No. 18 USC, having won five of its last six contests, began preparations Tuesday for arguably its most anticipated game of the season: a matchup against No. 4 Oregon at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday night.
The challenge will be steep — if recent results serve as any indication.
Though the Trojans hold the upper hand in the all-time series between the two programs, 37-18-2, the Ducks have won the last two matchups, compiling a total of 100 points, including 53 points last season at the Coliseum. And over the last four seasons, they have upended the Trojans three times.
To make matters even more difficult for USC, Oregon’s most recent victory this season came against then-No. 4 Stanford by 23 points in Palo Alto, Calif.
“As I said the other day, [they’re] probably the hottest team in the country especially if you play them at their place,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said of the Ducks, who have won nine straight games since a 40-27 loss to No. 1 LSU on Sept. 3. “For the most part since the opener, really nobody has slowed them down, for an entire game. They do it at times.”
In turn, heading into the game, the Trojans are currently 16.5-point underdogs against Oregon, which ranks third nationally in points per game with 46.7 and has suddenly vaulted itself into the race for a spot in the BCS national championship game.
And unlike the Trojans’ last nationally televised, primetime showdown, the contest will take place outside the friendly confines of South Los Angeles.
“I don’t know if anyone can tell you that there is a better team when they play at home than Oregon,” Kiffin said. “It’s an awesome challenge for us and we’re excited to go up there.”
USC hasn’t won at Autzen Stadium since 2005, losing in 2007 by a score of 24-17 and in 2009, 47-20.
Last week’s 40-17 victory against Washington at home marked the second career start for freshman linebacker Lamar Dawson. He started over senior linebacker Chris Galippo, who had started the first eight games of this season.
“I’m getting more comfortable with the defense and knowing my responsibilities,” Dawson said. “I did all right but there is always room for improvements.”
Kiffin was pleased with Dawson’s performance, as the Kentucky native finished with three tackles and one sack against the Huskies last Saturday.
“Lamar looked good and played a really good game for us,” Kiffin said. “He’s going to be a great player and he’s starting to show it now.”
Though sporting a number of freshman in its starting lineup, the defense, which surrendered just two touchdowns against Washington, has made noticeable strides since last season.
“I think we have improved throughout the year,” junior safety T.J. McDonald said. “We’re a much better tackling team than we were last year and we’re a lot more physical.”
McDonald said the defense needs to focus on not giving the opposing team second chances.
The Trojans are excited about the possibility of going into a hostile environment Saturday.
“They’re going to be loud, it’s going to be exciting and a good atmosphere,” McDonald said. “We’re going to go in there, give a good fight and hopefully get the win.”
Most importantly, the Trojans plan to remain calm, cool and collected against the Ducks.
“We can’t get out of whack because it is a big time game like this,” junior quarterback Matt Barkley said. “We can’t let the elements get to us.”
Barkley said the team has matured from the beginning of the season, and he is not worried about nerves getting the best of them.
Sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods plans to bounce back after only having five receptions against the Huskies.
“Receptions were low, but we got the win,” Woods said. “Sometimes you’re not getting the ball as much but you have to contribute in other places.”
Woods, along with other receivers, was influential in blocking the Washington defense.
USC plans to go back to basics and focus on technique against Oregon.
“I need to step things up again,” said Woods, who already boasts 11 touchdown receptions this season. “Each week I get better and I need to continue so we can go out and beat Oregon. Oregon is a great team offensively and defensively. We just need to play well. If they score a lot of points then we need to match that to stay with them.”
Senior defensive tackles Da’John Harris and Christian Tupou and sophomore safety Demetrius Wright did not participate during Tuesday’s workouts.
Junior safety Jawanza Starling, Woods and redshirt junior offensive tackle Matt Kalil were limited. Kiffin expects to have everyone healthy by Saturday as Oregon awaits.
“Hopefully we get them all back,” Kiffin said. “We’ll need them all for a very challenging week.”
Woods believes that a signature performance against the Ducks will prove that the Trojans are a lethal program.
“This is our biggest game so far,” Woods said. “It is our opportunity once again to prove what ’SC is and who we are on the national level.”