- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- For a while, USC players were oohing and aahing like everybody else in the nation who has watched Oregon perform its circus act on turf.
The superlatives were flying fast and furious last week. The Ducks play at a tempo no one has ever seen. They break off chunks of yardage like icebergs being born. Wow, look at all those beautiful, big, shiny numbers.
Then, pride started to gurgle up the Trojans' throats and they couldn't swallow it any longer. First came a tweet from quarterback Matt Barkley, pumped up after watching a UFC match, predicting a USC upset. Then came some muted references that essentially said, "Hey, we're fast, too."
And then, after Wednesday's practice, defensive lineman Jurrell Casey pretty much put it all out there, grumpily saying the Ducks might not be all that. The adjectives everybody seemed to be sprinkling around like seed were starting to get on his nerves.
"They have a good running back and a good quarterback. Other than that, they're really not that good," Casey said.
Yeah, this thing is getting a little personal.
Saturday's game at the Coliseum (5 p.m. PT on ABC) is about more than USC trying to knock Oregon off its BCS title-game course and doing it in front of the nation's eyes. It's about restoring order in many of these players' worlds. The tumult has been non-stop since January, when Pete Carroll bolted to coach an NFL team that plays a few hundred miles from Oregon's campus. Then came all that June gloom, when the NCAA slapped the Trojans with sanctions tougher than anybody expected.
Saturday is about the Trojans putting down their cleats and stubbornly holding onto the keys to this conference.
"Once upon a time, we were in their shoes," fullback Stanley Havili said.
Funny how long ago that seems, but it was really only last year. Fourth-ranked USC had designs on overcoming an early loss to Washington and getting back in the national-title picture. After a 47-20 loss in Eugene, though, it could forget about that, and the 2009 season quickly swirled down the Emerald Bowl. That was the worst loss Carroll had ever endured at USC and it set the course for the program's downward spiral.
Since then, the Trojans have been searching for rock bottom and they hope those back-to-back last-second losses to Washington and Stanford this year were it. A victory over the top-ranked team in the land could accelerate USC's recovery considerably.
From an X's and O's standpoint, Saturday looks like another Oregon rout. USC's defense has struggled with spread offenses for years and the defensive guru the Trojans brought in, Monte Kiffin, is best known for devising a scheme that even he admits will be useless this week. He wished he could have had four weeks, not just two, to prepare for the onslaught Oregon's offense brings.
"The Tampa 2 isn't exactly what you'd use to shut down the triple option with," Kiffin said. "That's for a whole different deal, you know?"
The psychological dynamic of Saturday's game is fuzzier. How will Oregon respond to all the positive press? Can the Ducks do what USC did for a decade? It's often said that it's easier to get to the top than to stay on top. And USC is at its most confident coming off that 48-14 beating of Cal, in which the defense finally played to the standard the offense has set.
According to at least one veteran Trojan, this year's team will stay together no matter what happens. Fifth-year senior Allen Bradford said some of last year's players began playing for NFL scouts rather than for their teammates and it damaged morale. He said this season, the Trojans have learned once again to play as a unit and trust in one another.
"With [Brian] Cushing and Rey [Maualuga] and all those guys my freshman, sophomore and junior years, we felt like more of a team," Bradford said. "Last year, guys were just like, 'I'm going to ball for myself and see what happens.'"
Let's get this out of the way: USC isn't going to sneak up on anyone in the Pac-10. It probably never will. This conference is filled with teams dying to knock off the Trojans, in part because so many of their players grew up in Southern California and never got a whiff of recruiting interest from SC. But there's no denying the fact they are touchdown underdogs playing at home. That hasn't escaped the notice of the coaches, who can use it in their pregame pep talks.
"Part of it's kind of neat to be on the other side, to be the underdog coming into a game like this, have all the pressure on them having to be the No. 1 team in the country and have to withstand another week," said coach Lane Kiffin.
So, yeah, it's all of the things people have been saying. It's the Trojans' bowl game, their statement moment and their Super Bowl, all wrapped up in yellow-and-green wrapping paper. It should be a good show and it's something this region's fans have been thirsting for.
"It's just a big game," Bradford said.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.
The Trojans are loose -- their lips, too -- in preparing for Oregon.