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November 18, 2011

Oregon can't get caught napping against USC

In a perfect world Reggie Bush never would have accepted illegal benefits, USC would be eligible for postseason appearances, the Trojans (8-2) and Oregon (9-1) would be entering a potential preview of the Pac-12 championship game and hype would be building as bulletin-board material was exchanged between Los Angeles and Eugene.

Instead, all that's been said is just bulletins for the bored.

USC quarterback Matt Barkley apparently tried to do his part earlier this week when he proclaimed: "I think Oregon is very good this year. But I think they were better when we played them in the past."

That's not exactly throwing down the gauntlet. And any outrage that rather benign statement might have created in Eugene was squelched when local columnist George Schroeder actually agreed.

Seriously, opining that Oregon isn't as good as last season's team that came within three points of winning the national championship doesn't really qualify as a cheap shot, does it?

Yet on a relatively mundane weekend of college football, the Oregon-USC slowdown showdown is the best on the national schedule because it offers:

A clash of ranked teams. Oregon is No. 4 in all polls. USC is No. 18 in the AP poll, but ineligible in the coaches' poll and in the BCS standings.

Intrigue. Oregon tailback LaMichael James, who has rushed for 1,207 yards, has resurfaced among the Heisman contenders and will be facing a defense that is eighth in the nation against the run and has shut down three 1,000-yard rushers. "We've shown we can stop the run all year," Trojans defensive end Devon Kennard said. "So we've got to go out and do what we do."

Gamesmanship. USC coach Lane Kiffin has hinted star wide receiver Robert Woods may not be available because of ankle and shoulder injuries. Of course, Oregon coach Chip Kelly wasn't buying it. "He's playing. I can tell you that right now," Kelly said. "I love that kid. He's a competitor."

Controversy. Oregon true freshman running back/receiver De'Anthony Thomas is a resident of Los Angeles who originally committed to USC. He changed his mind late in the recruiting process. But there doesn't seem to be much animosity for Thomas, who has several friends and former high school teammates on the USC roster. "Off the field we're like best of friends, like brothers," USC linebacker Hayes Pullard told local media this week. "Like I always tell him, 'On the field I'm not your friend. I don't know who you are on the field. I just see an opposite-colored jersey. I'm going to kill you on the field. You better hope I don't catch you.' "

Hmm ... a linebacker wanting to get a kill shot on a running back. That's hardly news.

[Video: Should Oregon play for the BCS title?]

Perhaps the Oregon-USC game doesn't come off as a bitter feud because there isn't that much at stake.

True, a loss would end Oregon's national championship hopes, but the Ducks are long shots to get into the national championship game anyway. And even in the event of an upset, Oregon still clinches a place in the Pac-12 championship game by beating Oregon State next week.

A victory over Oregon certainly would be celebrated by USC, but the Trojans can't represent the South in the conference championship game even if they finish first in the division.

Future matchups between the Ducks and Trojans figure to be bitter confrontations with championship implications at stake.

But for now, it's just the best game in a lackluster week of games.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Oregon run offense vs. USC run defense: LaMichael James averages 150.9 rushing yards per game to lead the nation. Backups Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas and QB Darron Thomas are accomplished runners, too. The Ducks are fifth in the country in rushing offense and have rushed for at least 212 yards in nine consecutive games. USC is eighth nationally in run defense. The Trojans have held eight opponents to 134 or fewer rushing yards, and no opponent has rushed for 200. USC has held three of the Pac-12's four 1,000-yard rushers to fewer than 60 yards (Washington's Chris Polk had 36, Cal's Isi Sofele had 44 and Utah's John White had 56). The Trojans will try for the grand slam against James. Edge: Oregon

Oregon pass offense vs. USC pass defense: The Ducks pass just enough to complement their running game. When opponents become too focused on stopping the run, Darron Thomas is more than capable of taking advantage. He's thrown for 1,704 yards and 22 touchdowns. De'Anthony Thomas is a big-play receiver who averages 15.7 yards per catch, and big Lavasier Tuinei leads the Ducks with 30 catches and eight touchdowns. TE David Paulson often is overlooked, but he has 17 catches, with four going for touchdowns. USC's pass defense has allowed at least 250 yards in five games and the Trojans are 100th in the nation in pass defense. They've allowed 16 touchdown passes and have eight interceptions. But USC has a solid pass rush that has produced 23 sacks. DE Nick Perry leads the team with 7.5. Edge: Oregon

[More Oregon coverage: DuckSportsAuthority.com]

USC run offense vs. Oregon run defense: USC's running game is on a roll. The Trojans have amassed more than 200 rushing yards in three of their past four games. That coincides with the emergence of speedy junior TB Curtis McNeal, who has 498 yards in that span. Marc Tyler provides a powerful option, too. Oregon had some early issues in run defense, but has held each of its past four opponents to 129 or fewer yards. The Ducks have not allowed multiple rushing touchdowns since the second game of the season. Edge: USC

USC pass offense vs. Oregon pass defense: QB Matt Barkley is one of the best in the country. He has thrown for 2,782 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only six interceptions. Sophomore WR Robert Woods had 92 receptions for 1,126 yards and 11 touchdowns, and freshman Marqise Lee has developed into a dangerous complementary threat. He has 25 receptions for 292 yards and four touchdowns in the past four games. The Trojans' offensive line has surrendered just six sacks, and LT Matt Kalil might be the best lineman in the nation. Conversely, Oregon's pass rush is fifth in the country with 32 sacks. Josh Kaddu has 6.5 sacks and Dion Jordan has 4.5. The Ducks are 78th in the country in pass defense and have allowed at least 256 yards in five games. Edge: USC

[More USC coverage: USCFootball.com]

Oregon special teams vs. USC special teams: The Ducks' return teams are scary. James averages 17 yards on punt returns, which would rank second in the country if he had enough attempts to qualify for the NCAA rankings. De'Anthony Thomas averages 25.2 on kickoff returns and has a touchdown. The Ducks are also good in kick coverage. K Alejandro Maldonado has hit 6-of-10 field-goal attempts but his longest is just 40 yards. P Jackson Rice ranks third in the nation with a 46.8-yard average. USC's return teams are solid, too. Woods averages 9.1 yards on punt returns and 23.1 yards on kickoffs. The Trojans need to tighten up on coverage, especially punts. Freshman K Andre Heidari is having a good year, hitting 14-of-16 attempts, with a long of 50. P Kyle Negrete averages just 38.7 yards, but he has killed 17 punts inside the 20. Edge: Oregon

Oregon coaching staff vs. USC coaching staff: Chip Kelly is now 32-5 in three seasons as Oregon's coach and is zeroing in on a third consecutive conference championship. The Ducks have been among the nation's top offensive teams since his arrival as offensive coordinator five years ago. He's 2-0 vs. USC as coach. Nick Aliotti is one of the more inventive defensive coordinators around, and he loves to blitz. USC coach Lane Kiffin is making progress in building the Trojans back into a national power. After an 8-5 inaugural season last year, USC is 8-2 and hoping for a 10-win season. Edge: Oregon

X-factor: Last week, Oregon posted a vital and emotional victory over Stanford that puts the Ducks in position to win their third consecutive conference championship. Now, the Ducks must guard against any hangover or emotional letdown. Normally, that wouldn't be an issue against USC. But Oregon has won three of the past four against the Trojans. The Ducks could get in trouble if they're not focused.

[Video: Heisman race now 'wide open']

OREGON WINS IF: The Ducks need continued success from the running game in general and James in particular. They must also pressure Barkley as well as they did Andrew Luck in last week's win over Stanford.

USC WILL WIN IF: Protecting Barkley is vital. USC's offensive line must slow Oregon's pass rush so Barkley can find Woods and Lee downfield. They're capable of making huge plays, and the Trojans must take advantage on that. Of course, slowing down the running game always is a major goal when facing Oregon, but not one that's often accomplished. USC has to avoid turnovers, which would giving Oregon's explosive offense extra opportunities.

[Radio: Chip Kelly on USC]

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Oregon 34, USC 28
David Fox: Oregon 48, USC 28
Mike Huguenin: Oregon 44, USC 31
Steve Megargee: Oregon 34, USC 24

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Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com, and you can follow him on Twitter.



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