LOS ANGELES – Five weeks ago, you could have circled Nov. 19 on USC’s schedule not with a red pen, but with a black one.
It looked like the one game this young Trojans team couldn’t win, like they were walking into an ambush with their eyes wide open, the flood lights on. Against the team that settled into the West Coast vacuum of the Trojans’ decline a few years ago -- Oregon -- at the most hostile setting in the conference -- Autzen Stadium -- in the typically fierce weather up there this time of year…
USC has beaten Oregon once in the past four years. It hasn’t won in the state of Oregon since 2005, when most of these Trojans were in middle school.
But then something happened. The Trojans started growing up. They started sensing what they were capable of and they learned how to do it. Does this sound like a team with no hope, like a team worried about if it can return to the top of its conference?
“I don’t want to say anything about Oregon, but we will play anybody, anywhere. We’ll show up ready to fight,” defensive tackle Christian Tupou said. “We’ll play anybody -- on the field, in the parking lot ... Nobody’s scared around here.”
“I think more than ever, we are [ready],” quarterback Matt Barkley said. “Oregon’s very good this year, but I think they were better when we played them in the past.”
Until the past few weeks, I would have given this young USC team virtually no chance of seriously competing next week, and a pretty good chance of walking away embarrassed. Oregon’s style is too uncanny, its pace too exhausting, its proficiency too intimidating. Now? Next week could display what was, what is and what will be in the Pac-12. I’m not sure USC doesn’t own two of those three distinctions.
It started, some players say, in the bye-week practices leading up to the Cal game on Oct. 13.
“We didn’t take any plays off. We didn’t take any days off,” Tupou said.
USC then got on a plane and hounded and harassed Cal’s quarterback, winning by three touchdowns; they went to South Bend and controlled Notre Dame from the start, keeping a rowdy crowd in its seats. They lost in three overtimes to Stanford, a game that left them equally heartbroken and energized. It wasn’t all that clear which team was better when the fog cleared.
Since then, they have pounded two straight opponents, reminiscent of their old ways. Saturday, the Trojans never gave Washington a chance to breathe, beating them from the opening whistle and, yeah, it could have been worse than the 40-17 score tells us.
This is a team quickly finding its way. To win at Oregon next week would announce that it has managed to come all the way home and it didn’t take as long as many people predicted. Losing Pete Carroll couldn’t derail it, the NCAA couldn’t keep it down for long and the rest of the conference couldn’t capitalize when it had to. If not for homefield advantage, I’m not even sure Oregon should be considered the favorite.
“They probably think they own us, but that doesn’t matter. When it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” USC cornerback Nickell Robey said. “Washington beat us the last two years and they probably thought they’ve got our number. We came out here today and got our revenge.”
There are a couple of things you have to do if you want to slow down Oregon and give yourself a chance. You have to be able to run the ball, your only chance to contain the tempo, and you have to be able to stop the run, Oregon’s primary threat. Washington plays nothing like Oregon -- its style more closely resembles that of USC -- but Saturday tells you the USC defense is finally figuring out how to play in Monte Kiffin’s schemes.
Washington, even with the conference’s leading rusher, Chris Polk, picked up 46 rushing yards. USC, with a couple of tailbacks still nursing injuries, had 252.
Even if the USC defense plays its finest game in two years, it’s hard to imagine Oregon not scoring close to 30 points. That’s just what the Ducks do. But maybe the Trojans can slow them down just enough to give Barkley and the offense the margin to do just enough more? Barkley didn’t even have to exert himself too much Saturday -- going 18-for-28 for 174 yards -- because the Trojans suddenly can bulldoze people. USC ball carriers averaged 6.3 yards a carry. Three of their four offensive touchdowns came on the ground.
The gulf seemed so much wider last year, when Oregon was pulling away for a 53-32 win at the Coliseum, USC defenders gasping for breath by the fourth quarter.
Washington just faced the two teams in back-to-back weeks. Coach Steve Sarkisian, who seemed delighted to gloat about the win here last year, didn’t want to pick between Oregon and USC when I asked him about it after the game, snapping, “I have no idea. I don’t have to worry about them any more.”
One of Washington’s players, defensive back Sean Parker, said, “They’re two separate teams. Oregon probably has a little more firepower.”
That may be, but it’s no longer quite as clear that they have more fire.