Fill-in Oregon beats No. 13 USC to win Pac-12 championship for second straight year

Ryan Thorburn
Register-Guard

LOS ANGELES — Even the College Football Playoff selection committee had to be entertained by the Pac-12 championship game – even if it effectively knocked the league out of playoff consideration.  

Oregon improved to 4-0 all-time in the conference title game with a 31-24 victory over No. 13 Southern California on Friday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The Trojans (5-1), who trailed by 14 points late, had outscored opponents 51-23 in the fourth quarter and completed three late comeback wins this season.

But a potential game-tying drive and a perfect season were taken away by a brilliant interception by Jamal Hill, his second of the game, with 2:47 remaining.

"Thank God I got my foot down," Hill said of the critical pick, which was originally called incomplete. "I didn’t even remember if I got my foot down. Coach (Mario) Cristobal asked me, 'Did you catch it?' I said, 'I think so.' "

Kedon Slovis, who had 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions all season, finished 28-for-51 passing for 320 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

USC's rising star is 12-2 in 14 starts against Pac-12 teams. Both losses were to Oregon — last year's 56-24 defeat and Friday's game in which Slovis was sacked three times.

"Really just came out with an attitude and a purpose and a mission," Cristobal said of the defense's effort. "They certainly made the biggest impact on the game."

It was an eventful week for Oregon, which found out it was in the championship game on Monday after starting preparations for a scheduled game against Colorado. Washington was unable to represent the North Division in the title game as the Huskies (3-1) continued to deal with COVID-19 issues that forced the cancellation of the regular-season finale at Autzen Stadium.  

Cristobal landed a top-10 recruiting class on Wednesday and a new six-year, $27.3 million contract on Thursday.

"One heck of a week, huh?" Cristobal said after winning the Pac-12 for the second year in a row.

The Oregon Ducks celebrate after defeating the USC Trojans in the Pac-12 championship game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The Ducks (4-2) were without starting running back CJ Verdell, who rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns during last year’s 37-15 victory over then-No. 5 Utah to earn Pac-12 championship game most valuable player honors.

Travis Dye (55 yards rushing) and Sean Dollars (52 yards rushing) tried to keep USC’s defense honest on a night when quarterback Tyler Shough finished just 8-for-15 passing for 91 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead utilized backup Anthony Brown for the first time. The Boston College graduate transfer was 3-for-4 passing with two touchdowns and ran for a key first down on Oregon’s final drive to kill some precious seconds off the clock.

"Whatever it took to get a win," Shough said. "We started adding the short-yardage and goal-line packages with him just to get some different looks…

"Anthony came in and was clutch in some of those moments."

Playoff:Brian Kelly is right. It's time for college football to stop worshiping the Rose Bowl. | Opinion

Staff picks:Who will win the conference championships?

The Ducks opened the second half with their longest drive of the season — a 14-play, 83-yard masterpiece that chewed 7 minutes, 40 seconds off the clock.

Brown patiently waited for DJ Johnson to come open for an 11-yard catch on a fourth-and-1. Shough spun out of a sack and picked up 6 yards and then completed a 23-yard screen pass to Johnny Johnson on third-and-5.

One snap after game-wrecker Talanoa Hufanga nearly intercepted a pass by Brown in the end zone, the veteran signal-caller found Dye for a 4-yard touchdown pass to give Oregon a 28-14 lead.

Oregon's DJ James made a clutch pass breakup to prevent a Jake London touchdown late in the third quarter. The Trojans then settled for a 21-yard field goal by Parker Lewis, who then executed an onside kick recovered by Bru McCoy as Oregon’s return team was caught napping. Kayvon Thibodeaux squashed the momentum, though, by sacking Slovis to end USC’s drive.

A roughing the punter penalty on Hufanga extended a drive that led to a 40-yard field goal by walk-on Henry Katleman to make the score 31-17 with 10:26 remaining.

Slovis connected with McCoy for 28 yards on a fourth-and-8 and for a 4-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal to get the Trojans within 31-24 with 6:16 left.

The Ducks went three-and-out to give USC a chance to complete the comeback before Hill’s heroics.

Brown’s first pass attempt at Oregon went for a 2-yard touchdown pass to Jaylon Redd as the Ducks took a 7-0 lead 81 seconds into the game.

The quick strike was set up by a Deommodore Lenoir interception of Slovis’ third pass, which the senior cornerback returned 24 yards while drawing a facemask penalty that gave the visitors a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line.

A hands-to-the face call against USC had the Trojans off schedule on their next drive, and Andrew Faoliu sacked Slovis for an 11-yard loss.

Clay Helton called timeout as USC lined up to punt on fourth-and-23 from its own end zone with 10 players on the field.

Oregon went three-and-out on the ensuing drive but a holding penalty backed the Trojans up on their own 5-yard line.

Hill intercepted Slovis to set the Ducks up for another short drive. After a 14-yard run by Dye, Shough threw a 14-yard touchdown to tight end Hunter Kampmoyer to make the score 14-0 with 7:14 remaining in the first quarter.

Cornerback Mykael Wright provided USC a brief spark with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness call, but on fourth-and-inches at the Oregon 44-yard line, Thibodeaux brought Stephen Carr down 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Slovis finally found his rhythm late in the quarter and capped a seven-play, 87-yard drive with a 47-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was drifting down the Oregon sideline uncovered after Lenoir slipped to the ground.

USC outgained Oregon 135-62 in total yards in the first quarter but both Slovis interceptions led to touchdowns and the Trojans were called for four penalties totaling 43 yards.

Brandon Dorlus sacked Slovis at his own 3-yard line, and JJ Greenfield got his fingertips on a 38-yard punt by Ben Griffiths to give the offense another short field.

On a run-pass option play, Shough threw the ball into the flat to an unguarded DJ Johnson, who lumbered in for a touchdown to give Oregon a 21-7 advantage in the second quarter.

Slovis moved the chains with an 11-yard completion to Jake London on fourth-and-3 and Markese Stepp finished the 12-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown with 4:35 remaining in the half.

The Trojans were in position for a tying touchdown just before the intermission after linebacker Kana’i Mauga intercepted Shough and returned the turnover to the Oregon 26-yard line with 35 seconds left.

The Ducks’ defense forced a 41-yard field goal attempt, which Parker Lewis sailed wide right.

The Oregon defense held the Trojans, who were also without their starting running back, Vavae Malepeai (knee injury), to 38 net yards rushing due to Slovis losing 27 yards on sacks.

Thibodeaux was named the game's most valuable player after finishing with a sack and two tackles for loss. The sophomore defensive end, who was in the backfield making Slovis uncomfortable throughout the night, said the award should have been given to his classmate Hill.

"Since day one he has been a dog, and I knew it," Thibodeaux said Hill. "If there was anyone on the field I knew was going to be great it was him and he showed it tonight."

The Ducks will earn the Pac-12’s automatic berth to a New Year’s Six Bow, likely the Fiesta Bowl.