defense faces 74 (-10). Oregon’s defense, on the other hand, faces about 77 a game (+5).
And for a team that was purported to be all offense, Oregon has been remarkably stout on defense, holding opposing offenses to 20 first down’s a game, while their offense averages 27 on their own. USC, on the other hand, gives up 21.5 while only earning 21.
And that seems to be one of the biggest non-systemic differences between Kiffin and Kelly. Sure, they run totally different offenses, and their recruiting tactics are wildly different, but when it comes to game management, Kelly has figured out a way to create a positive-sum game, a way for his teams to always end up in the plus-column.
Kiffin, however, has not. He continually plays a zero-sum game, and it finally caught up with him in Arizona last week. Could USC have managed the clock better on that final drive? Absolutely. Snapping the ball just once in the last 18-seconds should be actionable, criminal even (a little much? Maybe…), and that falls upon Kiffin’s shoulders.
But the inability to reign in his teams risky play has left the Trojans as National Championship also-rans. They average just 8.7 penalty yards less than their opponents, and they still average 76 a game. The Ducks, by contrast, average 53 penalty yards per game, 19 yards less than their opponents.
For the first few weeks of the season, I shamelessly laid points on USC, and then proceeded to watch as they allowed every opponent to keep it close. No supposedly great team (and USC is, despite their two losses, a great team. They have four of the ten best offensive weapons in all of college football, a QB who is pro-ready and a defensive unit that is allowing less than 20 points a game) should ever have this much trouble driving a wedge between them and inferior competition.
But their offense as a whole has played down to their opposition’s level all season, and done so in shameless fashion.
USC has failed to cover the spread against Utah, Syracuse, Stanford, Washington and Arizona. Oregon has had their issues covering as well, but only twice has USC had to cover a four-score spread. (Oregon has only NOT had a four-score spread once, and most of the damage to their record against the spread comes in garbage time with 2’s and 3’s on the field. )
But I digress. The reason that this matchup is so intriguing has everything to do with the clash of personalities, coaching styles and personnel.
If Kiffin can do what he did last year, which is to say, if Kiffin can establish Lee and Woods early, if he can give Barkley’s Ego (it’s own entity at this point, kind of like the pulsating thing in Evolution) the leg up it so desperately needs, then Silas Redd will be able to roll as well, which will spell trouble for the Ducks.
And if Kiffin takes the Oregon offense out of rhythm, and does so early, then USC will walk away again with the victory. Oregon is a rhythm team, they play a bit like Manny Pacquiao fight’s: Fast, relentless and dizzying.
But last November, when Pacquiao fought Juan Manuel Marquez for the third time, Marquez took the phenomenal Filipino out of his rhythm early, causing him to throw haymakers and other bigger, more risky punches that he wasn’t used to throwing, which made him more susceptible, which nearly cost him the fight. And all Marquez had to do was disrupt his rhythm.
That’s the thing about Oregon’s offense. People remember the big plays, but (and Chip knows this better than anyone, I assume) those big plays only work when Oregon grounds out a couple of not-so big plays. They don’t like to grind, grind, grind, grind, score. They like to leap, leap, score. Huge difference.
Last year, Kiffin and Co. forced Oregon to grind, just like LSU did.
This year, it’s the only chance the Trojans have.
Tomorrow: #4 Oregon vs. #17 USC: A Preview, Pt. II… Lee and Woods vs. Olomu and Patterson