Podcast: Sports editors James Bianchi and Kenny Legan discuss the most important game of the Trojans’ season.
The No. 24 Trojans, so accustomed in recent years to being the favorite when playing at the Coliseum, will find themselves in a new role Saturday — the underdog.
The Trojans (5-2) host top-ranked Oregon in a prime time 5 p.m. matchup that will be aired nationally on ABC.
ESPN’s College GameDay will be on campus, and the eyes of the nation will tune in to see if a No. 1 team loses for the fourth straight week.
Surprisingly, USC will not be the team looking to avoid a fall but rather the one looking to do the tripping. Saturday marks the first time the Trojans have faced a No. 1 team since 1992, and the first time one has visited the Coliseum since 1988.
But confidence is present in the Trojan camp.
“We definitely have the capability of beating Oregon,” sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley said.
Some of the Trojans’ bravado likely stems from their 48-14 drubbing of Cal two weeks ago, which was USC’s first complete game on both sides of the ball this season.
USC has had a bye week since then, giving it extra time to prepare for the Ducks’ aptly named “blur offense.”
Barkley said the key to the game would be the turnover battle, emphasizing that when he is in control, USC’s offense needs to protect the ball.
That is not a bad idea, considering the Ducks (7-0) lead the nation in turnover margin.
But it was not that statistic that vaulted Oregon to the top of the national polls. Rather, it was its offense, which is playing at a tempo almost unheard of in college football and scoring a ton of points while doing so.
The Ducks run one play after another at a breakneck pace. On average, the time between their plays is about 23.2 seconds, almost 32 percent faster than the national average. Oregon makes its living on tiring out opposing defenses, which means the Trojans expect to substitute more.
“We’re going to try to play more guys than normal,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We’re going to need some people who maybe haven’t played that much or made significant plays to step up for us. We can’t leave our main guys out there the whole time. [The Ducks] just play too fast.”
Oregon has torched opponents for 55.8 points per game and averages 569 yards per game. It will be up to the Trojans’ defense to slow the Ducks’ attack enough to keep the score close.
Freshman cornerback Nickell Robey said USC’s success will be determined by how well it can translate what the players have worked on in practice into the game Saturday.
“Coming into this game, you just got to pretty much have a plan, and just go to that plan and execute,” Robey said.
A bye week came at a good time for the injured Trojans, who could see multiple players return from ailments, including senior linebacker Malcolm Smith, redshirt sophomore defensive end Wes Horton and freshman tailback Dillon Baxter.
Yet, others remain questionable. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Nick Perry and junior offensive tackle Tyron Smith continue to battle ankle injuries.
Whatever hype surrounds this game, that amount would surely be multiplied if the Trojans had not lost on last-second field goals to Washington and Stanford. Otherwise, the Trojans would be undefeated and among the nation’s top-rated teams.
So do the Trojans need this game to get back on the national radar?
“I don’t think [a win] puts us on the map,” Kiffin said. “’SC’s been on the map for a long time and it will continue to be.”