When USC and Oregon meet on the football field Saturday night in Eugene, Ore., there will be more on the line than the Ducks’ recently reinvigorated BCS title hopes.
The future of the Pac-12 conference is at stake.
The Trojans and Ducks have combined to win the last nine conference titles and Oregon is in prime position to extend that run this year. The Ducks have lost only one Pac-12 game under offensive mastermind coach Chip Kelly. The Trojans have looked as good in their last five games as they had in 2008 and seem ready to reemerge on the national stage.
Saturday’s game affords USC the opportunity to prove that while it can’t compete in the 2011 conference championship game as part of a postseason ban, the Trojans are prepared to challenge Oregon’s hegemony at the top of the Pac-12. If there’s a team that can do it, it’s USC.
As well as Stanford has played the last two seasons, the departure of previous coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL last season was a crushing blow to the program.
Harbaugh has shown he can flat out coach with the San Francisco 49ers and it was his recruiting more than quarterback Andrew Luck’s passing that turned the Cardinal around from a perennial bottom feeder into a top-10 team.
The Trojans used to rule West Coast football under then-coach Pete Carroll, so much so that the old Pac-10 was often referred to as “USC and the nine dwarves.”
A few down seasons, a coaching change and NCAA sanctions later for USC, it’s now Oregon that is the preeminent football program in the Pacific Time Zone.
For all their recent shared success, the programs couldn’t be more dissimilar.
It’s one of college football’s most tradition-steeped programs against new Nike money. It’s the pro-style, made for the NFL offense against the innovative, flavor-of-the-month spread attack. It’s classic cardinal and gold against an ever-changing, neon array of green and yellow.
In their most recent two meetings, the Trojans — like all of the Ducks’ non-SEC opponents over the last two years — have struggled to keep up with Oregon’s speed and trickery on offense. The Ducks have piled up a combined 1,212 yards of total offense — including 702 yards rushing — in the teams’ last two contests.
This season, USC’s defense is much improved. The Trojans have given up 17 points or less in four of their last five games and are ranked eighth in the nation in rushing defense.
The battle for Pac-12 supremacy has picked up off the field too, as the Ducks have used their recent success to recruit some of California’s most talented high school players. Oregon’s biggest recruiting coup came early last February, when Los Angeles native De’Anthony Thomas — the No. 5 recruit in the class of 2011 according to Rivals.com — chose to play for the Ducks, reversing an earlier commitment to USC.
The fact that Thomas played prep ball at Crenshaw High School — less than 10 minutes from USC’s campus — and that he received his “Black Mamba” nickname from family friend and ardent USC supporter Snoop Dogg made the spurning even more difficult for Trojan fans.
Thomas has flourished as freshman tailback in Kelly’s spread offense, leading the Ducks in receiving and kick returns while piling up 13 total touchdowns and averaging eight yards per carry.
The fact that Thomas’ decision came down to USC or Oregon is a testament to how bright the future looks for both teams.
Oregon’s ability to plug in players at quarterback (freshman Bryan Bennett has filled in admirably for starter Darron Thomas at times this season) and running back (De’Anthony Thomas splits time with Heisman Trophy hopeful LaMichael James and speedy Kenjon Barner) without missing a beat makes the Ducks less reliant on winning every recruiting battle.
In recent weeks, it’s become clear that USC’s biggest asset is its youth.
In the Trojans’ 40-17 win over Washington, only two of USC’s 22 starters (fullback Rhett Ellison and defensive tackle Christian Tupou) are redshirt seniors. Some of its biggest stars — leading receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, top tacklers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard and shut-down cornerback Nickell Robey — are freshmen and sophomores.
If the Trojans’ junior signal caller Matt Barkley does in fact decide to return for his senior season next year, the Trojans and Ducks will likely both start 2012 ranked in the nation’s top 10. Next year’s game in Los Angeles could potentially mean a lot more for both teams, especially for the Trojans.
Consider this Saturday’s game, then, a national platform for USC and Oregon to stake their claim as kings of the Pac-12 going forward.
With another blowout victory, Oregon would remove any doubt regarding their title of best in the west.
If USC can pull of what would be a shocking upset, they will serve the whole country a notice: Trojan football has returned.
As far as statement games go, they don’t get much bigger than this.
“Sellin’ the Sizzle” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.