While the Pac-10 champion won’t be crowned in Saturday’s top-10 matchup at Oregon, Southern California’s conference title hopes would all but end with a loss.
The fourth-ranked Trojans look to stay in the hunt for an eighth consecutive league title and shore up some defensive breakdowns when they visit the 10th-ranked Ducks and their prolific offense.
In less than two months, Oregon (6-1, 4-0) has made a season that could have become defined by an embarrassing loss at Boise State - and LeGarrette Blount’s infamous punch - into one with a chance to win its first Pac-10 title since 2001.
Riding a six-game winning streak, the Ducks, off to their best conference start since opening the 2000 season with seven straight league wins, stand alone atop the Pac-10.
Their lead is hardly safe.
USC (6-1, 3-1) and Arizona are tied for second, and either team could take the conference crown by winning out.
“Our conference is as tough right now, as I’m seeing it, as I’ve ever seen,” USC coach Pete Carroll said. “The team that makes it through it on top is going to be really good.”
The Trojans have owned at least a share of the Pac-10 title each season since Oregon last won it, but they’ll likely be out of the running should they lose this weekend.
To avoid that fate, USC’s defense will likely need to improve upon its performance from last Saturday’s 42-36 win over Oregon State.
The Trojans allowed the Beavers to roll up 482 yards of total offense, the most yielded by USC since giving up 556 yards to Texas in a 41-38 Rose Bowl loss following the 2005 season.
It was also the second straight shaky defensive effort for USC, which gave up 367 total yards in a 34-27 defeat at then-No. 25 Notre Dame on Oct. 17. The Trojans allowed an average of 8.6 points and 238.6 yards in their first five games.
Despite the disconcerting trend, defensive tackle Armond Armstead isn’t worried.
“It wasn’t like they were constantly moving down the field and scoring on us,” Armstead said. “The mistakes that were made can definitely be corrected. We know we have a good defense here, and we just need to play 60 minutes.”
Proving it for 60 minutes against a high-powered Oregon offense led by a healthy quarterback Jeremiah Masoli should be quite a challenge.
Masoli missed the Ducks’ 24-10 win over UCLA on Oct. 10 with a knee injury, and the offense never got in sync. He returned to the lineup last Saturday and didn’t seem to miss a beat, passing for 157 yards and a touchdown and running for 54 yards and two scores in a 43-19 victory over Washington.
The versatile quarterback is the key to Oregon’s offense, with the team averaging 45.7 points and 484.7 yards in the last three games he has played.
Masoli isn’t the only playmaker the Trojans need to contain.
LaMichael James, Oregon’s workhorse since Blount’s suspension, has rushed for 657 yards and six touchdowns in his last five games. The redshirt freshman running back totaled 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Huskies, and has had at least one run of at least 26 yards in each of his last six games.
“He’s got great vision and toughness,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “He’s a hard player to knock down because of his size. He’s pretty solid and I think he’s just gotten better each week and it will be exciting to see him match up with this team that USC has on defense.”
While Masoli and James lead the offense, the Ducks’ defense has been just as impressive.
Oregon limited Washington to three points through three quarters last week, and has held three of its last four opponents to 211 yards or fewer.
The Ducks’ 19 takeaways are tied for the Pac-10 lead - posing a tough challenge for mistake-prone Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley.
The freshman has thrown at least one interception in each of his last three games, including two last week. Barkley has thrown for 1,540 yards with seven TDs and five interceptions in six games this season.
USC may need its steady ground attack featuring Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford to take the pressure off Barkley.
McKnight was limited last week because of sore hands and finished with 65 rushing yards on 11 carries, but Bradford ran for a career-high 147 yards and two scores.
“This is a great task for us and we are going to have to put together a terrific plan on both sides of the ball and on special teams to matchup,” Carroll said.
The Trojans defeated Oregon 44-10 last season but lost 24-17 loss to the then-No. 5 Ducks in their last trip to Autzen Stadium in 2007. That was USC’s only defeat in the last five meetings.