"I thought to myself this week," the Trojans coach said, "the numbers we put up back then; what would have happened if we turned into a no-huddle team?"
|Matt Barkley's decision to stay helped USC maintain some legitimacy while under NCAA sanctions. (Getty Images)|
(Forty) times have changed.
Not to alert the NCAA, but Oregon 2010 is USC '05 on steroids. Figuratively, of course.
The fastest, highest-scoring team -- maybe ever -- is coming to the Coliseum for what looks like an unofficial ceremony: a passing of the torch from one Pac-10 dynasty to the next. The Ducks already are the defending Pac-10 champions, getting there by stomping USC in 2009. But this is different. This is a statement waiting to be made in the Trojans' revered crib. Pete Carroll is gone, the NCAA has had its way and the world is waiting for USC to just go away for a while. Except that the Trojans have been surprisingly competitive at 5-2. The aftereffects from June's NCAA tsunami haven't fully hit yet.
The torch could be the one burning a No. 1 for the fourth consecutive week. Or not. The programs have taken divergent paths since Oregon whipped USC 47-20 last Halloween in what turned out to be Carroll's final season. USC still won nine games, but Chip Kelly won 10 and the Pac-10 in his first season as head coach. Carroll and Jeremiah Masoli left. Kiffin arrived. The NCAA came and went, leaving Troy in a trail of tears.
Through it all, the Ducks got better, suggesting this is their time to take over the Pac-10, maybe the country. Oregon is No. 1 in the human polls for the first time. Kelly's spread offense is averaging 55 points per game and is on pace to smash 2008 Oklahoma's modern single-season scoring record.
Oregon tailback LaMichael James is a legitimate Heisman candidate, a throwback to Reggie Bush as the nation's leading rusher. Quarterback Darron Thomas -- maybe not a Matt Leinart -- is good enough, having thrown 17 touchdowns.
Yes, what if that USC team spread out a defense, went no-huddle so that defense couldn't change personnel and ran a punishing, downhill, run-based track meet of an offense? Maybe we're looking at what it would have been like. The average victory margin (39.3 points) suggests Oregon isn't coming to L.A. for a polite changing of the Pac-10 guard. It could be a hostile takeover of the league's football center for the past decade.
"That's the question everybody is asking right now," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "How do you stop them?"
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So far, only Erickson's Sun Devils have come close, losing only 42-31 after committing seven turnovers. Kelly's offense is on that same 1,000-play pace as USC '05, but playing "10 times faster than I talk," as the coach once said. And you better believe Kelly talks fast. The Ducks average a snap every 21 seconds and 2.07 points per minute of possession. It doesn't matter that Oregon is near the bottom of national stats in time of possession. That actually indicates efficiency. Half of the Ducks' 44 touchdown drives this season have taken five or fewer plays.
Kiffin points out that USC (7.26) and Oregon (7.34) average roughly the same yards per play. They continue to get there in different ways. USC still runs the pro-style offense that made stars out of Bush, Leinart and Dwayne Jarrett. Meanwhile, Kelly's spread might be the most imitated in the country. Coaches from all over flock to Eugene to pick up pointers in the offseason. That includes Boise State's Chris Petersen, whose coaching roots are with Oregon.
"I have thought about that, 'What if?'" Kiffin said. "What if we had been a no-huddle with the offense that we had?"
It hardly matters that the Oregon defense isn't great. It doesn't have to be. Kelly's attack is run-first and James is one of the fastest players in the country. Thomas has made folks forget about Masoli. If USC wins, then Jesse Scroggins, D.J. Morgan and Curtis McNeal ought to get game balls. They were the quarterback (Scroggins) and tailbacks (Morgan and McNeal) trying to imitate the Ducks this week for USC's scout team.
"It's impossible to emulate," Kiffin said. "You've got to do the best that you can."
This will burn some Vols fans' ears, but Kiffin and his dad, Monte, called back to Tennessee in the past couple of weeks to get some information on the Ducks. Oregon beat Tennessee 48-13 in September. Lane called his former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Monte called first-year Vols defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Wilcox came from Boise State, the last team to hold Oregon to single digits. With Wilcox calling the D, Boise won the 2009 season opener over the Ducks 19-8.
Think about that, Kiffin haters: If the Trojans knock off the Ducks, a portion of Tennessee's staff also deserves a game ball.
For a program awaiting the full NCAA noose -- USC is still appealing the severity of the penalties -- Kiffin could be selling this game as his team's "bowl." It won't be eligible for a real one until 2012. The program is down to 68 scholarships, per Kiffin, before an NCAA-mandated 10-scholarship cut per year through the 2013 recruiting class. Only 56 scholarship players made the trip to Stanford. Most of the hurt has come on defense, which is thin and has been prone to wear out in the fourth quarter.
"We're getting practice," on how to deal with the scholarship restrictions, Kiffin said.
The Trojans seemingly aren't going quietly. Kiffin remains a master play caller -- USC is seventh in total offense. He says his relationship with new AD Pat Haden is "phenomenal." Haden agrees after inheriting the coach from the deposed Mike Garrett.
"I think Lane has done really, really well," Haden said. "I didn't hire Lane, obviously, but the more time I spend around Lane the more impressed I am with him."
It doesn't help that Tennessee remains under NCAA investigation for possible recruiting violations by Kiffin. It does help out west that, amid the turmoil, football has a familiar look. USC is ranked this week. A win over Oregon would clearly signal that the Trojans aren't ready to abdicate.
USC's only two losses have been by walk-off field goals in consecutive games against Washington and Stanford. There have been breakthroughs by young players who have the opportunity to play right away. Freshman Robert Woods has six touchdown catches and is fifth in Pac-10 receiving. Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley is becoming a typical USC quarterback -- that is, one of the best in the country. Two weeks ago, he threw five of his 20 touchdowns in the Cal game. Barkley's presence may hold the whole thing together. He could have transferred after the sanctions hit, but he stayed (at least through 2011, when he could be draft eligible). That ultimately might be what saves USC from long-term NCAA wounds. Recruits still want to come to USC for the usual reasons -- the sun, the degree and the pro potential.
"They see us playing on TV. They see all the stats of Barkley and Robert Woods," Kiffin said. "They come to the Coliseum and they feel the atmosphere and all the sudden they forget about, 'Oh, maybe I'll be playing one less game [per season].'"