Trojans desperate to keep up with top-ranked Ducks

LOS ANGELES — The Southern California defense did everything with a spring in its collective step over the past two weeks. In practice drills, conditioning work and even team meetings, the 24th-ranked Trojans relentlessly pushed the tempo.

After that long stretch on fast-forward, USC paused its padded practices a day earlier than normal, recharging that defense for a season-defining run at top-ranked Oregon today.

"I've never run a marathon, but I guess it's like training for a marathon and then not doing anything two days before," coach Lane Kiffin said Thursday. "That's what it feels like. We've practiced at a faster pace than what we're used to. We've put them through a lot, and now it's time to rest and make sure we have our legs back for a marathon."

The Ducks' collection of track stars in their spread-option offense is the reason for the Trojans' unusual approach to an annual rivalry game that only gets juicer with Oregon's ascent and USC's fall.

Oregon (7-0, 4-0 Pac-10) has barely been tested during its best start in 77 years, rolling over every opponent with an avalanche of points — 55.4 per game, winning each week by an average of 39. The Ducks also lead the nation with 569 yards per game from an offense that could solve the energy crisis if its perpetual motion could be harnessed.

Kiffin can't find a comparable offense in his staff's collective memory, and Monte Kiffin knows his famed Tampa-2 defense is pretty much useless against this flock. With a bye week to prepare, the Trojans are counting on quick substitutions, improved tackling and a wellspring of emotion to have any prayer of an attention-grabbing win for this once-mighty program brought down by NCAA sanctions.

"We've got to basically play no-huddle, so it was good to have an extra week to get ready," USC linebacker Michael Morgan said.

There's another way the Trojans (5-2, 2-2) just might be able to compete with the nation's top team: If Matt Barkley can match Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas touchdown for dazzling touchdown.

"People talk about slowing the game down and everything, but it's going to be about scoring," Lane Kiffin said. "When you have the ball, you've got to score, whether that takes a minute or whether it takes six minutes. It doesn't do any good to take time off, take time between plays and go three-and-out."

Although the USC offense has received a fraction of the Ducks' fanfare, something good appears to be brewing in Barkley's sophomore season. The Pac-10 leader in passing efficiency has made a large step forward, playing almost flawlessly two weeks ago against California and leading the Trojans to at least 30 points in six of their seven games.

"He was young last year, but he's gotten better," Oregon defensive tackle Brandon Bair said. "We've got to make sure we get pressure on the quarterback. However we do it, we've got to make sure we're there."

When the Trojans studied film this week, most could still remember last season's debacle at Autzen Stadium, where Oregon drilled USC 47-20 with a 613-yard performance on Halloween night. The defense still remembered feeling helpless against Oregon's speed, but Kiffin's staff has spent the past two weeks reminding the Trojans they're pretty fast, too.

"The key is to keep them from getting it going," linebacker Chris Galippo said. "You have to prevent them from going north and south. If you make stops, sometimes they make mistakes. If you do all of that, they're just like any other offense."

Although USC is a home underdog for the first time since 2001, the coaches claim they haven't mentioned it. The Trojans haven't faced the nation's top-ranked team since 1992, and the school hasn't beaten a No. 1 since 1984.

And if that's not enough motivation, these teams are connected everywhere. USC safety T.J. McDonald went to high school with Cliff Harris, Oregon's kick-returning cornerback. Ducks linebacker Casey Matthews bucked his family's long-standing tradition by heading north to Eugene, leaving behind high school teammate tailback Marc Tyler at USC.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly raised Kiffin's eyebrows this week when he proclaimed USC the most talented team in the Pac-10, rattling off the Trojans' recruiting rankings.

"Their starters are just as good as they've had every year," Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl echoed. "They've got four- and five-star recruits. I know they don't have a lot of depth because of all the sanctions and scholarship removals, but the starters are really athletic, and we have to be ready to play."

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