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Linebackers key to stopping Oregon

Dion Bailey (18) and Hayes Pullard (10) will be put to the test against Oregon on Saturday. Ric Tapia/Icon SMI

The numbers for the Oregon offense are impressive.

The Ducks are ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring offense (53.4 points per game) and are among the national leaders in rushing offense, passing efficiency and total offense. They have scored 42 points or more in the past 11 games. The last time they were held under that mark was last November against USC, when the Trojans came away with a 38-35 victory.

The challenge for the USC defense is obvious, as the Ducks are a high-tempo and efficient offense that is simply playing at another level right now. The one word you hear used over and over again when talking about Oregon is speed: the speed of the individual players and the tempo in which they operate their system. There are many teams around the country that can crank it up to produce big numbers, but none have done it as consistently as Chip Kelly and the Ducks in recent years.

One of the ways in which the Trojans will look to combat the Ducks' attack is with an emphasis on speed from their own linebacker group. The USC linebackers were put together with an eye for defending Oregon because of their athleticism and production. These are the guys who will need to be making plays in order for the Trojans to come away with a win.

Dion Bailey -- a converted safety -- is on the strong side, and he is second on the team in tackles (52) while leading the teamwith four interceptions. Hayes Pullard -- a high school teammate of Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas -- is on the weak side, and he is third on the team in tackles with 49. Lamar Dawson can run as well as any middle linebacker around, and he is fourth on the team in tackles with 36.

"The USC linebackers have the speed to play this kind of offense because they can just plain fly to the ball," said Kevin Bruce, who played linebacker at USC from 1972-75. "The important thing will be for the linebackers to attack. The offense knows where they want to attack, so remove the mystery and attack them. Don't sit back and wait -- play your gap and attack the ball. Of course, the realistic part is that Oregon runs this offense as well as anybody, so the Trojans aren't going to be able to afford the breakdowns like they had against Arizona."

The variety of offenses these days in the Pac-12 demands that defenses be prepared to face this type of system, and nobody has dictated that adjustment more than the Ducks. Gone are the days of the plodding linebacker who was there to stuff the rush. If you want to play in the conference now, you had better to be able to fly around and keep up.

"The body style of a typical linebacker has changed," said Chris Claiborne, who won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker at USC in 1998. "Because of the lateral movement of the spread offenses like Oregon, a lot of linebackers are becoming almost hybrid strong safeties. Look at USC with a guy like [Dion] Bailey. You've got to run sideline to sideline to keep up with the offenses these days, and the linebackers have to adjust."

So how do the USC linebackers specifically go about preparing for Oregon? The Ducks have an extremely versatile quarterback, a pair of lights-out running backs, some solid receivers and a dual-threat tight end who can double out of the backfield.

"Dawson has to read the quarterback and running backs," Bruce said. "His strength is to run, so turn him loose to the ball. He needs to run with a purpose, and he can't get influenced to be downfield too far. Don't worry about the deeper stuff, let the strong safety take care of that.

"Bailey and Pullard need to play an outside technique, they are perfect for this approach and can react back inside as necessary. Pullard has to read run hard and be stout, as he is on an island on the weak side. Oregon cuts most runs inside, so the SC linebacker speed in closure to the ball carrier is a perfect match."

It all sounds so easy on paper, yet nobody seems to be able to figure out the Ducks on the field. USC held them at bay for part of the game in 2011, built a lead and then hung on for the dramatic win in Eugene. It remains to be seen how the script will play out for the 2012 version, but one thing is for sure -- the chess match between the USC linebackers and the Ducks' offense will go a long way toward determining how the Trojans will fare.

"The biggest key for the USC linebackers is going to be staying with your responsibility," Claiborne said. "Don't guess. That's what the offense wants you to do. Trust that the defense will have things covered and all you have to do is your job."