The journey to get there was wildly unconventional, but Oregon captured its second straight Pac-12 championship on Friday night by withstanding another late rally from USC to win 31-24. USC entered 5-0 with a trio of last-minute victories to its credit, but the Trojans could never quite climb out of an early 14-0 hole, despite another late comeback effort.
USC had the football trailing by seven late in the fourth quarter, but Kedon Slovis' third interception of the night proved to be a costly one. As the USC quarterback scrambled out of the pocket to evade pressure with less than three minutes left, he made an ill-advised throw down the sideline in Oregon territory instead of just throwing the football away. The attempted heroics backfired when Oregon's Jamal Hill managed to control the ball and tap his toes for an interception after bobbling the football initially.
Then, with Boston College transfer Anthony Brown in at quarterback, Oregon got a first down, which allowed the Ducks to run the clock down under a minute before punting it back to USC. But the Trojans' last-gasp effort with no timeouts yielded no results.
This was the conference title matchup that was predicted in the league's preseason media poll. But Oregon was not actually supposed to be here. Rather, Washington (3-1) was supposed to represent the Pac-12 North in the title game. However, second-place Oregon got the nod when the Huskies encountered COVID-19 issues that prevented them from playing.
The Ducks rose to No. 9 in the AP Top 25 poll during a 3-0 start before consecutive losses to Oregon State and Cal in recent weeks ended their chances of making any noise on the national scene. However, Oregon appeared to have put the woes of those defeats far in the past as it came out blazing on Friday. The Ducks picked off Slovis twice in the first quarter to set up a pair of touchdowns as the Ducks took a 14-0 lead.
Though USC battled back within a touchdown three times, the Trojans could never get any closer. After an abbreviated season of late-game heroics, their clutch magic finally ran out.
Ducks' depth at QB a factor
Brown had not played in the Ducks' first five games entering Friday night, but he entered and attempted his first pass in a big moment in the first quarter. Cornerback Deommodore Lenoir set Oregon up inside USC's 10-yard-line with an interception on USC's first series. The Ducks faced a third-and-goal when Brown checked in for starting quarterback Tyler Shough and hit Jaylon Redd for a touchdown to put Oregon up 7-0. Brown also threw a short touchdown pass in the third quarter to put Oregon up 28-14, capping a 14-play drive. Though Brown attempted just four passes compared to Shough's 15, his presence as a second quarterback in the game was effective and something the Trojans had not seen on tape.
It wasn't the only time an Oregon backup quarterback made an impact. Cale Millen, a redshirt freshman who is not listed as one of the Ducks' top three quarterbacks, played on special teams and made a tackle in kickoff coverage during the second quarter.
Oregon sophomore defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux won the game's MVP award. He came up huge late in the third quarter after USC recovered an onside kick while trailing 28-17. It appeared the Trojans had stolen the game's momentum with the bold special teams play. But then Thibodeaux sacked Slovis for a nine-yard loss on third down to force a USC punt and swing control of the game back in Oregon's favor. Thibodeaux finished with five total tackles and also had a pass breakup while consistently getting pressure in Slovis' face. He's going to be a major factor in 2021 and among the top defensive players in the country.