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'D' for Ducks

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LOS ANGELES – NoDoz might help. Or perhaps USC football coach Pete Carroll will ask the equipment boy to fetch him a can of Full Throttle.

Yes, while his team tries to score and his defense attempts to tackle, Carroll's biggest challenge will be keeping his eyes open during Saturday's game at Oregon.

"I've been staying up late and getting up early – just trying to find a way (to win)," the sleep-deprived Carroll said earlier this week. "We need this ball game."

Indeed, USC's chances of a national title game appearance are already slim following a loss to Stanford earlier this month. But the ninth-ranked Trojans will have virtually no chance of spending January in New Orleans if they don't upend No. 5 Oregon on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

USC de-feathered the Ducks 35-10 in Los Angeles last season. A repeat performance, though, will hardly come easy against an Oregon squad that averages 46.6 points a game. The Ducks (6-1, 3-1 Pac-10) rank second in the nation in total offense.

The talk in Los Angeles this week has revolved around whether John David Booty or Mark Sanchez will start at quarterback for the Trojans (6-1, 3-1). Sanchez got the nod. But deep down, Carroll knows the play of his defense will be the biggest determining factor between winning and losing.

"I love this challenge," Carroll said. "This is the best offense that maybe we've ever seen since we've been here. These guys are rushing for about 300 yards a game. They can basically do whatever they want."

Tailback Jonathan Stewart averages 7.2 yards per carry, while quarterback Dennis Dixon has thrown 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions – and one of them on a Hail Mary. Dixon is completing 69.2 percent of his passes, which Carroll said was "ridiculous for this late in the season."

"When you play a quarterback that's running the option, you have to hit him," Carroll said. "(We) have to hit this guy. We have to have a lot of attention on him and make sure that we don't miss our opportunities to bang him around and at least make it a hard day for him."

The Trojans' defense continues to impress. USC shut out Notre Dame a week ago and only surrendered 13 points against Arizona the week before. Carroll's only beef is that his team isn't forcing enough turnovers. The Trojans have only 13 in seven games.

"To me," Carroll said, "that's the most critical factor in winning and losing.

"We're playing a really aggressive style. We're tackling the best we've ever tackled. I don't know the exact numbers, but to have (opponents') rushing yardages in the 60s and around 2.0 per carry – that's good stuff."

The question is whether underdog USC – sounds strange, we know – can post those kinds of defensive numbers against Mike Bellotti's Ducks, who have national championship aspirations of their own. No game in the Pac-10 has been bigger this season, which is why Carroll harrumphed when asked if his team would be ready for Saturday's challenge.

"There's a good chance that they'll be jacked up for this game," Carroll said. "This it he kind of stuff that really excites you about conference play. You have a team that's really hot, and you have to beat them if you're going to have a chance to win your league.

"They have all the elements that draw your focus. They've got great players and we're playing at a tough place. So I'd be really, really surprised if we take this lightly."

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