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USC facing lesser of bowl evils

October 01, 2008|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

This is not only the game after, not only a chance to bounce back.

For ninth-ranked USC, Saturday night's game against No. 23 Oregon holds ramifications arguably greater than any regular-season game in six seasons.

Forget the ones that kept alive winning streaks. Dismiss those that clinched conference titles or berths in the Bowl Championship Series title game.

The six-time defending Pacific 10 Conference champion Trojans, reeling from an upset loss to Oregon State last Thursday, are in danger of not only falling out of the hunt for the national title, but also finding themselves way off the Pac-10 pace in early October.

"This one holds a lot of clout," senior defensive tackle Fili Moala said.

Oregon, leading the conference and an offensive juggernaut, comes to the Coliseum 4-1 overall and 2-0 in conference.

Say what you will about Oregon's schedule -- its victories came against Washington, Utah State, Purdue and Washington State, which are a combined 4-13 -- but the team's spread attack is operating at full power despite an injury-fueled revolving door at quarterback, making the Ducks a threat for their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1995.

Previously top-ranked USC, meanwhile, still has its sights set on traveling to Florida for the BCS championship game. A third straight Rose Bowl appearance without a BCS title at stake would be regarded as a consolation prize.

But if Oregon knocks off USC, the Trojans could be contemplating a second-tier bowl game for the first time since their Christmas Day loss to Utah in the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl.

Holiday Bowl, anyone? How about New Year's Eve in El Paso at the Sun Bowl?

It could happen if the Trojans do not shore up the problems that plagued them in their loss to Oregon State, a 25 1/2 -point underdog.

"Just the taste of that loss hopefully fuels some things than can get guys going in the right direction," offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said.

USC's offensive and defensive lines traveled mostly backward against Oregon State, the Beavers pushing the Trojans off the line of scrimmage like no team since Texas in the 2006 BCS championship game.

A national television audience watched freshman Jacquizz Rodgers run and spin right through the middle of a USC defense that was ranked second nationally.

Coach Pete Carroll said the Trojans might have been "rusty" and victims of their own success. USC routed Virginia and Ohio State in its first two games and for the most part did not have to defend the run.

"We'd gotten away with some stuff in other games that didn't matter because the score was out of hand," he said. "We just didn't clean it up fast enough against a team that got it going and stayed with it."

Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti was among the interested observers who watched Oregon State mix quick passes with running plays that went straight ahead instead of laterally.

"The one thing Oregon State did was sustain blocks at the line of scrimmage," said Bellotti, whose team averages 47 points and 532 yards a game. "We're looking at that as a blueprint for success, but we don't do some of the blocking schemes and I'm not sure changing at this point is going to help us.

"But we're trying to figure out some ways to duplicate that."

A repeat performance by USC could leave the Trojans with consecutive regular-season losses for the first time since 2001, Carroll's first season.

Moala said the problems against Oregon State were "a matter of effort," while defensive coordinator Nick Holt cited breakdowns in technique.

"We just have to get back to fundamentals," Holt said.

The offensive line is doing the same after allowing pressure on quarterback Mark Sanchez and creating lanes for only 86 yards rushing.

"On certain plays we were outmanned," sophomore tackle Butch Lewis said. "We got overpowered and they made us look like any other team."

Senior guard Jeff Byers said that younger linemates might have been lulled into a false sense of superiority after the easy victories against Virginia and Ohio State.

He also suggested an attitude adjustment might be in order.

"You have to know that teams are going to try to hit you in the mouth and you have to be ready to hit back," Byers said. "If Oregon does the same thing, it's going to be a great game."

--

gary.klein@latimes.com

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