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Game at Oregon is as close as USC will get to a bowl game

The No. 18 Trojans, barred from playing in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, take on the No. 4 Ducks in what might be the most important game of Coach Lane Kiffin's short tenure.

November 18, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • Quarterback Matt Barkley and Coach Lane Kiffin will find themselves back in the national spotlight when they travel to Eugene, Ore., on Saturday to play the No. 4-ranked Ducks at Autzen Stadium.
Quarterback Matt Barkley and Coach Lane Kiffin will find themselves back… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

It's been billed, by some, as the real Pac-12 Conference championship game.

For fans of a USC team banned from the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, it is regarded as the closest thing to a bowl game.

Actually, No. 18 USC's game against No. 4 Oregon on Saturday at Eugene, Ore., is bigger than that.

It's a huge barometer game for the Trojans — perhaps the most important of the still-burgeoning Lane Kiffin era.

If the Trojans upset Oregon and end the Ducks' 21-game Autzen Stadium winning streak, the ramifications are enormous.

USC, left for dead last year after being hammered by the NCAA, would have the opportunity to finish the season as a top-10 team in the Associated Press media poll.

The Trojans would be regarded as an instant contender for the Bowl Championship Series title next season, a distinction that might influence quarterback Matt Barkley, offensive tackle Matt Kalil, safety T.J. McDonald and perhaps end Nick Perry when it comes to deciding whether to return for a final shot at glory.

A loss would leave the Trojans at 8-3 with the season finale against rival UCLA next week at the Coliseum.

Not that Kiffin sounds concerned about national perception.

"Winning or losing this game is not going to radically impact our future in recruiting or in playing next year," he said.

For Kiffin, it always comes back to recruiting. The Trojans are about to enter the first of three years with signing classes that will max out at 15 players, and a roster that cannot exceed 75 scholarship players.

"The perception of high school players, from our feedback, is great right now," he said. "The way we utilize our freshmen and sophomores, they see all these young guys playing and they see how bright our future is."

No team was shining brighter this week than Oregon.

The Ducks were enjoying the afterglow of their rout of Stanford, a 53-30 victory that kept alive Oregon's pursuit of a return trip to the Bowl Championship Series title game.

The Ducks have won nine games in a row since losing to top-ranked Louisiana State in the season opener.

Throughout the week Kiffin upgraded the Ducks from college football's toughest team to play in their home stadium to perhaps the best team in the country.

Oregon has won 19 consecutive conference games and, with a victory over the Trojans, could be on its way to a third consecutive conference title.

USC won seven consecutive conference titles and posted seven straight 11-win seasons under former coach Pete Carroll.

Are the Ducks and Coach Chip Kelly in the midst of a similar run?

"They're at the start of it," Kiffin said.

The Trojans would like to stifle the Ducks' momentum, but it won't be easy.

Oregon is a double-digit favorite and will be playing in one of the loudest stadiums in college football. Cold weather and possible rain or snow also could create issues for a USC team that will start four freshmen on defense.

"We can't get all out of whack just because it's a big-time game like this," Barkley said. "We can't let the elements get to us."

USC coaches and players had a mantra during the week: "Tackle, tackle, tackle."

Monte Kiffin, assistant head coach for defense, said the Trojans were prepared for Oregon's high-speed offense.

"The last time I checked, they still have to be set, too, before they snap the ball," he said. "They just get set real quick."

If the Trojans commit turnovers, the outcome could be decided quickly. If they play mistake free?

"We have the mind-set that we can go and take it," defensive end Devon Kennard said. "It's us against the world."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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