Jason Says: Ducks are intensely chasing championships
In a season of memorable plays and moments for Oregon, especially the past two weeks, one of them sticks out.
Even with a broken thumb, linebacker Troy Dye played against Washington, and it was his all-out assault on quarterback Jacob Eason on a late fourth-quarter sack attempt that typified Oregon's season. Desperately and intensely, he basically flew over a would-be blocker to try to get to Eason and, although he missed out on the sack, the QB left the pocket only to be caught for the sack by defensive lineman Popo Aumuvae. Two plays later, the Ducks stopped the Huskies on fourth down to preserve their 35-31 win.
The Ducks are desperately and intensely chasing championships, and it's Dye and his teammates rising up to make things happen. Although Dye sat out because of his broken thumb, the Ducks rode CJ Verdell's monster game (257 yards rushing, three touchdowns, including an 89-yarder), an interception returned for touchdown by Jevon Holland, an interception in the end zone by Verone McKinley III and a clutch last-minute drive that led to Camden Lewis' game-winning 26-yard field goal in a 37-35 win against Washington State that ended a four-game losing streak to the Cougars.
If one word describes the Ducks of 2019, it's resilience. They are showing resilience in many ways, leading to a 7-1 record (5-0 Pac-12, virtually securing the North Division title) and thoughts of national playoffs. And, they'll have to be even more resilient to play the third of three tough midseason games at USC, 5 p.m. Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Trojans (5-3, 4-1) haven't lost in the coliseum, dealt Utah its only loss there — and the Trojans can take the South by winning out.
"That's what I'm most proud of with this team," center Jake Hanson said, of resilience. "Adversity we've been able to face and overcome the last two weeks, and other times this season ... that's the makings of a championship team. We just gotta keep this thing moving.
"This is definitely one of the most rewarding wins of my career — the last two weeks, 1 and 2, I don't know what order I'd put them. A win's a win. It's like a playoff game, that's what we've been saying all week."
Coach Mario Cristobal is proud that his players are not taking anything for granted, so far. The Ducks have moved to No. 7 in the Associated Press poll.
"Obviously we have a tremendous amount of respect for the entire conference," he said. "All these teams are playing at a high level and we're learning that nothing but our very best is going to be good enough. That's proven day in and day out in college football. You gotta show up to play, be very prepared ... play with toughness and resiliency, and make sure it's your very best."
Quarterback Justin Herbert orchestrated the last-minute drive but had his personal streak of 35 games with at least one touchdown pass end against WSU. Obviously, he didn't care about his FBS-best TD streak. Herbert said a mentality of "never a doubt" helped the Ducks move for winning points — Herbert went 4-for-4 passing on the drive, set up by a Mykael Wright kickoff return — after Washington State's Anthony Gordon tossed a fourth-down TD pass to put the Cougars ahead 35-34 with 1:00 left.
"We knew what we were going to do; we practice those plays every single day," he said. "It's something we're comfortable with. We had the right guys out there and we executed."
Herbert remembers UO championship teams led by Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota, and how they blew out opponents. Well, take away the Colorado game, and the Ducks beat Stanford by 15 points, Cal by 10, Washington by four and WSU by two. They're just winnin'.
"Winning Pac-12 games is tough; any time you can take a win it's a huge deal," he said.
Saturday's game figures to be another tough one, although USC has been dealing with injuries on offense and defense. True freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, the backup to JT Daniels entering the season, has been solid, averaging 232.4 yards per game (72.3% passing) and throwing 13 TDs and five interceptions. He has good receivers, led by Michael Pittman Jr. (brother of UO's Mycah Pittman), who has 50 receptions for 755 yards and seven TDs. Tyler Vaughns also has 50 receptions, for 638 yards and five scores, and Amon-Ra St. Brown has 40 catches, 432 yards and four TDs.
The Trojans have won games with all three QBs — the now-injured Daniels, Slovis and third-stringer Matt Fink, who took over after Slovis went out injured and engineered the Utah win. They've also had to win games with different running backs, as injuries have forced freshman Kenan Christon into action. The defense made big stops against Utah. The losses have been to Brigham Young, Washington and Notre Dame — BYU and Notre Dame losses by three points each.
"USC's obviously a very good team, it's hard to play on the road anywhere," Hanson said. "We're just excited for the opportunity, honestly."
As always, Oregon's bevy of players from the Southern California area surely look forward to playing in the coliseum in front of friends and family and on such a big stage with a lot of media attention. "I've never been to the coliseum, but I'm excited to get out there, it should be a great time going back home," said Verdell, who's from Chula Vista, Calif., near San Diego.
Verdell said the Ducks "gotta press the reset button" after such emotional wins. "Each week is a new week. Our goal is to be 1-0 at the end of each week," he added.
Just like the UW game, I had the USC game pegged as an Oregon loss before the season. But, again, it's a special season happening with the Ducks. I'll stick with my prediction that Oregon will make the Pac-12 title game, and beat Utah — and I'm thinking now they'll be 12-1 and then it's the job of Larry Scott, Pac-12 commissioner, and minions to put on an all-out media blitz to lobby for Oregon's inclusion into the national playoff as a league champion. (And, if Utah goes 12-1, Scott and his minions better do the same thing for the Utes).
But, a national playoff berth is a topic for another day. Herbert is playing well, Verdell and fellow backs and the offensive line are controlling the run game, playmakers are stepping up and a deep and good defense is continuing to be a difference-maker. The Ducks should beat USC, but it'll be a tight game.
The pick: Oregon 31, USC 24
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