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Ever-improving Oregon dismantles USC like few could have imagined

EUGENE, Ore. -- In the stands above the Oregon end zone, a lone Ducks fan held up a yellow posterboard sign that perfectly summed up what took place here Saturday night. "Welcome," it said, "To the Fall of Troy."

With three seconds left and the outcome long since decided, Oregon safety T.J. Ward stood in that same end zone awaiting the opportunity to put one last stamp on No. 10 Oregon's historic blowout of No. 4 USC. When Ward picked off Matt Barkley's last-second touchdown attempt, a 47-20 Ducks victory officially went in the books and a Halloween-themed celebration immediately broke out around him. Ghosts, Jokers, pirates -- even a guy in a USC cheerleader outfit -- danced and mingled with Oregon players on the turf of Autzen Stadium.

"I haven't felt this good in a while," said Ward, a fifth-year senior. "We made a statement that 'SC does not have a lock on [the Pac-10] anymore. There's a new team, and we're coming to win."

The Ducks (7-1, 5-0 Pac-10) didn't necessarily wrap up a Pac-10 championship here, but they likely assured that the seven-time defending champion Trojans (6-2, 3-2) will not. They took the most remarkable step yet in their improbable rise from the ashes of an opening-night debacle at Boise State, racking up an astonishing 613 yards of offense against a program that's been a defensive juggernaut for much of this decade.

Running back LaMichael James (24 carries, 183 yards) and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli (222 passing yards, 164 rushing yards) took turns gashing USC's defense, while Ward and Co. held the Trojans' offense to just three points and 130 total yards in a lopsided second half.

The Ducks ran for 391 yards against the nation's fifth-ranked rushing defense.

"They did everything they wanted to," said USC coach Pete Carroll, whose most lopsided defeat prior to Saturday had been an 11-point loss to Notre Dame in his debut season (2001). "It was really pretty easy for them."

Oregon had provided flashes of dominance the past several weeks, most recently a 43-19 win at Washington. And USC had certainly shown signs of shakiness, from its Sept. 19 loss to the Huskies to their second-half defensive lapses against Notre Dame and Oregon State. But few outside of the Ducks' locker room -- or at least outside the state of Oregon -- could have foreseen such thorough domination.

On the other hand, Chip Kelly's team may be the most predictable in the country. Over the past seven weeks, Oregon has become the living embodiment of an adage every coach preaches but few ever enjoy -- a team that's literally gotten better each week.

After a miserable 135-yard night against Boise, Masoli, a preseason Heisman candidate, had seen his production gradually rise over the course of the season. Saturday night, he did his best Dennis Dixon impression, exploding for his most total yards (386) since a game against Arizona last November. James, a redshirt freshman who had just two carries that first game, had matched or exceeded his season-high rushing totals each of the past two weeks. Saturday night he shattered the previous mark by 29 yards.

And Oregon's largely unsung defense, which continues to defy all reasonable expectations of even its own coaches, held the most talented offense it has yet faced to just 327 total yards.

"We just outworked them," said defensive tackle Brandon Bair. "You could tell in the third quarter that they started hanging their heads. That's what we do to people."

It was a night for both schools' record books. Oregon had never previously exceeded the 40-point mark in 56 meetings with USC. The Trojans hadn't lost by 27 points in 12 years, hadn't allowed 613 yards since 1946. Yet the tone in the Ducks' postgame remarks belied the significance of their achievement. Following the lead of their single-minded coach, Kelly, most talked as if beating USC by 27 points was just a standard day at the office for them.

"One game at a time -- it's a cliché, but it works," said Ward. "After that first week, we couldn't get any lower. Even after Boise, we weren't blowing people out. We barely beat Purdue. Utah came down to the last second. Every week we keep getting better. We haven't hit our limits."That's a scary thought for the rest of the Pac-10, of which only one team, Arizona, remains within a game of the Ducks. (The teams meet Nov. 21 in Tucson.) And by all indications, Oregon is about to add another arsenal to its lineup. Running back LeGarrette Blount, suspended since the Boise State game for his postgame punch, is expected to be reinstated in time for next week's game at Stanford. Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott will be holding several meetings in Eugene on Sunday -- including with Blount himself -- to discuss the matter, but it's starting to sound more and more like a formality.

Blount, a power back, was a 1,000-yard rusher last season. Oregon gained 613 yards Saturday without him. Imagine the possibilities with him.

Against the Trojans, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound James continually shook off tacklers and broke into the USC secondary. His diminutive frame and elusiveness may have reminded some of another notorious Trojans-killer, Oregon State's Jacuqizz Rodgers, but the Ducks run a completely different offense than the Beavers. Their spread-option is reliant on Masoli making a split-second read on each play and either faking or making the handoff. Saturday night, he and the Ducks executed with the type of precision that Kelly became known for in his previous role as Oregon's offensive coordinator.

"They did all the zone plays we'd practiced for," said Trojans safety Taylor Mays. "We got beat up up front. They kept hitting us in the mouth."

Mays, a four-year starter, called the loss the worst of his career, and understandably so. While the Trojans have lost seven conference games over the past four seasons, they've never experienced the pain of an opponent so thoroughly dominating them. USC's defense, which lost every full-time starter but Mays from last season, finally failed to fully reload. The Trojans have played in four straight Rose Bowls, but the Ducks are on course to take their place.

But before you go etching either team's fate in stone, remember that a similar event occurred here two years ago, when Dixon and the Ducks beat the injury-depleted Trojans 24-17 to move a game ahead of them in the Pac-10 standings. A "changing of the guard" appeared to be in store then, but Dixon tore his ACL the following week. Oregon wound up losing three straight, and USC landed back in the Rose Bowl.

This time, however, Oregon has a two-game lead. And scarily, the Ducks' best days still seem ahead of them.

"We are already getting ready for our next game [against Stanford]," said defensive end Will Tukuafu.

Have mercy for the Cardinal if Oregon's meteoric progression continues.

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