What to watch for when No. 24 USC travels to No. 23 Oregon.
1. Must-win for both USC and Oregon: At this point neither USC nor Oregon completely controls its own destiny. But both schools need to win this game if they want a shot at their respective division titles. This is, after all, the Pac-12. Chaos can, and likely will, ensue The Trojans have a bit of the upper hand considering they’d win the tiebreaker against Utah if it comes down to that and both teams win their final two games. The Ducks, on the other hand, need Cal to beat Stanford in the Big Game to have a shot at the North.
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. the Oregon secondary: This will be one of the defining matchups of the game. The Ducks’ pass defense -- which gives up a conference-worst 318 passing yards per game -- has been a work in progress this season. This weekend it’ll have one of its toughest tests yet as the conference’s leading receiver comes to Autzen Stadium. Smith-Schuster has 10 receiving touchdowns and 1,160 yards on 63 passes. Seventy-five percent of his catches either get a first down or touchdown for the Trojans. Other individual receivers who’ve torn up Oregon’s secondary have given Smith-Schuster a road map of sorts, but he’s also more athletic than nearly any wide receiver Oregon’s defense has faced this season.
3. Turnover battle: The Trojans lead the Pac-12 in turnover margin (plus-10) and the Ducks sit third in that category (plus-5). But the key stat in all of this is what both teams have done in their three losses -- five of the Trojans’ nine total turnovers came in their three losses this season; seven of the Ducks’ 14 total turnovers came in their three losses this season. Taking care of the ball is going to be important in any game, but the Ducks will need to be especially careful of it against the Trojans, who’ve done a really nice job of scoring off opponent turnovers this season (79 points) and not allowing opponents to score off their own turnovers (24 points).
4. Rushing attacks: The Ducks’ run game has been a model of consistency over the past few seasons and this year is no different. Between Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit and Taj Griffin, the Ducks have a very dynamic run game that will face the conference’s third-best run defense. The question for the Trojans is: Will their run game play like it did in the Colorado game or the Arizona game? Against the Buffs, USC rushed for just 129 yards and no touchdowns on 37 carries (3.5 yards per rush) against a team that had given up more than 2,000 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns coming into that game. A week earlier against Arizona, the USC rushing attack had been explosive, gaining 229 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries. Oregon’s run game will be ready to go. But, which version of USC’s will show up?
5. USC’s middle linebacker spot: Speaking of Oregon’s rushing attack and how the Trojans will attempt to slow it … both freshman Cam Smith and redshirt senior Lamar Dawson suffered season-ending injuries in USC’s win over Colorado. Now the Trojans middle linebacker position, which had been incredibly deep, will become patchwork as Clay Helton puts together the group for the final stretch of the season. USC listed sophomore Olajuwon Tucker and junior Michael Hutchings as co-starters on the Trojans’ depth chart this week. Neither has seen much game action, which isn’t the greatest news considering Freeman & Co., but there’s a lot to like about USC’s rushing defense around that position.