LOS ANGELES – Southern California linebacker Hayes Pullard connects with Oregon tailback De’Anthony Thomas pretty much every day, either by phone or text.
They went to Crenshaw High School together and have been anticipating the Ducks’ visit to the Coliseum on Saturday virtually since graduation.
“We usually talk about other things, but this week it went to football right away,” Pullard said.
They’re not alone. No. 2 Oregon’s visit to Los Angeles has loomed as the biggest day on the Pac-12 calendar since late last year, when USC demonstrated the Ducks couldn’t completely dominate the West Coast.
Oregon (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) has won 11 straight games and the Rose Bowl since that 38-35 loss to USC in Eugene, seamlessly replacing key starters on its spread offense while building a defense that might be its best yet.
The 18th-ranked Trojans (6-2, 4-2) haven’t exactly lived up to the promise of that gritty road win. Two narrow road losses this fall have knocked the preseason’s No. 1 team out of the national title race and left them significant underdogs in their own stadium Saturday.
Just don’t try to tell anybody on either sideline that this showdown has lost any significance.
“I don’t think anything has changed much,” said Robert Woods, USC’s All-American receiver. “Oregon is still going to come here and play like it’s a championship game, and I know we will.”
Even a two-loss USC team is an attention-grabber for Oregon, which is roaring down the stretch of another spectacular season. The Ducks haven’t even played a close game, trouncing every opponent by at least 17 points while leading the nation in scoring.
“Playoffs started in college football on the first game of the season, and when you lose, you’re done,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “If you have a vision of what you want to get accomplished, you’d better take each game like it’s the Super Bowl.”
That’s not tough to do while playing in the stadium that hosted the first Super Bowl. Yet if last November’s loss to USC provides the Ducks with any special motivation, they weren’t acknowledging it while heading to their first of three road games in four weeks.
“USC has got some depth issues,” said Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. “Arizona just did a good job tempo-ing them, and it kind of worked out for them.”
The freshman referred to the speed-it-up spread offense run by the No. 24 Wildcats, who erased USC’s national title hopes with a 39-36 victory last week.
Oregon’s offense plays at an unmatched pace, but USC showed last year that it’s possible to keep up, particularly if an opponent takes an early lead.
“Well, we did it last year for three quarters,” USC defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said. “We were in the right position and made tackles in space. You’ve got to make plays and get out in space, stick with your assignments, keep it all together. It’s amazing the number of plays they run at the speed they run them, and with the precision they run them.”
USC quarterback Barkley is coming off the most prolific game in school history, a 493-yard effort against Arizona that included a record 345 yards receiving by Marqise Lee, who spent much of this week working on midterm exams. A week earlier, Barkley went 19 for 20 against Colorado, the only miss a dropped pass.
Barkley has been brilliant lately, but the Trojans are marveling at the maturity of Mariota, who has stepped into Darron Thomas’ spot in the offense with remarkable fluidity. Orgeron realizes his defense must guard against Mariota’s running ability, which can turn good defensive stops into failures.
“This quarterback is way faster,” Pullard said. “He just got mature in the offense real fast in the offseason. I don’t know how he did it.”