Oregon-USC: Ducks keep national title hopes in sight with visit to stumbling Trojans
LOS ANGELES – Southern California linebacker Hayes Pullard connects with Oregon tailback De'Anthony Thomas pretty much every day, either by phone or text.
They went to Crenshaw High School together, and they've been anticipating the Ducks' visit to the Coliseum on Saturday virtually since graduation.
"We usually talk about other things, but this week it went to football right away," Pullard said.
They're not alone. No. 2 Oregon's visit to Los Angeles has loomed as the biggest day on the Pac-12 calendar since late last year, when USC demonstrated the Ducks couldn't completely dominate the West Coast.
Oregon (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) has won 11 straight games and the Rose Bowl since that 38-35 loss to USC in Eugene, seamlessly replacing key starters on its spread offense while building a defense that might be the Ducks' best yet.
The 18th-ranked Trojans (6-2, 4-2) haven't exactly lived up to the promise of that gritty road win. Two narrow road losses this fall have knocked the preseason's No. 1 team out of the national title race and left them significant underdogs in their own stadium Saturday.
Just don't try to tell anybody on either sideline that this showdown has lost any significance.
"I don't think anything has changed much," said Robert Woods, USC's All-American receiver. "Oregon is still going to come here and play like it's a championship game, and I know we will. I hope they don't overlook us."
Even a two-loss USC team is an attention-grabber for Oregon, which is roaring down the stretch of another spectacular season. The Ducks haven't even played a close game, trouncing every opponent by at least 17 points while leading the nation in scoring.
"Playoffs started in college football on the first game of the season, and when you lose, you're done," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "Look who tumbles and goes. That's not hard for our guys to figure that out. If you have a vision of what you want to get accomplished, you'd better take each game like it's the Super Bowl."
That's not tough to do while playing in the stadium that hosted the first Super Bowl. Yet if last November's close loss to USC provides the Ducks with any special motivation, they weren't acknowledging it while heading to their first of three road games in four weeks to close out the regular season.
"They've got guys. USC always has athletes," said Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who admired Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush on television while growing up. "It's always about trying to get them to think a little bit. We'll see what we can do, but they've got guys that can really come down and make some plays. ... USC has got some depth issues. Arizona just did a good job tempo-ing them, and it kind of worked out for them."
The precocious freshman referred to the speed-it-up spread offense run by the No. 24 Wildcats, who erased USC's national title hopes with a 39-36 victory last week. Oregon's offense plays at an unmatched pace, but the Trojans showed last year that it's possible to keep up, particularly if an opponent gets out to an early lead.
"Well, we did it last year for three quarters," USC defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said. "We were in the right position and made tackles in space. You've got to make plays and get out in space, stick with your assignments, keep it all together. It's amazing the number of plays they run at the speed they run them, and with the precision they run them. Those guys will run the ball down your throat, so you can't just be screaming down the field."
USC is hoping for help from the fans in its cavernous home stadium, which sold out in mid-August in anticipation of this visit. After USC's other loss this season, a seven-point defeat at Stanford, the Trojans rebounded with four fairly impressive wins. If they could duplicate that feat in November, they might have a shot at an at-large BCS bowl berth.
"I think there was a little more shock in that first loss because we weren't expecting it, but guys are bouncing back and ready to go right now," USC quarterback Matt Barkley said.
While USC coach Lane Kiffin was searching for ways to correct the mistakes of the FBS' most-penalized team this week, he made sure his players realize they've still got significant goals within reach — including a possible rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 title game late this month.
Last year's win in Eugene is among the highlights of Barkley's four years as a starter, but he's still thinking about how to land a berth in a big bowl game as a senior.
"I really think that in both games we've lost, we've hurt ourselves, and we can't do that against Oregon," Barkley said. "They're too good. You can't start to get out of your schemes and what you're trying to do as an offense. We've just got to control the ball, eliminate turnovers and give Oregon the least chances possible to score."
Barkley is coming off the most prolific game in school history, a 493-yard effort against Arizona that included a record 345 yards receiving by Marqise Lee, who spent much of this week working on midterm exams. A week earlier, Barkley went 19 for 20 with one dropped pass against Colorado.
Barkley has been brilliant lately, but the Trojans are marveling at the maturity of Mariota, who has stepped into Darron Thomas' spot in the offense with remarkable fluidity. Orgeron realizes his defense must guard against Mariota's running ability, which can turn good defensive stops into failures.
"This quarterback is way faster," Pullard said. "He just got mature in the offense real fast in the offseason. I don't know how he did it."
The Trojans also must deal with tailback Kenjon Barner, a Riverside, Calif., native eager to play in front of his friends and family, along with Thomas, who unexpectedly ditched the Trojans for the Ducks late in recruiting in 2011. USC has proved it can handle the Ducks' talented playmakers before, but the Trojans are about to find out whether anybody can do it twice.
"We went up there and didn't give up many explosion plays, which they're famous for," Pullard said. "We have to go in with a similar game plan. We need to pack our running game, pack our defense and don't give up any of those big plays. Everything is about disrupting their flow."
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Oregon contributed to this report.