Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Does USC have an edge in a tight game?
By Ted Miller
Oregon's average margin of victory this season is 34 points. Its closest game was a 17-point win over Fresno State. Its closest Pac-12 game was a 22-point win over Arizona State.
But that doesn't even fully tell the story of the Ducks' dominance this year.
They've led six of eight foes by at least 28 points at halftime. The other two? They led Arizona by 13. They outscored the Wildcats 15-0 in the third. They led Washington State by only four. They outscored the Cougars 21-0 in the third.
Not only have the Ducks not played a close game this season, they haven't played a team that posed even a remote threat in the fourth quarter, when Oregon starters are eating orange slices and waving to their mommies and girlfriends.
So, if we were using a magnifying glass to look for any potential chinks in Oregon's decidedly spiffy and seemingly impenetrable armor when it visits USC on Saturday, the lack of experience in close games and high-pressure circumstances in the fourth quarter might be one.
What if the score is tied 28-28 with two minutes left? Who has the advantage? USC playing at home with a four-year starter at quarterback, or Oregon with redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota running the show?
The conventional wisdom would say the Trojans.
"There is a concern about whether you've had to play a complete game or not, but they have so many returning guys that have played a lot of football," Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said. "I'm sure that's not a big concern of Chip's."
He's right. Oregon coach Chip Kelly isn't a guy who projects an image of worry, and that is the completely unsurprising case here.
"All the game situations that could occur in a game, we hit in practice during the week," he said.
That means the two-minute drill, end-of-half and end-of-game scenarios, the four-minute offense, slowing things down and bleeding the clock when you have a lead, etc.
As for Kelly, if you want to understand his end-of-game meticulousness in action, go back and review the fourth quarter of the 2009 Civil War, when the Ducks ran out the final six minutes of a 37-33 victory, converting a pair of clutch fourth downs in the process.
Of course, Kelly had Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback, a second-year starter and a notoriously cool customer. Mariota has a reputation for demonstrating grace under pressure, but it has yet to be showcased under the klieg lights. You never know until you do. Or don't.
On the other side of the ball, there's Matt Barkley. As a four-year starter, he's seen a little bit of everything. In 2009, as a true freshman, he led a thrilling, 14-play, 86-yard game-winning drive in the waning moments at Ohio State. At the time, it was widely viewed as the coronation of a budding superstar.
But it hasn't always been magic for Barkley in close games. He's 10-6 in his career in games decided by a touchdown or less and, notably, 0-2 this season. The final possession in the 21-14 loss to Stanford -- starting at the USC 11-yard line with 2:44 left -- was pretty much an unmitigated disaster.
So, just as Barkley turned in some of his best work as a freshman, there's no reason to believe Mariota can't handle a high-pressure fourth quarter with aplomb.
Further, there's the matter of USC making that scenario play out. In the preseason, this game projected as a potential nail-biter. Now more than a few folks expect Oregon to win going away.
Said Kiffin, "Obviously they've done a great job of blowing everybody out. As a coach you like that. You don't have to worry about [the fourth quarter]."