By REED NELSON
Welcome to the second preview, where we break down matchup within the matchup featuring Matt Barkley and the USC wide receivers against the supposedly tested Oregon secondary. Thanks for stopping by, let’s jump right in.
Here’s what we know: USC’s passing attack racks up 291.3 yards per game, which ranks 23rd in college football’s Bowl Subdivision.
Oregon’s pass defense allows 213.6 yards per game, which ranks 45th in the FBS.
USC’s offense averages 445.9 total yards per game (36th in FBS), and Oregon’s defense gives up 351.5 yards per game (35th in FBS).
Here’s what we don’t know: Is Oregon’s recent ’01 Ravens turn in the secondary attributed to weak competition or an elevated level of play? And is USC’s middle of the elite-pack passing attack a product of inconsistent play from superb athletes, or has the final leap into that upper echelon of the elite been hindered by something deeper?
When Oregon safety John Boyett went down in Week 1, all seemed lost for the Oregon secondary. The defense had lost its rock; its last trusted line of coverage.
The secondary was a unit, after all, that had been the weak link on last year’s squad, an unfortified bunch that eventually cost Oregon, at best, a National Championship berth, and, at worst, a place in the discussion.
The hit-but-mostly-miss bunch even turned LSU’s Jarrett Lee into a watchable quarterback for 60 minutes.
For the two weeks following Boyett’s injury, the personnel behind the front seven looked like a Nike-sponsored game of Three Card Monty. But something weird happened: Every card Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Alioti turned over was the Queen.
Through Oregon’s first eight games, eight different Ducks have intercepted a pass (not including Boyett). Of those eight, only three of them (Kiko Alonso, Troy Hill and Boseko Lokombo) had intercepted a pass in 2011.
Five new faces have made a significant impact in the Ducks secondary — including Avery Patterson, the brilliant Boyett stand-in who has racked up 35 tackles and three interceptions, two of which he returned all the way (the third came up just a couple yards short) — but none more has made a bigger splash than Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The sophomore cornerback from Chino Hills, CA has not-so quietly become the Ducks’ stand-in havoc wreaker, filling in for Boyett and Eddie Pleasant at an even more difficult position than the two of them played, and doing so with an energy seen most frequently in the likes of the Tasmanian Devil.
In 2011, as a freshman, Ekpre-Olomu had eight pass deflections and 34 total tackles in limited action. Since taking over as a starter in 2012, however, the 5’10 missile-with-soft-hands has crushed more spirits than the Cleveland Browns. He’s crashed more drives than Y2K, picked more pocket’s than Oliver Twist, yet somehow, he’s often still an afterthought on this dynamic roster.
To put the IEO Speedwagon’s (originally spelled I.E.O.) season into perspective, Oregon’s best corner in 2011, Terrance Mitchell, had 45 tackles, forced three fumbles, deflected 12 passes and intercepted two passes on the season. Through just eight games in 2012, IEO has 31 tackles, four forced fumbles, 12 pass deflections, two interceptions, one resulting in a pick six.
But thus far, Ekpre-Olomu has often had been assigned the task of lining up on the opposing offense’s second receiver, which is a task he’s handled quite well. But on Saturday, IEO’s world will get flipped upside down.
Terrance Mitchell, still the Ducks No. 1 corner, has been lining up against No. 1 receiver’s all season, understands the responsibility that a “shut down” label comes with, and has done a fine job fulfilling those responsibilities. Are Robert Woods and Marqise Lee better than any receiver that he’s faced this season? By far, but don’t expect Mitchell to act scared; he’s faced these two before, got torched and should have made adjustment’s by now.
IEO is the question mark in the Ducks secondary. He has been the lynchpin on the edge, while simultaneously acting as the playmaker. But he’s also gone up against a pretty motley crew of competition. Lee and Woods are interchangeable in the 1 and 2 slots, and Ekpre-Olomu will have to get used to seeing a combination of the two. Or, in other words, he’ll have to get very used to an uneasy feeling akin to the one you get on a really snowy day when your tires start to lose grip with the road halfway through a curve.
But Lee and Woods. Woods and Lee. WoodsLee. Lee’s Woods. Doesn’t matter what you call them, so long as it is the subtitled with this: The most dangerous receiving duo that Pac-12 has seen since guys named Houshmandzadeh and Johnson.
They’ve each set individual records in the last two weeks (Woods caught a school-record four touchdowns against Colorado two weeks ago, and Lee, not to be outdone, hauled in 16 passes for a Pac-12 record 345 yards against Arizona last week), and they pass the Eye Test in the athleticism category every weekend in the same way that Yao Ming looked really tall the first time he came to America.
On good days, they appear unstoppable. But for whatever reason, they aren’t aiding Matt Barkley’s Heisman run the way that everyone (this guy included) thought they would.
Before the season started, I figured the Heisman race would be tight at this point, with Barkley just lingering around. Through my demented, drunk-on-pop-culture thought process, I had envisioned this game, relative to the Heisman, as the first race in The Fast and the Furious, where Matt Barkley, represented by Vin Diesel, was just hanging around, lingering within striking distance before… BOOM! He flips the switch, unleashes his NOS (Woods and Lee against Oregon) and blows by the competition in front of a PrimeTime ESPN audience.
But they just haven’t been there. And when they have, Barkley hasn’t always been able to find them. On paper, these three were more primed for success than a Yale graduate. Only this Yale graduate happens to have a crippling addiction to Adderal, only drinks Faygo Red Pop and got a degree in ceramics.
Barkley, the still-reigning King of Footwork (his pocket mobility is unbelievable) has gone through a rough senior campaign, there’s no two ways around it. There might be three, but I won’t go there. The loss of tackle Matt Khalil has hurt more than anyone could have really anticipated, and Barkley’s lack of trust in the replacement corps is evident in big moments and tight situations.
His always steady footwork starts to go stagnant, his upper body exhibits the predictability and control of the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man, and his propensity to throw interceptions while under pressure is alarming to say the least, if you’re a Trojan fan.
So who has the advantage?
It should be the unit that just produced 495 yards of offense through the air last week, the one that has three future top-level pros lining up on the same side, the one that lit up the Ducks last year… but, as the ellipses no doubt implied, it isn’t.
The 495 yards would have been impressive if they led to more than 36 points and the win. And Matt Barkley’s gaudy offensive numbers (163.3 passer rating, 25 TDs, 8 interceptions and a completion percentage of 65.3) would probably be a bit more attractive if there was any element of consistency to them.
But this USC team isn’t deep enough to be two teams. The scholarship reduction has hurt the Trojans, a fact we now know. When you bring just 56 scholarship players (as opposed to the normal 70-plus) on the road to face Stanford, the smallest misstep can spell disaster. The lack of personnel doesn’t allow for the Trojans to be even remotely off their game.
Oregon’s depth however, does. Oregon’s defensive backfield could even have an off day and bring in a guy like Dior Mathis, who normally comes off the bench in the second half but a guy who has also picked off two passes this season and deflected four more.
That’s why I give the edge to Oregon’s DB’s. This isn’t a total slight on the shining Trojan examples, rather an indictment of the rest of their parts on offense; skilled and not alike (save Silas Redd, who can be revelatory. Key word there? Can.), the Trojans have serious difficulty maintaing a standard of play, good or bad, for 60 minutes, a trait that visibly affects Barkley in a negative way.
Edge: Oregon DB’s.
Coming very soon: Preview #3: Marcus Mariota and the Oregon offense vs. the USC secondary
AND (yes, that is an all-caps AND. Boom.)
Preview #4: Trench warfare… The battle between both side’s O-Line and the Front Seven
Preview #5: QuackTown X-Factors