No. 7 Oregon crushed USC 56-24 at The Coliseum on Saturday, nearly putting a stranglehold on the Pac-12 North while severely damaging USC's bid to win the Pac-12 South. It wasn't as easy as the final score might suggest, however. The Trojans jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to some solid play and an Oregon turnover, but from that point on, it was all Ducks in a 56-14 fight to the finish.
Justin Herbert finished the night completing 21-of-26 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for a fourth touchdown. His favorite target on the night was Juwan Johnson, who caught seven passes for 106 yards and was on the receiving end of all three of Herbert's touchdown passes.
Still, as good as the evening was for Oregon, it wasn't all peaches and cream. Oregon was penalized 11 times for 157 yards in the game and even saw defensive lineman Austin Faoliu ejected in the first half after he committed two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the same play.
As sloppy as Oregon was, however, USC was worse. The Trojans -- already ranked last in the Pac-12 in penalty yards per game entering the night -- were called for eight penalties for 92 yards themselves. What was worse were the four turnovers, including three interceptions from QB Kedon Slovis. It's difficult enough to beat a top 10 team when you play well. It's much harder when you don't, and USC didn't.
Here are the main takeaways from this game.
1. This was a statement win from Oregon: The Ducks are the Pac-12's best hope for a playoff berth. No. 9 Utah cannot be eliminated from consideration yet, and after an impressive 33-28 win over Washington on Saturday, the Utes are 8-1 themselves. The problem for Utah is its loss came to a USC team that is now 5-4 and just got demolished by the Ducks. Oregon's loss, meanwhile, came in the season-opener against Auburn by six points. Furthermore, the Ducks have just looked like the more impressive team this season.
Tonight's win was just the latest example of that. Oregon looks to be of a different class than the rest of the conference, and going south to Los Angeles and beating USC by 32 drives that point home further. Like it or not, teams need to have a certain "sex appeal" if they're going to make the College Football Playoff. Particularly if they have a loss and they're being compared to other one-loss teams. Oregon has it, and I'm not sure Utah does. Of course, should they meet in the Pac-12 Championship with a loss apiece, Utah will have a chance to prove me wrong.
2. The Justin Herbert draft hype makes sense: Now, last year, there was talk about Herbert being the top pick in the NFL Draft from some. That always seemed to be hyperbolic, but if you watched him play, you could see why some might talk themselves into it. He has the size, and he has a good arm. Like nearly all young quarterbacks, however, he's also inconsistent. Tonight's game was the latest example of that. In the first quarter alone, Herbert missed what would have been a touchdown when he underthrew his receiver after he'd beaten his man deep. A few plays later, Herbert made a horrible pass that was picked off and set USC up with a first-and-goal.
Herbert got his act together for the most part from that point on. He made some beautiful throws, and there were some ugly ones. There are still some kinks to be worked out and not just in his performance as a passer. Both Joel Klatt and Gus Johnson mentioned "leadership concerns" some NFL teams have about him as well. They then clarified that teams don't think he's vocal enough, and quarterbacks need to have command of a huddle. Sometimes the best way to command a huddle is to play well. Herbert's definitely capable of doing that. Another way to command respect of the huddle? During the third quarter, Herbert had to leave the game when he suffered what looked to be a knee injury. Not only was he back in the game a few plays later, but he threw a touchdown on his first snap afterward.
It will be interesting to see how his draft stock fares from this point on as the spotlight on Oregon gets brighter.
3. The Clay Helton era will be over soon: I don't think Helton's received a fair shake from most people. It's easy to forget how he took over this program and the shape it was in when he did. He went 5-4 as an interim coach and then immediately followed that up with 21 wins in his first two seasons as the full-time coach. He led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl in consecutive seasons. It's not like he's been a total flop. But he hasn't been good enough, either. This is USC, and while the Trojans haven't won a national title in 15 years, that doesn't mean they've lowered their standards. Helton hasn't lived up to them, and it's hard to believe he will.
Yes, they won 21 games in 2016 and 2017, but they've won only 10 since. They've been passed by numerous teams within their conference, let alone nationally. Maybe there'd have been a chance of salvaging things had USC won this game and gone on to win the Pac-12 South, but it's hard to imagine that happening now. Helton will finish out the season with USC, and he deserves to, but everything else seems like a foregone conclusion. It's only a matter of time before his players feel the same way. The final weeks of the season will be interesting to follow with this team.
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