|Barner helps lift Oregon past USC with 321 yards rushing and five touchdowns. (Getty Images)|
LOS ANGELES -- It was more than an hour after No. 2 Oregon's 62-51 victory Saturday night over No. 18 USC before Monte Kiffin made his way out of the Trojans' locker room. The 72-year-old defensive coordinator looked like he had just awakened from a nightmare. Only the horror show Kiffin had just witnessed inside the Coliseum was very real.
The Ducks did something to USC no one had ever done to them in 124 years of football. They amassed an eye-popping 730 yards of total offense, averaging almost 9 yards every time they snapped the ball and hung 62 on the scoreboard -- most ever allowed by the Trojans. Those 730 yards were more than 100 more than the previous mark by any USC opponent -- and the old record stood for 66 years. Kenjon Barner, the Ducks' dynamic tailback, ran for an Oregon-record 321 yards and five touchdowns. Marcus Mariota, the Ducks' freshman QB, was 20 of 23 for 304 yards and four TD passes. The Oregon onslaught was such that the school's sports information man tweeted: "Going to need more than 1 bonus hour tonight to sort through all of these Oregon records #Fallback"
"It's mind-boggling," Kiffin said. "I've never heard of so many yards."
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As he tried to elaborate on just how this could have unfolded as it did, Kiffin sounded in awe of Oregon's scheme but even more by the Ducks' speed. "You know they're really fast, but as fast as you think they are, they were even faster," he said.
I asked Kiffin to compare this season's Oregon team to other prolific Oregon offenses he's faced since coming to USC. "They're even better than they were [last year]. Their O-line's better. The quarterback is definitely better. Barner's faster."
Barner's 321 yards came against what was the nation's No. 29 rush defense, a unit that had allowed only six rushing TDs in its previous eight games. This is what the Ducks can do -- but they usually only have to do it for a half. By then, the Ducks typically are up 40 or 50 points, so Chip Kelly throttles down and rotates in his reserves. But since USC has more than its share of firepower, Kiffin and his defense got four quarters of Oregon's finest and that truly was a sight to see.
Oregon even broke its own school record for most yards. Its previous high was 720 piled up in a 72-0 win over Mike Locksley's New Mexico squad in 2010.
This was the first time someone really tested the Ducks and their freshman QB for four quarters. USC was only down three -- 41-38 -- deep into the third quarter. But then the Ducks ripped off a four-play, 74-yard scoring drive punctuated by a 36-yard Mariota-to-Josh Huff TD pass and USC never got within single digits again. Oregon's D proceeded to turn the Trojans over on downs before Mariota led the Ducks on a long drive. On the 12th play of that series, Barner went 5 yards for another touchdown. Coming off the field, Ducks offensive lineman Kyle Long screamed, "Now that's how you finish, Trojans!"
No doubt, the Ducks had made their statement -- although Kelly will say he's not really worried about trying to make statements. But they matter when you have a BCS system fueled by human polls, and, USC's preseason No. 1 ranking notwithstanding, Oregon is still the king of the Pac-12.
Kelly said he didn't need to see his young QB shine on a big stage in the fourth quarter opposite Matt Barkley, who's armed with spectacular receivers, to learn more about the grit or merits of his team. He says he sees that every day in practice. He brought up the fact that Oregon hasn't lost a road game in years: "We haven't lost a road game since Nov. 7, 2009. I think it's because we don't make a big deal out of it."
Of course, Kelly says they don't make a big deal of it yet, but remembers the exact date of that last loss. Still, it's become clear his players -- his team -- have bought his message.
"Pressure's what you feel when you don't know what you're doing," Barner says.
Mariota, though, did concede there was something more than just a win to be taken from beating USC in the Coliseum. "It was awesome," he said. "To go through it in practice and to go out and do it, in a game are two different things."
Some, especially in SEC country, will point to USC's gaudy stats from Saturday night and claim the Ducks still don't have the type of rugged defense to be a BCS title team. Kelly, in typical Chip Kelly fashion, doesn't sound fazed by any such skepticism.
"No, we know they're good," Kelly said of USC, which averages 465 yards and 37 points a game. "Have you seen 'em play? Marqise Lee had 16 catches for 345 yards yards last week and the only thing that stopped him was because he got tired. Those guys can play. That was two great teams."
Well, that was certainly two dynamic offenses. USC's defense isn't Alabama's or Florida State's or Oregon's for that matter.
Asked about a potential showdown with the resident heavyweight king of the Big Boy Football League, Alabama, Barner said such a match-up isn't even on his radar. "I can't worry about Alabama. They are not even on our schedule."
One thing is certain: Barner has run himself into the Heisman race, right behind Kansas State QB Collin Klein. "He's a warrior," Kelly said of Barner. "He's had an unbelievable impact on this team. Offensively, there's not many seniors on this team. We're young on the offensive line, at receiver, have a freshman quarterback. He's the one leader of that group and he's really embraced that role and out guys follow him. Not only does he talk about it, but he lives it. It's the same way in practice."
Till about a month ago, the Duck who most scared opponents was De'Anthony Thomas, but it's Barner who has emerged as Oregon's most dangerous weapon. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound back from southern California, who is No. 2 in the country in rushing despite limited work in the second halves of most games, credits ballet and yoga added to his training regimen for making him a better back. "That's helped me tremendously," he says. "People probably think, 'Oh, that's crap,' but it really does from a physical standpoint -- knowing where my center of gravity is and having much better balance."
Barner told me he became intrigued by the idea after learning that Eric Dickerson and Lynn Swann had done it. "If those great players could do it and get better from it, I'd be a fool not to do it."
Barner epitomizes this Duck team. He was a three-star recruit once ranked as the 39th best running back in the country in the Class of 2008 but Barner has blossomed in Eugene. "Our definition of greatness is to be better than your former self," Kelly said.
LaMichael James, now a San Francisco 49ers running back, was on the Ducks sideline rooting his old teammates on. James even stumped for his buddy to get the Heisman. "He should get it," James said. "He put the team on his back tonight. I can't say enough about him. ... If they weren't beating people so bad, he'd probably have 2,000 yards right now. He's great."
As Oregon beat writer Rob Moseley points out, Barner actually had 12 fourth quarter carries Saturday night. That's two more fourth-quarter runs than he had in the previous eight games combined.
Oregon has had a running back among the nation's top-10 rushers in five of the past six seasons. In each of the past three season, a Ducks RB has been in the top two. We've heard plenty how the term "system QB" has been used to try and de-value prolific passers. Don't be surprised if a similar label -- "system RB" -- is used in an attempt to de-value Barner. It shouldn't, though. He's been a great back in a great system. Could he run wild against Alabama and the nation's No. 2 run defense? We may find out.
Next up, the Ducks visit a beleaguered Cal team. Then the face the nation's leading run defense Stanford. I suspect even if the Ducks run through the Cardinal they won't win over anyone who wasn't already sold that they are talented enough to win the national title. But you can certainly count Monte Kiffin among the believers.
• I know AJ McCarron struggled for much of the second half Saturday night in Death Valley, going 1 of 7 passing, but it's what he did in the final minute in that place that really counts: going 4 of 5 for 72 yards and the winning TD. That part doesn't surprise me. What did catch me off guard was seeing the Tide allow 435 yards to an LSU offense that came into the game No. 74 in total O. The last time Alabama surrendered that many yards was in Nick Saban's first season with the Crimson Tide.
LSU was 10 of 20 on third downs, Bama only 1 of 9. When you see that kind of difference, what are the chances the team that goes 1 of 9 ends up the winner? Five percent? Two percent? Of course, Les Miles didn't do his team any favors with gambles that backfired on the Tigers.
• I'm not sure there is anything more we can add about Johnny Manziel than we haven't already said in previous columns. Next week is his real test when Alabama gets its shot against Johnny Football. Obviously, Manziel is getting more of the headlines surrounding Texas A&M, but give credit to new DC Mark Snyder and the Aggies' D. A&M was No. 70 in defense in 2011. This year, they're up to No. 27.
• Speaking of A&M, when Kentucky opts to change head coaches, the Wildcats should take a close look at Kliff Kingsbury. He gets labeled as a Mike Leach protégé, and while that is true, the former Texas Tech star has taken a lot from the other coaches he's worked under: Bill Belichick (from his days as a backup QB in New England), Dana Holgorsen and Kevin Sumlin. The Aggies are averaging 45 points and 560 yards of offense in their first SEC season. Both stats lead the conference by a wide margin. They're now actually averaging six points more than they did in the Big 12.
• Good Sumlin note from old friend Bryan Fischer. The first-year Aggie coach has now won as many SEC West games this year as Dan Mullen has won in four seasons at Mississippi State. It dawned on me Sumlin's four SEC wins are actually as many league wins as Derek Dooley has had in his three seasons at Tennessee (over 21 league games).
• NIU QB Jordan Lynch is not going to win the Heisman or even get invited to New York, but we need to give him more pub. Lynch, a first-year starting QB, has run for more yards than Denard Robinson, Braxton Miller and Johnny Manziel. In fact, Lynch is third in the nation in rushing. Last year's NIU QB, Chandler Harnish, also led the country's QBs in rushing. Here's something that you have to be wowed by: NIU didn't have single starting O-lineman returning this fall and they have a new offensive coordinator.
On the eve of the season I talked to one of the NIU assistants who raved about Lynch's toughness. Said the kid really is like a linebacker, but they were concerned that because he was physical and tough, he might take too many big shots and not last.
On Saturday had 34 plays and accounted for 348 yards of total offense, which included 157 rushing yards on 15 carries) while connecting of 15 of 19 passes for two TDs. He amassed those totals playing one half and only the first series of the third quarter before exiting with NIU (9-1) up 42-0 on UMass. It was his eighth consecutive 100-yard game this season, breaking Garrett Wolfe's school record. Oh, and the QB who some worried might wear down, has not thrown an INT in 166 attempts.
• Advice to Pac-12 coaches: Don't kick it to Utah's Reggie Dunn. He has run three kickoffs back for TDs in the past two games.
• More advice to Pac-12 coaches: Root for Oregon to win the BCS title this year. Maybe that way Chip Kelly feels content and willing to move on to the NFL and out of your hair.
• Big win for Mack Brown, his DC Manny Diaz and Texas in Lubbock. The embattled Longhorns D didn't allow a play over 25 yards all day against a very potent offense on the road. That's something to build on.
• Ask any coach who has faced UCLA in recent years and they'll talk about how the Bruins looked like they should be a very good team when you eyeballed their personnel in warm-ups. In this, Jim Mora's debut season, they've started to play like they look like they should have. On Saturday night, they held a potent Arizona team, which was averaging 554 yards a game to nearly 300 yards below that in a 66-10 romp.
• Kansas State won the turnover battle? There's a shock. K-State forced five turnovers by Oklahoma State and the Wildcats didn't give the ball away once. That's what they do a big reason why no one's beaten them yet.
• Stat of the Day: Wichita native Joseph Randle, one of the country's better RBs, was held to less than 100 yards for only the second time this season courtesy of K-State. Both have been by the teams from his home state -- Kansas (29 carries for 80 yards) and K-State (15 for 43). Against everyone else, Randle is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Against the two Kansas schools, he's averaging 2.8 yards per carry.
• Stat of the Day, Take II: Only two teams in the country ranked in the near the bottom of scoring defense have winning records: the team Rich Rodriguez coaches (No. 105 Arizona -- allowing 35 ppg) and the team he used to coach (No. 116 West Virginia – allowing 39.75 ppg).
• Stat of the Day, Take III: USC WR/KR Marqise Lee has 877 all-purpose yards in his past two games. And, his team is 0-2 in those games.
• Another name to keep an eye on as some big coaching vacancies come open is first-year Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter. The Bulldogs are 7-3 with two of their losses to ranked teams and their third by one point at a decent Tulsa team. DeRuyter's impact on the D has been dramatic. Last season FSU was tied for dead last in the nation in turnovers gained with just nine. This year, with two more regular season games to play the Bulldogs have forced almost three times as many turnovers (26) to rank No. 3 in the country in a vital stat. Saturday night against Hawaii, they forced three more turnovers. They've also gone from No. 100 on D to No. 23.
• Conversation topic from late last night with a bunch of other college football writers: Georgia still has an outside shot to get to the BCS title game. In fact, the Dawgs might even have a scenario where they could overtake an undefeated Notre Dame in the polls. With more Saturday by USC and Michigan State, ND's potential top wins now may not even be ranked in the top 25 in early December. And if ND, in fact, beats the Trojans USC would be at least a four-loss team and probably unranked. At that point, ND, which just survived triple-OT at home against a bad Pitt team, could conceivably end up with wins over one two ranked teams all season: Oklahoma at Stanford, and ND needs the Cardinal to finish strong. Obviously, the 7-2 Cardinal could do the Irish and K-State and Georgia a big favor by knocking off Oregon in two weeks, then lose two of its remaining three (against No. 13 Oregon State, at Oregon and then at UCLA), David Shaw's team also could slip out of the top 25.
The other problem for ND is the timing. Everyone else is playing on Championship Saturday but the Irish. I don't think you could leapfrog a one-loss SEC champ over an unbeaten ND, but I'm not so sure. If Georgia goes out and upsets No. 1 Alabama, there would be a lot of momentum for the Dawgs because voters often get so caught up in the moment.