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Game of the Week: USC battles Oregon for Pac-10 control

Admit it, you left Oregon for dead.

After LeGarrette Blount's fist connected with Byron Hout's jaw, the Ducks' fortunes looked as blue as Boise State's infamous turf, and new coach Chip Kelly looked like a man in way over his head.

But the Ducks have surged back since that opening-week loss, winning six straight, rising to No. 10 and setting up a pivotal Saturday matchup with No. 4 USC in Autzen Stadium. It'll be a rare Halloween treat for the Pac-10, which has hosted just 11 top 10 conference matchups since 1986.

Thanks to Jeremiah Masoli's return to dual-threat form, freshman LaMichael James' emergence at tailback and an offensive line that's started to gel, the Ducks are averaging 210 yards per game on the ground. But Kelly's squad owes its rise to defensive dominance more than the spread.

Despite losing six starters from a year ago and two more to injuries, the Ducks have jumped from 83rd to 18th in total defense. An aggressive unit, led by linebacker Kenny Rowe, has allowed just three touchdowns in four Pac-10 games, helping Oregon remain the only Pac-10 team without a conference loss.

"We're catching them at the height of their season right now," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "On both sides of the ball and special teams, they've been very effective. We're going to have to really be on."

1. Oregon looks to gain the upper hand in the Pac-10 race. Oregon's off to its best conference start since 2000 and ranks among the nation's hottest teams, but the Ducks still lack a signature win.

Sure, it's nice to beat Utah and Cal, but the Utes are still a Mountain West team, and Cal isn't the Pac-10 juggernaut many thought. But beating the Trojans? That would be something. Because despite what the standings say, the road to the conference title still runs through USC.

"[The Trojans] are the best team we've played so far, in every aspect," Kelly said. "They're USC for a reason."

An Oregon win would all but end USC's reign, make the Ducks the clear Rose Bowl favorite and keep them in the hunt for the title game. Arizona remains in the Pac-10 mix, but the Wildcats face a more daunting remaining schedule -- Cal, Oregon, Arizona State and USC, who are a combined 21-7 -- than the Ducks.

Of course, should USC win, an eighth straight conference title would be all but inevitable.

2. Matt Barkley and USC face another tough road test. Carroll, who regularly shares a Song of the Day selection with his Twitter followers, may want to dial up Willie Nelson's On the Road Again this week, because the Trojans will once again face a top 25 team away from home.

The Trojans have already faced and beaten three ranked road opponents -- Ohio State, Cal and Notre Dame -- all with a freshmen quarterbacks. While Barkley hasn't played as well away from home (65.1 completion percentage, five TDs and two picks at the Coliseum compared to 56.8, two and two on the road), the freshman certainly hasn't put his team in bad spots.

Carroll continues to laud his quarterback's cool, saying Barkley has "never, not for a second" been fazed playing in some of the game's most hostile stadiums. It remains to be seen how he'll fare in a hostile state -- the Trojans haven't won in the Beaver State since 2005.

3. Oregon's offense depends on Ed Dickson. It's easy to discount Oregon's passing attack. The Ducks' 157.4 passing yards per game rank last in the Pac-10 and 108th nationally. But their 6-foot-5 tight end remains a weapon and security blanket for Masoli.

Dickson's talents as a receiver (he's caught more passes than any tight end in Oregon history) force opponents to cover him each time he runs a route. He's been on the receiving end of four of Masoli's six passing touchdowns this season, and that threat helps open up running lanes for the Ducks, who rush on 65 percent of their plays.

Clearing space for James will be key against a Trojans defense that ranks fifth nationally with 79.8 rushing yards per game allowed. Of course, USC boasts something few opponents do: a safety (Taylor Mays) who has the size (6-4, 225) and speed to cover Dickson.

How do teams prepare for Kelly's spread? I asked a defensive coordinator who faced the Ducks this season. Here's what he had to say:

"It's a real challenge to prepare for them because it's an option offense; anytime a quarterback can run, it really changes what you can do on offense because they have a lot of weapons.

"Stopping the run is a big deal against them, obviously, so trying to give them a couple of different looks ... not lining up in the same look all the time and then still being sound against the running game. That's really the biggest challenge because there's only so many ways you can do it.

"Anytime, Jeremiah Masoli can run the ball, and he can beat you throwing it, so our mindset was trying to limit the big runs and trying to make them beat you throwing the football.

"Getting them into longer third downs is huge. They're a real momentum offense. They're hard to stop because they can beat you with a lot of different people but if you can get them into third-and-long, you maybe don't have to worry about the quarterback runs so much."

Each week I'll feature the best prediction/trash talk on the week's featured matchup. Follow me to make your entry and check out the pairing for next week's Game of the Week.

I am thinking USC comes to Auzten dressed in their Overrated Team Costume -- Ducks 35 USC 20.-- @duckboy1972

USC 31, Oregon 28. The Pac-10 torch won't change hands just yet. As good as the Ducks have been, especially on defense, their weaknesses could become liabilities against USC. Behind the nation's best offensive line, the Trojans should be able to run against an Oregon unit allowing 118.8 yards per game and create one-on-one situations for deep-threat Damian Williams against defensive backs who have played above their heads.

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