The original script called for Oregon and USC to go into November unbeaten, with Saturday’s meeting in Los Angeles serving as a national championship elimination game and a preview of the Pac-12 championship contest.
The game still may fit both of those descriptions — or neither.
USC already is out of the national title picture, having lost to Stanford and Arizona, and another defeat could make it difficult for the Trojans to even win the Pac-12 South championship.
Yet if Saturday’s stakes are much lower than expected and the buildup is greatly reduced, this matchup remains vital to Oregon’s ambitions and intriguing to everybody else.
"It should be a lot of fun," said Colorado coach Jon Embree, whose team surrendered 70 points to Oregon and 50 to USC. No, the final score won’t be Oregon 70, USC 50. But the game will be entertaining, while providing a good test for an Oregon defense that USC coach Lane Kiffin credits with having "drastically" improved.
The issue, on each side of the ball, is whether USC can keep up with the Ducks. After giving up 39 points and 588 total yards to an Arizona offense that operates a somewhat similar spread scheme, USC will have all kinds of trouble stopping Oregon.
The Ducks’ speed is difficult enough to deal with, but their ultra-fast, no-huddle approach makes them even tougher to handle. Oregon snaps the ball so quickly that opponents have little opportunity to recognize formations and possible tendencies or even make defensive calls — much less substitute. "They force you to simplify your defense," said UCLA coach Jim Mora.
Say you want about Colorado’s defense, but Oregon’s scoring touchdowns on all seven offensive possessions in the first half last weekend is astounding. USC will provide more resistance, but that still leaves room for the Ducks to score in the 40s, comfortably.
That means USC quarterback Matt Barkley and his offense will have to score a bunch of points themselves. Nobody has done that against Oregon since last season, when USC beat the Ducks 38-35 and Oregon outlasted Wisconsin 45-38 in the Rose Bowl.
Barkley’s Heisman Trophy hopes have diminished, but this remains a big opportunity for him in a showcase game.
"It’s unfortunate that we’re not finishing off games and playing better around him, because he is playing really well," Kiffin said.
Barkley "has really grown as a cerebral player, just understanding that system," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly.
USC’s 6-2 record and a ranking just inside the top 20 obviously are not what Barkley expected when he returned for his senior season rather than enter the NFL early. His motivation revolved around USC’s access to postseason play after serving NCAA penalties.
Now, even if USC wins Saturday and knocks Oregon out of the national title race, the Trojans would have to win the Pac-12 championship just to reach the Rose Bowl. And the Ducks would remain in position to host the conference title game. At this point, the Trojans obviously will take whatever they can get out of this season, and a Pac-12 championship would be a nice reward for Barkley. He’s done remarkable things the past two games, completing 19 of 20 passes against Colorado and throwing for 493 yards at Arizona.
But those defenses are nothing like Oregon’s, which should elevate the Ducks above USC in the Coliseum.
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