Courtney: Burning questions for Oregon entering Pac-12 Championship vs. USC

There’s no sugarcoating it: The issues with this Oregon team are real

Posted on December 17, 2020

  By Chris Courtney of WFOD for SuperWest Sports

topsy-turvy last week within a topsy-turvy 2020 college football season is inching towards completion, as the Oregon Ducks head south to Los Angeles to take on Pac-12 South Division champ USC for the rights to the Pac-12 Championship.


For Oregon, the route to Friday’s game vs. the Trojans was a circuitous one.

Originally scheduled to face Washington last week in Eugene to determine the Pac-12 North Division champion, that game was ultimately canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Washington program.

With that, the Huskies were named Pac-12 North champs by default due to their conference record at the time. However, with Washington unable to field a healthy team due to the virus, they were forced to bow out of the game, leaving Oregon to take their place.


And if those circumstances weren’t crazy enough, Friday’s game will be played amidst week in which Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal has been linked to the head coaching vacancy at Auburn, all while putting the final touches on a 2021 recruiting class that is on the cusp of a top five finish nationally.

Then again, what else would one expect from a year as unscripted and as unpredictable as this one?

As Friday’s championship game appears on the horizon, I take a closer look—here and over at WFOD—at the biggest questions facing Oregon as they look to clinch their second Pac-12 title in as many seasons.

1. Do we see a renewed energy, confidence from Oregon after sliding into the Pac-12 Championship Game?
The Ducks take the field vs. Stanford on November 7 | Oregon Football via WFOD

If you remove the bluster and noise of the past couple weeks, Duck fans are likely to find themselves in an emotional state similar to the one they found themselves in after Oregon’s 21-17 loss at Cal; an emotional state underscored by frustration and disappointment after being handed back-to-back losses for the first time since 2018.


There’s no sugarcoating it: The issues with this Oregon team are real. It’s a team that lacks experience, lacks leadership, and lacks confidence, as each of these missing qualities has been seemingly exposed to a greater degree with each passing week.

And make no mistake, the Ducks, by literal definition, have backed their way into this game.

Though Cristobal and his charges are unlikely to make any apologies for the opportunity they’ve been afforded, their presence in the Pac-12 Championship Game doesn’t exorcise the demons that have haunted this team since the opening kickoff vs. Stanford.

Then again, for better or worse, maybe this is the carrot that needs to be dangled right in front of this team’s face in order for them to reverse some of the troubling trends that have been witnessed thus far this season.

The mark of any good team is the ability to play at your best regardless of the caliber of the competition, and it’s true that the Ducks have failed to demonstrate that quality despite the talent they possess facing a schedule that, quite frankly, many expected them to walk through.

But perhaps facing their first ranked opponent of the season in a high stakes game that could—at least momentarily—alter the balance of power in the Conference is all this team needs to snap out of it and begin playing their best football.

This year hasn’t exactly been conducive as it relates to flipping the switch and summoning your best performance, but it’s also one in which the unknown has never been more palpable for teams from week to week.


Oregon may not fully deserve to play for a conference championship, and the time between games hasn’t exactly been free of distraction.

Yet, situationally, perhaps Friday’s game is just what the doctor ordered in terms of incentivizing and emotionally galvanizing this team to finish the year in the fashion many expected of them in the preseason.

2. Can Tyler Shough shake off the worst outing of his young career?
Oregon QB Tyler Shough | Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via WFOD

A major question stemming from the build-up to the Washington game remains entering Friday’s contest for Oregon. With the biggest game of the season and of his career on deck, the Ducks hope to see Tyler Shough bounce back from what was undeniably his shakiest game as Oregon’s starting quarterback just two weeks ago.

At Cal, Shough bore the brunt of the criticism for the offense’s struggles against the Golden Bears, as the Ducks were completely shut out in the second half en route to their most anemic performance offensively all season (368 yards of total offense).

As the game wore on, Shough’s confidence and ability to effectively move the offense dissipated, as the redshirt sophomore was scattershot on throws down field, erratic operating from the pocket, and perhaps worst of all, turnover prone.

The latter item has been a persistent theme for Shough and the Oregon offense throughout the season, while the former two items have become more pronounced as the year has gone on.

usc logoFacing the Pac-12’s most opportunistic defense in USC, Shough’s challenge will be to limit turnovers, while still playing loose enough to effectively helm an Oregon offense that has shown explosive potential this season.

How he handles that, not to mention the stakes of the game, could serve as a true make-or-break moment for the Ducks’ first-year quarterback.

3. Can the Oregon defense carry over their strong performance against Cal?
Oregon DB Verone McKinley | Oregon Football via WFOD

It may be a different week, but the same question still faces Oregon’s troubled defense as they prepare for their greatest challenge of the season to this point.

As disappointing as the loss in Berkeley was for the Oregon football program, the silver lining in the defeat was the improved showing from the Ducks’ maligned defense.

Over the first four weeks of the season, the Oregon defense more closely resembled a hollowed out shell of the 2019 defense than anything that could be confused with the best of what last year’s group had to offer.

Blunted and sluggish in virtually all phases, the Oregon defense has effectively served as this team’s Achilles’ heel since the season opener vs. Stanford.

The disappointing play, however, seemed to turn in a more positive direction against the Golden Bears, as the Ducks held Cal to just 88 yards rushing (had surrendered an averaged of 208.25 yards/game in the four games prior) and 271 yards of total offense (had surrendered an average of 457 yards/game in the four games prior).

Moreover, they were fueled by season-highs in tackles for loss (7.0) and sacks (4.0), flashing some semblance of the havoc-wreaking nature they exhibited in 2019.

Yes, the lack of takeaways continue to be an issue for this defense, and it’s a change that must occur if the Ducks are to salvage what is turning into a misbegotten year.

But with a little less than two weeks to rest and recover from the accumulation of bumps and bruises incurred over the first five weeks of the season, Oregon’s defense may be the healthiest it’s been all season heading into Friday.

Of course, the task will be anything but easy, as USC features what is in all likelihood the best collection of offensive talent in the Pac-12, headlined by quarterback Kedon Slovis and a talented trio of future NFL receivers in Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and Drake London.

This story also appears at and is syndicated with permission. Follow WFOD on Twitter @_WFOD and Chris Courtney @csquared02.

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