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DUCK NOTES: Oregon gets it done in midst of COVID challenge

Oregon won its second consecutive Pac-12 football championship with a gritty 31-24 victory over USC on Friday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

The Ducks — filling in for North Division champion Washington, which was forced out of the game due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program — learned on Monday that they would be facing USC for the conference title on short notice and they responded with a performance worthy of a champion.

“Back in March we said whoever handles this pandemic best is going to end up holding up that trophy,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. “(We) managed to find a way to stay healthy, make it to every single game and sure enough, got ourselves here in the Pac-12 championship and got it done. Tremendous credit goes to these football players.”

Turnovers were a key factor in Friday’s game.

USC turned the ball over on its first three possessions, including a pair of interceptions by quarterback Kedon Slovis that led to two early Oregon touchdowns. The Ducks also capitalized on a short field after nearly blocking a punt in the USC end zone. Oregon’s three first-half touchdown drives totaled just 10 offensive plays.

“Right away with the turnovers, the pressure on the quarterback, stopping their run game ... (our defense) really just came out with an attitude, came out with a purpose and a mission. They certainly made the biggest impact on the game,” Cristobal said. “You could tell it was coming the last couple weeks the way the guys were practicing, the way they were pushing each other and holding each other accountable.”

Oregon also benefited from a replay review in the fourth quarter when Jamal Hill was initially ruled out-of-bounds on a juggling interception, but the call was overturned and the Ducks took possession with 2:49 remaining.

From there, Oregon burned more than two minutes of clock before punting the ball back to USC with 23 seconds remaining. The Trojans got near midfield but a last-second Hail Mary unraveled when Slovis was pressured into an intentional grounding penalty.

“When I saw it on the screen, it honestly could have gone either way,” Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibadeaux said of Hill’s interception. “But it was a great play, athletic play. In situations like this, if I was a ref I would always give it to him because it was too athletic and it was amazing.”

Brown gets into mix

Anthony Brown played his first snaps as an Oregon Duck and wasted little time making an impact.

Brown, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound graduate transfer quarterback from Boston College, ran onto the field in the first quarter for a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, and he perfectly executed a play-action fake before tossing a short touchdown pass to Jaylon Redd.

“We developed a short-yardage, goal-line package for him. It’s just a different look,” Cristobal said. “He’s a big body, he can run the ball as well, you saw the touch he put on that pass. He’s a really good player and he deserves to play, somehow, some way.”

Brown took several more short-yardage snaps in the third quarter, helping convert a fourth-and-1 with another play-action rollout and pass to tight end D.J. Johnson, then delivering a 4-yard touchdown pass to Travis Dye on third-and-goal to cap the drive and give the Ducks a 28-14 lead.

The senior was also on the field for Oregon’s final drive of the game, helping bleed more than two minutes off the clock as the Ducks attempted to salt the game away.

Brown completed 3 of 4 pass attempts for 17 yards and two touchdowns, and he also rushed three times for 9 yards. Oregon starter Tyler Shough was spotty, going 8 of 15 passing for 91 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

“He (Brown) provided an advantage for us. He executed really, really well,” Cristobal said. “We all very much appreciate Anthony for hanging in there throughout the season because it’s a position where only guy is playing.”

Brown was a three-year starter at Boston College, where he passed for 40 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards but also suffered two season-ending injuries.

In 2017, Brown became just the second freshman quarterback to start a season opener in school history and he started 10 games before injuring his right knee. He started all 12 games in 2018, leading the Eagles to a 7-5 record, and he started six games in 2019 before injuring his left knee.

After a second extensive rehab process, Brown announced in April that he was transferring to Oregon. He battled Shough for the starting job in the fall but hadn’t yet played a snap for the Ducks until Friday’s game.

‘Diesel’ makes an impression

Kayvon Thibodeaux had a monster game for the Ducks, causing havoc on the defensive line and making life tough for Slovis.

Thibodeaux, a 6-5, 250-pound former five-star recruit from Los Angeles, had five total tackles and two for loss in his return to his hometown. The sophomore blew up a fourth-down run to cause a turnover on downs in the first quarter, and he also sacked Slovis once, batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage and harassed the USC quarterback into a throwaway on a near-sack late in the fourth quarter.

“It was a great team effort. We had to fight until the fourth quarter. We knew that was what it was going to take to win,” said Thibodeaux, who was nicknamed “Diesel” as a youngster because he weighed 10 pounds at birth.

“It was the sheer thought that we had to play for each other. You could tell in this game that we literally played for each other. We cut out the noise and played with a chip on our shoulder.”

“When Kayvon plays like that he’s hard to stop. He changes everything because he’s an every down guy,” Cristobal said. “First and second down he’s stopping the run, he’s setting edges, he’s winning on stunts and twists. Then on third down they have to commit an extra back to him or chip a tight end to him because as a one-on-one matchup he’s very difficult to block. And he’s only getting better.”

Thibodeaux wasn’t the only local player who excelled in his return to the Los Angeles area. Running back Sean Dollars saw his most playing time of the season, rushing seven times for 52 yards, including a long of 15. Starting cornerback Deommodore Lenoir had two solo tackles and a first-quarter interception that set up the Ducks’ first touchdown of the game.

“So many guys on our team are from southern California,” Cristobal said. “The coaching and caliber of elite athletes out here is hard to match. It’s a very important area for us. I can’t say enough great things about the guys in our program from southern California and how they showed up big in tonight’s game.”

Oregon beats USC for the Pac-12 title. (John McGillen)