On the game’s sixth play, Marcus Mariota, Oregon’s first-year starter at quarterback, took the snap, paced back not more than two steps and floated a pass almost effortlessly about 20 yards over the middle of the field. The ball landed in the hands of a wide open De’Anthony Thomas for a touchdown.
An announced sellout Coliseum crowd that had waited months for a titanic clash between the Pac-12’s two premier programs was suddenly quieted. Sixty-five seconds in, the No. 4 Ducks were on the scoreboard, already leading an overwhelmed USC team 7-0.
“We knew they were extremely fast,” sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard said after the game. “We know their speed.”
Pullard finished with a team-high 14 tackles last November as part of an upset road win over Oregon in Autzen Stadium, keeping the much talked about high-octane offense at bay. But a year later, that same group was pummeled and shredded by a new-and-improved spread attack. And for essentially all of Saturday, USC was forced to play catch up as a result.
“They’re way better this year,” Pullard said of the Ducks, who have scored at least 50 points in all but three games this season. “They grew and they matured.”
In a fight for conference supremacy Saturday, Oregon’s offense flexed its muscles and raced past a Trojan bunch that looked exhausted just trying to keep pace. In the end, it couldn’t and No. 17 USC (6-3, 4-3) was outslugged, 62-51.
Pullard, along with the rest of the Trojans’ defense, surrendered the 62 points on nine touchdowns and 730 total yards — all single-game opponent records.
And so it was left to the offense to, essentially, match Oregon point for point.
“We felt it would be like a heavyweight championship fight, and there would be huge blows dealt throughout the day,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We needed to sit down, take deep breaths between rounds and go back and do it again.”
USC, which of course boasts talented playmakers of its own, was in fact able to trade blows for much of the game. Though trailing 21-3 by 14:48 in the second quarter, the unit would score three touchdowns in the second quarter behind a dynamic passing attack, engineered by senior quarterback Matt Barkley who would connect with wide receivers Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and Nelson Agholor on touchdown strikes throughout the period. And his throws to Lee and Agholor went for 75 and 76 yards, respectively, the third and fourth longest of his career.
Barkley finished with 484 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions on 33-of-54 passing.
“We knew it would be a shoot-out,” said the right-handed signal caller. “We had to play perfect on offense and score every drive. And those three drives that weren’t productive came back to hurt us.”
Aided by the return of senior running back Curtis McNeal and sophomore tight end Randall Telfer, the Trojans collected 615 total yards. But that wasn’t enough to slow down Oregon, which reasserted itself as the Pac-12’s top team, strutting past USC for its third win over the program in four years.
That effort was evidently spearheaded by running back Kenjon Barner, who amassed 321 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 38 carries, another USC opponent record. Mariota added 96 yards on the ground, as well.
Before the game, many carried the expectations USC could follow the same template from a season ago. After all, Oregon was held to just 35 points in the last meeting, including seven by halftime. But instead of producing a similar effort, the Trojans struggled to keep up with a team that many players called “faster” in 2011: faster passing down field and faster running the ball.
“We played them last year,” said senior safety T.J. McDonald. “It looked faster than it was because we gave them the edges. You get tired as a defense, you get worn down.”
Kiffin offered his own take, adding: “They’re better than we were because of the quarterback speed. He’s playing really well. We gotta find out how to make a sack and a fumble in those critical situations.”
Mariota was never exactly rattled, throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns, completing 87 percent of his passes.
Next up, the Trojans will host Arizona State on Nov. 10 at the Coliseum. The Sun Devils are 5-4 this season.