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    USC needs Lincoln Riley’s play-calling brilliance against Oregon
    • November 10, 2023

    PORTLAND, Oregon — The play hadn’t worked all last week in practice, so Austin Jones’ reaction to the call was fairly understandable.

    “I was like, ‘Oh, here we go’” the USC running back said.

    Knotted at 21 in the second quarter of a breakneck game with Washington, Jones lined up to the direct left of quarterback Caleb Williams, sweeping to the left to block as the jack-of-all-trades Zachariah Branch took a pitch. It was nothing more than a decoy, though; Branch quickly reversed course, tossed the pitch back to Williams, and a delayed flea-flicker call caught the Huskies by such surprise that Jones simply found himself standing with nobody to block as Williams threw to a wide-open Tahj Washington for a touchdown.

    “It’s Lincoln Riley, you know what I’m saying,” Jones said after practice Wednesday. “I got full faith in our head coach at any point in time.”

    Lost in the jumble of events and discourse from USC’s 54-42 loss to Washington last Saturday – the rip-off-the-Band-Aid firing of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch the next day, the promotion of not one but two interim defensive coordinators, comments from linebacker Mason Cobb about choosing to not watch film back of the game going viral – was that Riley was perhaps at his finest he’d been all season against Washington as a play-caller.

    He sent a never-ending onslaught of USC skill players, everyone from Lake McRee to Kyron Hudson, out for quick-hit looks; perfectly juggled Jones and seldom-used backups Darwin Barlow and Raleek Brown with starting RB MarShawn Lloyd out; and drew up one of the greatest flea flickers you’ll ever see.

    This USC team, heading into a last-shot conference effort Saturday against No. 6 Oregon in Eugene, has more questions this week than at any point this season. Inside linebackers coach Brian Odom and defensive line coach Shaun Nua have had all of a few days as USC’s co-defensive coordinators. The status of a couple key defensive players, and Lloyd, is unclear. So Riley and the weapons at his disposal are the only constants here, the only dependent variables USC brings into this volatile matchup at Autzen Stadium.

    Simply put, Riley needs to reach into his bag like he did against Washington – or even further – to give USC (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) a shot against a stout defense and Ducks attack that’ll in all likelihood put up 40-plus points.

    “They’re going to bring new wrinkles into each game that you have to be prepare for,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said of the Trojans this week, “and they’re one of the harder opponents to prepare for.”

    When USC has the ball

    Oregon’s secondary has been stout all season – the Ducks (8-1, 5-1) will surrender some short-to-medium looks, but have been largely solid at keeping plays in front of them. USC’s Tahj Washington has been successful all year in sneaking behind defenses; he’s on the verge of a 1,000-yard season, which would be a remarkable accomplishment for a senior wideout who’s improved every season as a Trojan.

    USC’s offensive line, meanwhile, will have its hands full with Ducks lineman Brandon Dorlus, who racks up pressures and hurries. Williams, too, will need to make quicker or more conservative decisions at times if the pocket collapses, as he’s struggled all season with strip-sacks and lost key fumbles in back-to-back games.

    “That’s gotta be better,” Riley said Thursday.

    When Oregon has the ball

    The decision to elevate Nua and Odom, Riley said Thursday, came down to a couple factors: recognizing there was little time left to prepare, sharing the coordinator’s burden would help alleviate overwhelming responsibilities, and looking at the combination of their experience and ability to work together.

    “Just felt like, for what we needed in terms of unifying the group, bringing the guys together, really let this being a point where we can really rally and close the season strong, just felt like they were the best fit,” Riley said.

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    Odom will likely take the play-calling duties with Nua on the field, and the inside linebackers coach has the defense’s trust, Cobb said Tuesday. The question: whether they’ll add changes to a scheme that has simply collapsed against the run too often this season.

    “We’re trying to keep as much same as as we can, trying to be more efficient with it, play with a lot of energy and have a lot of fun while we’re out here,” Odom said Tuesday.

    USC (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) at No. 6 Oregon (8-1, 5-1)

    When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon

    TV/Radio: FOX/790 AM

    ​ Orange County Register