EUGENE — Oregon outside linebacker Eddie Heard is a psychology major, and the look of relief on his face suggested that this week’s midterm for his child development class got into his head.

“Multiple-choice questions on secure attachment of infants to their parents and different types of attachment and different types of anxieties in kids,” Heard said Wednesday. “Tough.”

Heard won’t know how he fared until his grade returns next week. Until then, he and the Oregon defense are scheduled for a 60-minute, multiple choice exam Saturday that will immediately be graded pass or fail.

Such is the challenge of defending No. 24 USC (No. 22 AP; 7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) and its myriad offensive options.

Led by senior quarterback Cody Kessler, whose career numbers rival those of Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer in school history, the Trojans offer a balance designed to keep opponents’ defenses off-balance. The Pac-12’s most efficient quarterback, Kessler can throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who ranks among the FBS top-10 in both receiving yards and touchdowns, or two-way star Adoree Jackson.

“To me when I look at that team, you have to defend everyone because they’re all really good athletes,” defensive coordinator Don Pellum said. “I think from an explosive standpoint, their guys are as explosive or maybe more explosive than the guys we faced last week.”

The backfield has no headliner, but goes three-deep and can go the distance, too.

“You just have to pick your spots because you have to stop the run, first of all,” UO coach Mark Helfrich said. “It’s pick your poison.”

But USC’s offense has been characterized by more than just recruiting stars this season. Unmistakable is its unfulfilled potential. The Trojans’ 36.4 points per game rank 28th-most in the FBS yet has been the culprit in its losses, averaging 24.7 points and converting just 28.2 percent of third-down opportunities in three defeats. One week after scoring 42 points at Arizona State, USC returned home Oct. 8 and scored just 12 in a loss to Washington, a defeat that preceded the firing of head coach Steve Sarkisian and USC — which was ranked seventh and picked to win the Pac-12 Conference in the preseason — hitting bottom.

The 23rd-ranked Ducks (No. 23 AP; 7-3, 5-2) aren’t oblivious to USC’s past struggles, but tend to lend more credibility to the tape that shows a sometimes-dormant offense — USC has fallen behind 14-3 each of its past two games — that can catch fire quickly nonetheless.

“They’re some studs, basically,” Heard said. “And it shows on the film.”

Southern California wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster leads fans in song after USC defeated Colorado 27-24 on Friday. 

Just like the Ducks, the Trojans have won four consecutive games and must win Saturday to be in contention to win their division title. Each of Oregon’s victories in that stretch have ended on some kind of defensive stand, with its latest forcing an incompletion last Saturday on Stanford’s two-point conversion to tie with 10 seconds remaining.

Outside linebacker Torrodney Prevot, a one-time USC commit, explained the turnaround as a shift in the belief UO has in its young, rotating cast of defensive backs, in particular.

“We’ve been dependent on our defensive backs to do a lot more and just letting them know they need to grow up and show up,” Prevot said. “That’s been the biggest part, the guys learning their roles, knowing how to play and just knowing that practice is very different from the games in certain aspects and your mentality has to change throughout the game. … Us building more trust in them, and them building trust in us.”

Could Oregon be close to adding reinforcements? Cornerback Chris Seisay appears the most likely of any after leaving closed practice Wednesday holding cleats, suggesting he took part in some capacity. He has not played since Sept. 12 due to a lower leg injury.

Looking less likely as candidates to go are cornerback Tyree Robinson and defensive end Christian French, who left practice Wednesday in various states of injury. Robinson was on crutches and wearing a walking boot around his left foot and ankle, while French’s arm is in sling after injuring what appeared to be a wrist against Arizona State.

“Christian is getting as much treatment (as he can). He is wearing out the trainers and doing everything he can to get back,” Pellum said. “We’d love to get him back and get as many wounded soldiers back as possible because down the stretch everyone’s beat up. If you can get a guy back like French who was playing pretty well it makes a difference.”

In French’s place, Heard’s role has increased at outside linebacker, where he’s joined Prevot and Tyson Coleman as regulars in the rotation and has two tackles in the last three games. His contributions have gone unreflected in the statistics, though, as he helped “set the edge” and contain slippery Stanford back Christian McCaffrey to running between the tackles.

“With Christian going down it’s always a next-man up mentality so it wasn’t too hard for me to step in,” Heard said. “Just increased my game reps and picking up actual game speed.”

Adjusting to the larger role was hardly child’s play, but “so far I’m progressing every game,” he said.

This week will be a judge of that. Two big tests, five days apart, both of which lead to the question: What’s harder, the prospect of containing an offense as talented as USC, or explaining the tendencies of infant-parent relationships?

“The children are much more complicated,” he said.

— Andrew Greif
agreif@oregonian.com
@andrewgreif

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