It felt like a time warp of sorts Saturday at the Coliseum
The sparse crowd, by USC's recent standards, and the lack of a pregame buzz harkened to 2001, the pre-national championship days.
But the Trojans' first-half play against California inexplicably reminded observers of 2004 and 2005, when USC regularly dismantled opponents with a multiple-threat offense and turnover-hungry defense.
"For the first time, it really felt like we played exactly the style that we want to play in," Coach Lane Kiffin said after a 48-14 rout over the Golden Bears.
Matt Barkley passed for five touchdowns, all in the first half, and the Trojans' much-maligned defense played an outstanding game as the Trojans bounced back from two consecutive last-second defeats.
So now, here are the 5-2 Trojans, seven games into a sanctions-plagued season like no other in USC history and preparing to possibly face the No. 1 team in the nation.
Second-ranked Oregon had an open date Saturday and plays UCLA on Thursday night in Eugene. But the unbeaten Ducks are on the cusp of ascending to the top of the polls after top-ranked Ohio State lost to Wisconsin.
USC has an open date before Oregon arrives at the Coliseum on Oct. 30.
"I'm glad we have two weeks to get ready for that," said Barkley, who passed for 352 yards without an interception and tied the school record for touchdown passes in a game. "It will be pretty neat if they come in here as the top-rated team in the nation. I know we'll be fired up for that."
The Trojans ought to be.
It will be almost exactly a year to the day that Oregon destroyed USC, 47-20, in a Halloween night massacre at Autzen Stadium. This season, despite the departure of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the Ducks lead the nation in scoring and total offense.
Sophomore Devon Kennard, who played his best game since moving to middle linebacker at the start of the season, said the defense's play Saturday has the Trojans prepared for their biggest test.
"We will be [ready]," he said. "They have an explosive offense and there's history from last year with what happened."
On a cool and cloudy day, Kennard and the embattled defense supplied Barkley and the offense with numerous opportunities by shutting down Cal's rushing attack, intercepting two passes and pressuring quarterback Kevin Riley throughout the game.
The Trojans, who amassed 602 yards, raced to a 42-0 halftime lead on two touchdown catches by both Robert Woods and Ronald Johnson, another by David Ausberry and a run by tailback Marc Tyler.
The only question at the break was whether the final outcome would ultimately be as lopsided as the Trojans' 61-0 victory over the Golden Bears in 1994.
Cal (3-3, 1-2 in conference play) avoided the shutout when running back Shane Vereen scored on a pass play late in the third quarter, but that was about the only bright spot for Coach Jeff Tedford, who remains winless at the Coliseum.
"We couldn't slow them down on offense," Tedford said. "They went up and down the field. In both phases of the game, they dominated us."
USC's defense, ranked 100th nationally, was inspired by the heat it was taking from media and fans and by a midweek speech from cornerback Shareece Wright. The senior from Colton is a team captain, but he said this week that he finally felt comfortable enough to ask coaches for a chance to address the team.
Wright's words, and Monte Kiffin's decision to simplify some elements of the defensive scheme and blitz more, created an environment for the defense to flourish.
USC limited Vereen to 53 yards, safety T.J. McDonald and lineman DaJohn Harris intercepted passes and the Trojans nixed the Golden Bears on eight of 10 third-down attempts.
"It was just a different mind-set," Wright said. "Playing every play like it's your last. Doing everything right."
Monte Kiffin, the assistant head coach for defense, is looking for a repeat when the Trojans play again in two weeks.
Asked when he would begin preparing for Oregon, he said, "How about tonight?"