Can't overlook when the Oregon, USC weaknesses match up

Oregon's spread-option offense demands a new statistical category. Call it: "Erroneous tackles."

An "ET" is fairly straightforward: It's recorded when a defense mobs a Ducks offensive player only to find he doesn't have the ball. ETs are almost always followed by BYAET -- "Big Yards After Erroneous Tackle."

Keeping track of ETs is so simple a statistician could do it with his eyes closed. Just listen to the crowd reaction. For Oregon home games, it's "grumble-cheer." On the road, it's "cheer-grumble."

There were many "cheer-grumbles" while Oregon's deceptive offense rolled up 661 yards at Washington in a 55-34 victory last weekend.

"Half the time, I didn't even know where the ball was," Washington linebacker E.J. Savannah confessed after the game.

Ah, but the Huskies' defense is pretty terrible.

USC's is not.

The BCS question of the week then is how many ETs -- "grumble-cheers" -- there will be in Autzen Stadium on Saturday when the No. 5 Ducks try to assert themselves as a legitimate national title contender against the No. 12 Trojans.

It's an interesting matchup of two heavyweight units. Oregon ranks No. 2 in the nation in total offense (551 yards per game) and No. 2 in scoring (46.6 ppg), and those numbers were compiled against a far more robust schedule than other statistically impressive units, such as Hawaii and Texas Tech.

Still, none of Oregon's opponents thus far showcased an elite defense that could match the Ducks' size up front and speed at the skill positions. USC, despite an injury epidemic, will. The Trojans rank No. 3 in the nation in total defense (252 ypg) and No. 10 in scoring (16.6 ppg).

It's the ole irresistible force versus the immovable object quandary, and something's got to give.

"They're extraordinary," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "They're the best offense we've seen since we've been here -- the most productive in every single category. They're just killing the numbers."

That's not game-week coachspeak, either. Want balance? Oregon averages 294 yards rushing and 256 yards passing. Tailback Jonathan Stewart, a 230-pounder with breakaway speed, ranks sixth in the nation with 134 yards rushing per game, while quarterback Dennis Dixon ranks fourth in the country in pass efficiency and has rushed for 416 yards.

Dixon's breakout is due in large part to a simplification of last season's scheme that burdened him with too many reads. Less to think about allows him to concentrate on the mechanics of his belly fakes to Stewart, skillful deception that often yields unmolested jaunts down the field -- those ETs.

"He's great at it," Carroll said. "And even when you account for him, he makes you miss."

The theory in early October was injuries might be catching up with the Ducks after do-everything back Jeremiah Johnson and receivers Brian Paysinger and Cameron Colvin were lost for the season, not to mention the suspension of receiver Derrick Jones.

Such talk slowed a bit after Oregon rolled up 108 points the past two games.

Want another extraordinary number? Consider the point spread. The Trojans, college football's perennial big dogs, are three-point underdogs. That hasn't happened in a regular-season game since 2003.

Of course, you might want to be careful with that number if you find yourself flush in a Las Vegas sports book. That game four years ago was at Auburn, where the Trojans delivered a 23-zip stomping. They also were underdogs in last January's Rose Bowl, where they bludgeoned Michigan, 32-18.

While many are eager to see the Trojans fade into the background, the reality is they appear to be getting healthier, particularly on an injury-riddled offensive line that is among the best in the country when intact.

Of course, the injury that is inspiring the most debate is quarterback John David Booty's broken finger, which he played with -- and poorly -- in the loss to Stanford but then caused him to sit out the past two games.

His replacement, sophomore Mark Sanchez, an incredible talent, threw four touchdown passes against Notre Dame, and now some folks are insisting that he should remain the starter even if Booty is healthy.

Carroll was noncommittal. He wants to see Booty throw this week and he wants to see how he looks after throwing.

"We have to figure out what the fallout of him playing would be and whether it's going to set him back another week," Carroll said.

That intrigue might actually become more critical than the offense-defense headliner.

USC has plenty of offensive weapons, but injuries, undisciplined play and uninspired schemes have left the scoreboard surprisingly quiet. Meanwhile, the Ducks are only fair to middling on defense.

The battle between strengths might be sexier, but the clash of weaknesses will be just as critical.

"The reality is our defense and their offense and both teams' special teams will have the biggest say," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said.

The result of the game probably will have a larger impact if Oregon wins. The Ducks' upcoming schedule is far more forgiving than USC's. Up ahead, Arizona State and Oregon State both visit Autzen Stadium, while road trips to Arizona and UCLA appear manageable.

Conversely, USC still has road dates with California and Arizona State to contend with as well as visits from Oregon State and UCLA.

In other words, a victory would put Oregon squarely in the national title hunt, while the Trojans still would have a lot of work ahead. Perhaps that's why the Ducks seemed intent on working the "just another game" spin this week, attempting to block out the bigness of the moment.

"Maybe sometimes it does cross your mind -- USC and the national championship -- but we've got to go out and just play the game," receiver Garren Strong said. "We know we can't let that get too much in our minds. That happened to us in past years and we didn't come out too well.

"We feel the only one who can stop us is ourselves."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.