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Ducks Are USC's Last Best Chance

College football: Trojans know that if they lose to Oregon, any glimmer of meeting expectations will fade.

October 12, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last two weeks have been a free fall, two losses that have sent USC tumbling out of the polls, plummeting to the bottom of the Rose Bowl standings.

Still, the Trojans find themselves clinging to a thread of hope.

Hope for the kind of season that ends with a ranking and a reasonably high-profile bowl game.

Hope for the kind of finish that takes the heat off their embattled coach.

But it all hinges on Saturday's game against Oregon.

"We can't afford another loss," safety Ifeanyi Ohalate said. "If we have three losses, this team could go in the tank."

Though a loss does not preclude a 9-3 or 8-4 finish, the Oregon game is probably the last chance for USC to deliver the caliber of season that the team, not to mention the alumni, expected this fall. Those expectations were fueled by preseason polls and three quick victories that lifted USC to No. 8.

So the comeback scenario goes like this:

An upset of the ninth-ranked Ducks would be the best way for USC to shoot back up the polls. The schedule then delivers four unranked teams--Stanford, California, Arizona State and Washington State.

So the players say they can envision a winning streak that builds to the final games against UCLA and Notre Dame.

Even a 10-2 finish might not be good enough for the Rose Bowl because, as Coach Paul Hackett recited for reporters this week, only six Pacific 10 teams have made it to Pasadena with two conference losses.

But a highly ranked Pac-10 team theoretically has a shot at selection for an alliance bowl. The conference sends its next best teams to the Holiday and Sun bowls.

"You always think ahead," linebacker Zeke Moreno said. "There are still good bowls out there for us."

The Trojans have not played in a premier postseason game since the mid-1990s when they defeated Texas Tech in the 1995 Cotton Bowl and Northwestern in the 1996 Rose Bowl.

At present, two obstacles stand in the way of such success.

The first is Oregon, a team that has put itself in the Pac-10 driver's seat with victories over UCLA and Washington. The Ducks have defeated USC in each of the last two seasons.

"They probably think they have our number," fullback Charlie Landrigan said.

The Trojans can take some comfort in the fact that both losses were in Eugene and were close--including a triple-overtime game in 1999. Moreover, Oregon has yet to win an away game this season.

"It concerns me," Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said. "You have to prove that you can win on the road."

But the Trojans might face an even tougher opponent on Saturday: themselves.

Losses to Oregon State and Arizona were marked by slow starts, too many penalties and turnovers.

"We know we have to get out of this funk as fast as we can," Hackett said. "The way you do that is to concentrate on Oregon."

Critics have questioned the way Hackett prepares his team and manages game situations. A "fire Hackett" Web site popped up this week and the student newspaper, the Daily Trojan, is running a "Paul Poll."

A defeat on Saturday would turn up the heat. It would be USC's third conference loss--that would probably leave the Trojans to scramble for one of two Christmastime bowl games in Hawaii or, perhaps, the new Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose.

It is doubtful those games would completely mollify Hackett's critics.

More important, a loss Saturday would be the third consecutive defeat for a team that suffered through a five-game losing streak last season.

So there is a hint of desperation. Perhaps that is what makes the Oregon game truly important.

"There's no time for messing around," Landrigan said. "It's do or die."

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