Trojans make a splash in Eugene

The most meaningless phrase you heard over the last week was that USC’s matchup at Oregon was its bowl game. It’s not because it’s a faulty premise — far from it. It’s because it’s been uttered before.

When USC traveled to South Bend, Ind., to face Notre Dame in mid-October, that was its bowl game. When ESPN’s College GameDay came to visit the Coliseum for Matt Barkley vs. Andrew Luck part three, that too was a bowl game for the Trojans.

So color me slightly confused when USC’s primetime matchup against the No. 4 Ducks on Saturday was again billed as a “bowl game” in a season in which it was ineligible for postseason play to begin with.

But no matter how you choose to classify the Trojans’ 38-35 upset victory over Oregon -— their first win in the state of Oregon since 2005 — it unquestionably puts USC coach Lane Kiffin and company back on the national stage, with a resounding thud.

Look no further than the Associated Press top-25 poll: USC is now ranked No. 10 — its highest ranking since Oct. 31 2009. For the first time since Pete Carroll left for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, the national consensus is as follows: USC has returned.

Over the last two seasons, Kiffin is 17-7 as USC’s headman, and undefeated in November this season, as the Trojans have put on some of their best showings as the season progresses. Sound familiar?

Since the second-year coach arrived in Los Angeles in January 2010, he’s been given the task of resuscitating a program that had been knocked down a peg — largely because of a myriad of limitations stemming from NCAA sanctions.

By the look of things now, it seems as if he knows what he’s doing.

Finally, in the mostly unlikely of places, Autzen Stadium, USC broke through, snapping the Ducks’ 21-game home winning streak, which dated back to 2008. It also marked Oregon’s first loss in Eugene under coach Chip Kelly, who took over for Mike Bellotti in 2009.

“’SC’s back,” sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. “We shocked the world.”

USC had nearly broken through the glass ceiling before. Last year, it led then-No. 1 Oregon 32-29 at the Coliseum. Earlier this season, it took then-No. 4 Stanford to overtime.

This time, however, the ball finally bounced USC’s way — wide left, in fact.

Leading by three points, on the final play of regulation, Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado pushed a field-goal attempt left to give USC the win, even after the Ducks had driven 66 yards on 14 plays in just over two minutes following a fumble from senior tailback Marc Tyler at the 14-yard line.

“I talked to all our older guys and said ‘I don’t want to feel that way again,’” said redshirt freshman linebacker Hayes Pullard, who led USC with 14 total tackles. “And it came out on our side.”

Since the inception of the program, USC’s existence, to a large extent, has been predicated on winning and winning in marquee games.

In recent years, such victories had seemingly eluded the Trojans: the laundry list is well known.

But such wasn’t the case Saturday. USC jumped out to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. It eventually led 21-7 at halftime. It would later lead by 24 points. Perhaps, most impressively, it never trailed.

“This is exactly why I came to ’SC,” Robey said. “To play in environments like this; to beat guys like this.”

And at last under Kiffin, USC has beaten a top-five team.

To a large extent, it’s tough to follow “the guy.” The guy, in this case, being Carroll. There is added scrutiny, extra attention and a great deal of pressure.

Nonetheless, what Kiffin has constructed this season remains, without a doubt, one of the Trojans’ best teams in recent memories.

It won’t ring in the New Year at the Rose Bowl, unless someone was to accrue tickets, but by and large, it’s playing at a level most fans are accustomed to.

Provided things go as planned against UCLA, the Trojans will finish the season ranked in the top-10 with double-digit wins for the first time since 2008.

Sure, it could be 2006 all over — where the Bruins, 11-point underdogs, defeated USC 13-9 — but that’s a separate issue unto itself.

As of right now, under Kiffin’s watch, USC is back in the top-10, and it just might be there to stay.


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