USC plays underdog role for first time in Pac-10 game since 2001

Updated: October 23, 2007, 10:46 PM ET
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- When Southern California loses, it's usually an upset. That won't be the case should the Trojans stumble this weekend.

For the first time since Nov. 17, 2001, the ninth-ranked Trojans will be underdogs in a Pac-10 game when they face No. 5 Oregon on Saturday. It will be the first matchup between top-10 teams in the 41-year history of Autzen Stadium.

USC coach Pete Carroll's reaction to playing the role of underdog was no surprise.

"That means absolutely nothing to me," Carroll said Tuesday at his weekly meeting with reporters. "I never bring it up. If you guys didn't bring it up, I'd never know."

Perhaps not, but his players are aware of the odds.

"I heard that today," quarterback John David Booty said with a smile after practice Monday. "It really doesn't make any difference to us. You've got to go out and play the game."

The Ducks were listed Tuesday as 3-point favorites.

"We like it," cornerback Terrell Thomas said. "The rest of the season is all about respect for us. We're still SC football. We're after respect, we've got to get that back. When you lose a game like we did, that's what happens."

Thomas referred to USC's surprising 24-23 loss to Stanford on Oct. 6, when the Trojans were favored by 41 points. That snapped the Trojans' 35-game home winning streak.

Oregon's loss was also at home, but not nearly as big a surprise -- the Ducks were beaten 31-24 by California on Sept. 29.

The Trojans and Ducks both bring 3-1 Pac-10 records and 6-1 overall marks into the game. Oregon is doing it with an offense that ranks second nationally in yards (550.9 per game) and scoring (46.6 points), while USC is third in total defense (252.1 yards) and 10th in scoring defense (16.6 points).

USC entered this season having won or shared five straight Pac-10 championships, going 37-4 against conference opponents. UCLA was a 3-point favorite over the Trojans in the final regular-season game in 2001, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, but lost to their crosstown rivals 27-0.

The Trojans went off as 2½-point underdogs to Michigan in the Rose Bowl game last winter, and won 32-18.

"They deserve to be an underdog going up to Oregon," Jay Kornegay, director of the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton, said of the Trojans. "Bettors have short-term memories. They only remember what just happened. You look at USC's last four games -- you've got to throw out the Notre Dame game -- they struggled against those other three teams.

"The way they've played, most of the bettors will probably come in on Oregon. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the bigger bettors came in on USC."

Kornegay said if Booty starts for USC, that could influence bettors as well.

Booty has missed the last two games because of a broken middle finger on his throwing hand. Mark Sanchez struggled in a 20-13 victory over Arizona, passing for 130 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions, but was much better during a 38-0 triumph at Notre Dame, throwing for 235 yards and four TDs without being picked off.

"Mark will take all the first-team reps. We'll prepare him to play the football game again until we know more," Carroll said, adding he had no timetable on naming a starter.

Booty threw extensively in practice Tuesday, discarding the glove he used last week.

"It felt fine, much better," he said. "I was making all the throws today you generally have to make in a game. There were a couple that got away from me. The pain really wasn't that bad.

"Hopefully I can do the same thing tomorrow I could do today. Thursday is the best day to tell. Thursday is going to be the day that tells how I am."

Carroll said Booty was making progress, but wasn't about to make any declarations.

"Not bad," the coach said. "He felt pretty good early on. Today for the first time he threw the ball down the field. He wasn't all the way back. This wasn't John at his best. He's close. We'll see how it is tomorrow."

At least part of USC's recent struggles can be attributed to injuries, but most of those who've been out have returned or are close to returning.

"We actually had six new guys practice in the offensive line yesterday," Carroll said. "That's a big boost."

Carroll is hopeful that left tackle Sam Baker (hamstring) and right guard Chilo Rachal (knee) will be able to play at Oregon, and said after practice that both were getting closer.

"I love this challenge," Carroll said. "This may be the best offense we've ever seen. Nobody's been able to slow them down. We've got to find a way.

"I think we're ready to turn the corner. You can just feel it. We're getting better, we're getting stronger."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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