- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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EUGENE, Ore. -- No. 5 Oregon has spent the season piling up points and yards as if it's buying them at Sam's Club: in bulk, and way more than it needs. The Ducks scored 50-plus points in their last four victories, and they have averaged 551 yards of total offense per game.
But No. 12 USC came to town on Saturday. It's on Page 1 of the coaching textbook: Defense wins championships. Explosive offenses usually don't explode against talented defenses, and the Trojans have a defense with seven NFL first-round draft picks on the front seven, according to Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly. As USC warmed up before the game, Kelly allowed himself a moment of awe.
"I said, 'Whoa. These guys are pretty good. They look like the Patriots,'" Kelly said.
Oregon gained only 339 yards of total offense Saturday, some 212 yards below its average. Quarterback Dennis Dixon, the Ducks' Heisman Trophy candidate, failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season.
And the Ducks controlled the game throughout. Defense won this game, and it just wasn't the defense with all of the first-round picks.
On a brilliantly sunny Saturday, before 59,277 fans (the largest crowd in the history of Autzen Stadium), Oregon won, 24-17. The Ducks won by playing outstanding defense, by playing offense as patiently as a spread offense can play and by recovering from their mistakes while making the Trojans pay for theirs.
In short, Oregon won by playing not the way Oregon has played, but by playing the way national champions have played.
"This game felt like a championship game," USC coach Pete Carroll said, "like it was supposed to."
USC and Oregon threw something at each other that neither team is used to seeing week in and week out -- athletes as good as their own. When Oregon attacked the Trojans' perimeter, the USC tacklers closed the gaps quickly.
But Dixon gave as good as he got. On the Ducks' two-minute drive at the end of the first half, Dixon gained 9 yards, and saved 20 seconds on the clock, by juking inside and loping to the right sideline. He took Oregon 58 yards in 11 plays, and Matt Evenson kicked a 41-yard field goal to give the Ducks a 10-3 lead with 15 seconds to spare.
"Before the game," Dixon said, "I talked to Chip. He said, 'Think completions. Manage the game.'"
Dixon did that and more. If Heisman voters look at his numbers (16-of-25 for 157 passing yards, 17 carries for 76 rushing yards and a touchdown), Dixon may suffer.
If Heisman voters watched the game, Dixon gained a lot of votes.
The only bad decision Dixon made was his third-quarter pitch to tackle Geoff Schwartz. Dixon saw a black jersey behind him and made the instinctive move.
Somehow, Schwartz caught it and rumbled for a 3-yard gain.
"That was a designed play, as you probably could tell," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti deadpanned. "We like Schwartz's ability in the open field."
That play encapsulated how the Ducks dug themselves out of holes, literally right from the beginning.
Oregon returner Andre Crenshaw fumbled away the opening kickoff to USC at the Oregon 21. The Trojans got to fourth-and-1, and Carroll, who just can't help himself, refused to attempt the short field goal on the road. The Ducks stuffed Joe McKnight for a 1-yard loss.
"Four plays later, it was over," Oregon defensive end Nick Reed. "We were off the field like it never happened."
USC went off the field with no points, just as it did three weeks ago, when it failed on fourth-and-goal at the Stanford 1-yard line just before the half. The Trojans went on to lose, 24-23.
A crazy bounce on a second-quarter punt glanced off the Ducks' Garren Strong and was recovered by the Trojans' Rey Maualuga at the Oregon 33. USC needed nine plays to drive all of 20 yards before settling for a 30-yard field goal by David Buehler.
Two red zone trips. Three points.
The Trojans actually outgained the Ducks, getting 378 yards of total offense, but those statistics are so misleading they could have been put out by a campaign committee.
"All we can do is clear up the mistakes we made in this game," USC quarterback Mark Sanchez said.
The Ducks won by confusing the Trojan sophomore, who was making only the third start of his career. Sanchez had his moments. He completed 26-of-41 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns. With USC trailing, 24-10, and only 5:32 to play, Sanchez completed four straight passes, the last a 14-yard scoring pass to David Ausberry with 4:44 to play, to cut the deficit in half.
Oregon failed to make a first down and gave the ball back to Sanchez with 3:10 to play at the USC 17. Sanchez drove the Trojans 50 yards, to the Oregon 33. He had :23 and one timeout remaining, not the best time for inexperience to rear its head. But he threw two interceptions to Oregon free safety Matthew Harper, the second with :11 to play after Sanchez had driven the Trojans to the Ducks' 33.
Though Harper lined up on the side of the field opposite tight end Fred Davis, he planned to cover him. Sanchez didn't figure that out.
"I baited him," Harper said. "I went back to the middle and I don't think he saw me. I jumped in front of the tight end."
The national championship debate will enter November without the USC Trojans on the stage. If that sounds unusual, it hasn't happened since 2002, since Carson Palmer led a late-season surge that earned USC a slot in the Orange Bowl and him the Heisman Trophy.
How long is five years in college football? Five years ago, Dennis Franchione still coached at Alabama and Tim Tebow played linebacker and tight end as a freshman at Trinity Christian in Jacksonville, Fla.
"To beat them is very big," Bellotti said.
Do not hit your refresh button. Bellotti tried to back away from making it a big deal, then said it again.
"Because they have been a great football team, and they still are a great football team," Bellotti explained. "They are as talented a football team as there is in the United States. We played Michigan [and beat the Wolverines, 39-7]. We've seen other games across the nation. 'SC has as much talent as anybody. Their 11 best? Our best 11 is better. We played as a team. We trusted each other. This is a big step."
With five weeks left in the regular season, Oregon is front-and-center in the national championship picture. The steps don't get any bigger.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com.
It's been a long time since USC was out of the national championship picture. But with a convincing 24-17 defeat of the Trojans, Oregon served notice that there is a new regime in the Pac-10 -- and possibly the nation.