USC's rise quicker than expected

EUGENE, Ore. -- The NCAA leveled a howitzer at USC and barely grazed it.

If that wasn't clear before Saturday night, it was as crystalline as the cold, dry Oregon air after the Trojans' wild 38-35 win over No. 4 Oregon at Autzen Stadium.

The bruise of being left out of two straight bowl seasons isn't going to go away. They still have to navigate scholarship limits for three more years.

But even people in the middle of this thing never saw USC bouncing back this fast, cruising toward a 10-2 season and finally getting its signature win -- snapping the longest active home winning streak in the nation and knocking the high-flying Ducks out of the BCS title picture.

You expect USC's location, its history and its talent to keep it afloat, but not this high in the water.

The Trojans (9-2, 6-2 in the Pac-12) are one lousy road effort (at ASU) and one three-overtime heartbreaker (vs. Stanford) from being undefeated. It looks like they'll finish the 2011 season -- barring some epic letdown against UCLA next week -- with the rest of the nation wondering if they're on the cusp of another one of their runs. Does this look like a team that just got leveled by the bureaucrats?

Coach Lane Kiffin has been talking about dark clouds that follow his team. Saturday, he finally admitted, a little sunshine broke through. It was the biggest win for his program, hands down.

From the day Kiffin, his dad, Monte, and the rest of his well-paid coaching staff stepped into the void Pete Carroll left, it's been a steady succession of grim news: transfers, guys getting out of letters of intent, the prospect of no bowl game. Somehow, a team full of freshmen and sophomores -- nearly half the team had never played college football before this season -- is in the driver's seat to win the South division of the Pac-12.

That hardly seems like the limit of what these guys can accomplish soon.

Athletic director Pat Haden was hoarse after the game, the resulting of all the yelling he did from the visiting athletic director's box and on the field in the aftermath. He said this was one of the most exciting moments for him since he agreed to take over the department two Augusts ago.

"We hope to have a lot more," Haden said.

Kiffin admitted he's surprised how quickly this program has recovered from the rubble of June 2010, when the sanctions came down.

"Yeah, I would probably say that," Kiffin said. "It's pretty hard for this many young guys to perform at this high of a level. You see us screw up, too. We're still making mistakes, obviously."

Yeah, there's that. The Trojans held a 38-14 lead here, the raucous crowd suddenly just quiet and cold. Then came De'Anthony Thomas' 96-yard kickoff return, the kid from South L.A. showing the team he spurned what it's missing. Then came Matt Barkley's stuffing a pass into tight coverage, resulting in a deflected ball and an interception. Then came some miscommunication between two of USC's most experienced players, Barkley and fifth-year senior Marc Tyler, and a fumble on what could have been the score that iced it.

Suddenly, this place was as loud as it's ever been again. The Ducks were doing what they do and USC just looked like a young team hanging on for dear life.

But it did hang on, the Trojans' defense summoning just enough oxygen to make the tackles that stalled Oregon at the 20-yard line with a few seconds left, kicker Alejandro Maldonado's tying field goal attempt hooking wide left.

USC players started streaking around the field in all directions, running in crazy circles, uncertain how to behave. Once, teams acted like nuts when they took down the mighty Trojans on their home turf. Now, USC is hoping for the bounce this kind of win can give a program.

Here's the funny thing. If you believe these guys, they expected it all along. Defensive tackle DaJohn Harris said he had a premonition. He was telling anyone who would listen about it afterward.

"I marked it on the calendar. This is the one," Harris said. "I looked forward to it at the beginning. In the back of my mind, I knew this was the game right here. It's Oregon. It's a great football team and we just outplayed them today."

It wasn't as if there weren't signs Saturday that USC could be competitive. Since the clunker in the desert, USC had dismantled Cal, Notre Dame, Colorado and Washington and gone toe-to-toe with Stanford. But it came into Saturday more than a two-touchdown underdog, in part because Oregon had blown by Stanford the week before.

"We came in here expecting to win," Barkley said. "After this, we knew we were going to shock everyone, but not ourselves."

It even had a little of the old paparazzi feel. It seemed like half the NBA was here, guys like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and other stars, apparently in town for some kind of Nike summit, watching the Trojans push back into the national spotlight. It's a little early for the Trojans to start seeing stars, though. That was part of the old culture under Carroll that helped draw the NCAA's gaze.

This program needs more of the blue-collar ethic and toughness that helped it climb out of this hole if it's going to keep progressing.

"We knew in order to win the game, we'd have to match their physicality," said Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas. "That's what we couldn't do."

Now, it becomes a matter of seeing what happens against UCLA, waiting to hear whether the juniors will declare for the NFL draft and then seeing where the experts pick this team heading into 2012. Suddenly, things couldn't feel more on track. What's amazing is how quickly that happened.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.