As he made his way through the Coliseum tunnel at halftime of USC's rout of California, Trojans Coach Lane Kiffin could not help wondering about what might have been.
What if the Trojans had not lost their previous two games on last-second field goals? It was something Kiffin acknowledged thinking about 50 times a day.
"Up 42-0, on our way to 7-0, you know, potentially a top-five team in the country getting ready to play the No. 1 team in the country," Kiffin said Sunday during a teleconference with reporters. "So that's the difficult thing, the thing that's most glaring . . . as you think of the first half of the season: how close we were."
USC's 48-14 victory over Cal did not move the 5-2 Trojans into the top 25, let alone the top five. But USC, which has an open date this week, could have its showdown with a No. 1 team.
Unbeaten Oregon moved to the top of the polls Sunday and is No. 2 behind Oklahoma in the first Bowl Championship Series standings. The Trojans will spend the next two weeks mending injuries and trying to build on their momentum in preparation for Oregon's visit to the Coliseum on Oct. 30.
Against the Ducks, who play UCLA on Thursday night, USC's defense will try to repeat what it did against Cal — shut down the running game, create turnovers and dominate on third down.
The performance pleased Kiffin, of course, but also caused him to lament defensive breakdowns that plagued the Trojans in losses to Washington and Stanford.
"We wouldn't have had to play great," he said. "If we could have just played somewhat bad, and not horrible, in those two games we'd be sitting here at 7-0 pretty easily."
Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley also might be in the discussion for the Heisman Trophy.
Barkley, coming off his second five-touchdown-pass game of the season, has thrown for 20 touchdowns — second to Hawaii quarterback Bryant Moniz's 21 — with four interceptions.
"He's one of the front-runners for the Heisman right now if we're able to make stops in those two games," Kiffin said.
Senior tailback C.J. Gable, who suffered a knee injury Saturday when he was tackled on a fourth-quarter kickoff return, will be evaluated further Monday, Kiffin said.
Receiver David Ausberry played running back for the final snaps against Cal because tailback Curtis McNeal is academically ineligible. Kiffin told The Times last month that McNeal had been held out of games because of pending academic issues.
USC coaches will be recruiting nationally and locally this week. The Trojans are scheduled to practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 6 a.m. . . . Kiffin is optimistic that the break before the Oregon game could provide enough time for defensive end Wes Horton (back), linebacker Malcolm Smith (knee), running back Dillon Baxter (toes) and others to return against the Ducks.