Defensive Ducks are Pac-12 champs
Oregon wasn't supposed to play for a Pac-12 football championship.
Given an unexpected chance, the Ducks jumped up and grabbed it.
Specifically, the Oregon defense led by sophomore Kayvon Thibodeaux and opportunistic defensive backs, pressured USC quarterback Kedon Slovis from the first play to the last and made every opportunity count in a 31-24 win over the Trojans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Friday, Dec. 18.
"This had to be a physical game," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. "We had to play our kind of football and we were really itching to get back to our kind of football and we found ourselves there tonight."
It's Oregon's fourth Pac-12 championship game win in as many trips to the title game, and the ninth time in the 10-year history of the game that the North Division representative took the prize.
Oregon (4-2) will find out its bowl game on Sunday, but the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 is the best bet.
The Ducks managed only 243 yards of total offense and only one long possession, but the offense did just enough on offense to make a fantastic defensive effort count.
Slovis, the sophomore quarterback who led USC (5-1) to fourth-quarter comebacks in three of its five wins this season, threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns. But, under consistent pressure from Oregon's defensive front, he also three game-changing interceptions.
The last of them all but ended the Trojans' hopes as Jamal Hill made a juggling grab along the sideline to halt a Trojans drive at the Oregon 31 with 2:49 remaining — his second interception of the night.
The play went Oregon's way after video review showed Hill got his right foot down inbounds as he made a juggling catch.
Hill said his leg cramped as right after the interception and he wasn't positive his foot was down inbounds until he saw the replay.
"Thank God I got my foot down," Hill said.
Thibodeaux, who was credited with five tackles (three solo, one sack, two for lost yardage) was in the backfield all night as the Ducks defensive line dominated, was named MVP of the game — but said Hill deserved the honor.
"You could tell this game that we literally played for each other," Thibodeaux said. "We cut out the noise and we played with a chip on our shoulder."
The defensive effort limited USC, which has struggled to run the ball all season, to 65 yards on 25 carries. Factor in three sacks of Slovis and the net was 38 yards on 28 attempts.
"Our whole team, our whole staff can tell you that they knew our defense was going to play great ball. Because your practice habits (are) your game reality. You can't separate the two," Cristobal said.
Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough completed only eight passes (on 15 attempts), but two of them went for touchdowns. Transfer Anthony Brown, in his first action for the Ducks, also threw a pair of TDs — including a key toss to Travis Dye as the Ducks opened up a 28-14 lead in the third quarter.
The Ducks put in short-yardage and late-game packages for Brown, and — except for a late-game fumbled snap recovered by Cyrus Habibi-Likio — the former Boston College starter looked in command of the offense.
Cristobal said Brown deserved to play and gave the Ducks a fresh look in short-yardage situations, including a key fourth-down completion.
"We all very much appreciate Anthony for hanging in there throughout the season.
He's a really good football player and he showed it tonight," Cristobal said.
Dye ran for 55 yards and redshirt freshman Sean Dollars finished with 52 yards on seven carries as Oregon, which according to coach Mario Cristobal had only 54 or 55 scholarship players available, was without CJ Verdell.
Dye's three catches (for 17 yards) led the Ducks as Oregon receivers caught only four of the team's 11 passes. But tight ends Hunter Kampmoyer and DJ Johnson each scored TDs, helping Oregon take advantage of good field position when it had it.
The argument that the Ducks don't deserve to be Pac-12 champions because they finished second to a Washington team that couldn't play this week or last because of COVID-19 impacts, was shrugged off by the Ducks.
Thibodeaux, the 6-5, 250-pound dynamic defensive lineman,
Deommodore Lenoir set the tone for the defense by intercepting Klovis to set up the first touchdown of the game.
In addition to three turnovers, the Trojans were penalized nine times for 98 yards — several of them critical, including a roughing-the-punter penalty in the fourth quarter.
Oregon's longest drive of the season opened the third quarter with an 83-yard, 14-play scoring drive, when Brown found Dye for a 4-yard touchdown on third-and-goal. Earlier in the drive, Brown flipped a pass to DJ Johnson to convert a fourth-and-inches play near midfield.
The possession took 7:40 off the third quarter clock.
The Trojans, with the aid of two Oregon penalties, drove to the Ducks' 4. But the Oregon defense, especially a rip by DJ James to deny Drake London a touchdown, forced a short field goal.
The Trojans then executed a perfect onside kick, but went backward thanks to a sack from Thibodeaux.
"It's a talented (defensive front) front," USC Coach Clay Helton said. "We know Kayvon (Thibodeaux) and what he can do. I thought he had tremendous jump off the ball tonight.
"(The Ducks) did some nice things, got three sacks tonight," Helton said. "They flushed Kedon (Slovis) out of the pocket and got him off his spot a bunch. I thought Kedon did a nice job keeping his eyes up and downfield and creating a lot after being flushed. Credit to them, they're a good football team. Their front is talented and they played well tonight."
Oregon's next possession was extended by a roughing-the-punter penalty on USC and ended in a 40-yard Henry Katleman field goal to put the Ducks up 14 with 10:26 left in the fourth.
The no-quit Trojans converted two fourth downs, including on a 4-yard TD pass from Slovis to Bru McCoy, on a 60-yard drive to pull within seven points with 6:16 on the clock. A fourth-and-8 Slovis completion to McCoy kept the drive alive.
Oregon was backed up to its 12 because of an unnecessary roughness penalty on the kickoff and went three-and-out, giving the ball back to the Trojans with 4:43 left.
But Hill went high to make his decisive interception and Oregon ran the clock down to 30 seconds before punting, effectively securing the unlikely, but memorable, win.
Oregon jumped ahead thanks to interceptions of Slovis.
Lenoir picked off Slovis on USC's first possession and the Ducks converted a 9-yard drive when quarterback Anthony Brown, on his first throw of the season, hit Jaylon Redd in the flat for a 2-yard score.
Later in the quarter, Hill's interception set up a three-play, 32-yard drive with Shough finding tight end Kampmoyer in the end zone on a 14-yard play.
The Ducks' lone second-quarter TD came after a good defensive stop set up Oregon at the Trojans' 41 and Oregon scored four plays later with Shough finding DJ Johnson in the flat for a 14-yard catch and run.
The Trojans first-half points came on drives of 87 and 80 yards.
A 47-yard Slovis to Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was open after Lenoir fell down, halved the Ducks' lead late in the first quarter. A Markese Stepp 1-yard run capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive to pull USC within 21-14.
That was the score at half because the Oregon defense kept the Trojans out of the end zone after a Shough interception gave them a chance inside of 30 seconds before halftime and Parker Lewis missed a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Ultimately, the Ducks played cleaner football than the Trojans, and took on this challenge the same way they have managed the unique challenges of the pandemic.
"Back in March we said whoever handles this pandemic best is going to end up holding up that trophy," Cristobal said. "They managed to find a way to stay healthy, make it to every game, and sure enough we found ourselves here in the Pac-12 Championship. Tremendous credit to these football players."
OREGON 31, USC 24
Oregon 14 7 7 3—31
USC 7 7 3 7—24
Ore — Jaylon Redd 2 pass from Anthony Brown (Henry Katleman kick), 13:49
Ore — Hunter Kampmoyer 14 pass from Tyler Shough (Katleman kick), 7:14
USC — Amon-Ra St. Brown 47 pass from Kedon Slovis (Parker Lewis kick), 0:50
Ore — DJ Johnson 16 pass from Shough (Katleman kick), 9:45
USC — Markese Stepp 1 run (Parker kick), 4:35
Ore — Travis Dye 4 pass from Brown (Katleman kick), 7:20.
USC — Parker 21 FG. 2:28
Ore — Katleman 40 FG, 10:26
USC — Bru McCoy 4 pass from Slovis (Parker kick), 6:16
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