- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- There was a moment early in the second half Saturday when USC's fate appeared to be mirroring the weather earlier in the day. Dark storm clouds drifted off and a bright, crisp afternoon sun was shining down on the program.
It was an illusion, though, as so many happy times are with this team nowadays.
That shimmering glimpse -- USC snatching a 32-29 lead on two whiz-bang touchdowns, the top-ranked team on the ropes, the nation transfixed -- unraveled in a sloppy finish. It felt like the old days in the Coliseum for a while, and then things turned quiet and morose again, as they have been so much of this season.
Oregon, No. 2 in the BCS, pressed its experience and scored the last 24 points en route to a 53-32 victory that kept the Ducks' title dreams perfectly intact.
The Trojans (5-3, 2-3 in the Pac-10) had poured so much into this. Their players, most of them young and untested, had made so much of it. They called it their bowl game. For one player, a freshman, that wasn't enough. He equated it to the Super Bowl. There were words of pride and bravado during the week, words that inevitably don't seem like such a good idea once the sweat dries.
See, there's one big problem with making so much of a game in the middle of a college football season. Teams that lose bowl games have seven months to recover. USC has six days.
"That's why I never called it a bowl game. You never heard me say that. It was the next game," coach Lane Kiffin said.
Kiffin said he's not worried about how his team bounces back from this knockdown. People wondered how the team could recover four weeks ago, after its chance of going 13-0 was dashed by a Washington team that had no business winning here. They wondered about motivation again after Stanford snatched the Trojans' hearts out again the following week.
Saturday was a different experience, though. They lost to a team that was better than them at virtually everything. The final score didn't adequately describe the domination. Oregon outgained them by 222 yards. The Trojans converted just eight of their 19 attempts on third or fourth down. Kiffin called the offense's performance "terrible" repeatedly. Quarterback Matt Barkley completed barely half his passes (26 of 49) and threw more interceptions (two) than touchdown passes (one).
Not that there weren't those moments when hope shone through. Oregon's offense didn't hum along as merrily as it had done for much of this season -- USC seemed to have found a little trove of ducky kryptonite for a while. But by the end, Oregon clearly was the king of this conference, and they proved it by walking into the old king's living room and knocking him off his chair.
There was as much brutality about Saturday as there was finesse. Oregon's defenders pounded Barkley and his receivers for four quarters. Though the Ducks' offense piled up 599 yards and nearly equaled its season average for scoring, it was the defense that earned the most converts on Saturday. The Trojans' offense had been riding high coming into this game. Oregon grounded it.
"Apparently we're just a quarterback and a running back and that's it, right?" said Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews, poking fun at comments made by USC defensive tackle Jurrell Casey a few days earlier.
Casey wasn't in a mood to argue after the game.
"They're good," Casey said. "Can't doubt it."
Where does USC take it from here?
It's trying to build a foundation so that, by the time it emerges from sanctions in a few years, it can be in position to shove Oregon back off its perch. There have been fleeting signs of those this season, but this is a delicate moment. If the Trojans aren't careful, they easily could have their worst season in a decade or more. Difficult games still loom on the road at Arizona and Oregon State and even next week's opponent, Arizona State, could pose problems if they show up without any fire.
Kiffin addressed that question -- about this season swirling quickly away -- immediately after the game in the locker room.
"Just go back to work like we did after Stanford, study this tape," Barkley said. "It's going to suck to watch, because we did have opportunities to score. Just go back to work and realize we can bounce back after this and beat is it Arizona State?"
Somebody then asked Barkley how you beat this team.
"Arizona State?" he asked.
Uh, no, Matt. Oregon.
"You have to play near-flawless and that was what we anticipated coming into this," Barkley said. "We didn't do that, on both sides of the ball. They're a very good team."
Maybe, if the Trojans keep working their hardest, people will be saying things like that about them one of these days.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.
USC's response after losing to Oregon will be a test of character.