LOS ANGELES -- As the USC offense took up a hopeless cause in a mostly empty Coliseum late Saturday, an Oregon fan who had migrated to the front row shouted to the Ducks' defense.
"Pick-six for 60!" he screamed. The scoreboard showed the eventual final -- Oregon 53, USC 32 -- but one plucky Duck wanted more.
On the Oregon sideline, Nike chairman and former Oregon runner Phil Knight chuckled. "Duck fans have been starved for so many years," Knight said, by way of apology to the group standing around him.
Even though the 2009 Ducks beat the Trojans by more in Eugene, to win by three touchdowns on the home field of the program that dominated the Pac-10 for a decade meant volumes to Mr. Pick-Six for 60. It probably meant volumes to Knight, who has now seen his Ducks win at the Coliseum four times since he graduated from Oregon in 1959. It meant volumes to the friends and family of Oregon tailback LaMichael James, who checked his phone a few minutes after the win and saw that he had 72 text messages -- more than 20 above his estimated postgame average.
Neither the location of the win nor the identity of the opponent meant so much to James, who shredded USC's defense for 239 rushing yards and became the first opponent to run for more than 200 yards against the Trojans since Vince Young. "It's a win," James said. "All the wins go in the same column."
Earlier, chroniclers of the sport had tried to coax Oregon coach Chip Kelly into lending context to the win. Maybe, just maybe, he'd give some sort of The king is dead, long live the king money quote. Kelly never bit. "We talk about playing a faceless opponent," Kelly said. "It's about how we perform."
That Kelly has accomplished this goal is what makes Oregon's development into a juggernaut so amazing. The Ducks, most of whom weren't even considered by USC during the recruiting process, turned the Trojans into just another team they beat by three touchdowns.
Sure, USC tried to make it interesting. The Trojans had an open date to prepare, and coach Lane Kiffin altered USC's practice schedule to simulate Oregon's breakneck pace. Banned from postseason play because of NCAA sanctions, the Trojans treated Saturday like the Super Bowl. So when USC turned a Jurrell Casey interception and a 55-yard Ronald Johnson punt return into two quick touchdowns and took a 32-29 lead early in the third quarter, it didn't seem at all surprising. Oregon finally had met a prepared, athletically superior team, and the Ducks were about to be exposed.
Maybe Casey, the 305-pound defensive tackle, got it right during the week when he said this of the Ducks' offense: "They have a good running back and a good quarterback. Other than that, they're really not that good."
Or maybe they are.
After USC took the lead, Oregon drove 69 yards in 12 plays to retake the lead. Receiver Jeff Maehl, one of the other guys, capped the march with one of his three touchdown catches. After forcing a USC punt, Oregon drove 82 yards in 11 plays for a James touchdown. Oregon would score 10 more after that. The Trojans never scored another point.
"They have a pretty good offense," Casey said. "You can't doubt it."
Every time I've watched Oregon against a decent opponent, I've considered dropping the Ducks a few notches on my Associated Press poll ballot -- they're currently No. 1 -- for about 2½ quarters. Then, halfway through the fourth, Oregon has the game and its poll position well in hand.
Like Oregon, Auburn scores a ton of points. Like Oregon, the Tigers give up a lot of points on occasion. Unlike Oregon, Auburn has played close games this season. The Ducks haven't won by fewer than 11 points, and all but one of their victories have been by at least 20. Boise State and TCU, meanwhile, score a lot of points and allow few points, but they play so few opponents that actually challenge the respective powers, it's hard to gauge how the Broncos and Horned Frogs would respond to the situations Oregon and Auburn have faced. So voters are forced to imagine how the teams would fare against one another -- if they actually played.
So why is Oregon still No. 1 for another week? Because the Ducks might fall behind, but everything they've done this season suggests they'll keep grinding away until their opponent eventually cries uncle.
How soundly did Oregon dominate USC during the 24-0 run in the final 26 minutes? Kiffin didn't even think his defense played that poorly. In fact, he said the two weeks practicing like Oregon made his team better than it had been before. "It sounds weird because we got blown out, but we had some games earlier in the year like against Virginia when we were gassed -- and the tempo didn't even compare to Oregon's," Kiffin said. "I think we've progressed well in that regard. I've really seen a difference in two weeks, so I can only imagine the effect [the practice tempo] has had on Oregon in two years."
Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris, who intercepted a Matt Barkley pass and returned a second-quarter punt 41 yards to set up a two-play touchdown drive, said it's impossible to approximate Oregon's tempo in only two weeks. "It's like saying, 'I'm fixin' to run 15 miles today,'" Harris said. "You have to build up to it."
Even USC's offense seemed exhausted in the fourth quarter. That might be because Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti shuffles his men better than an NHL coach shuffles his lines. Aliotti asks for three plays at maximum effort. Then, he makes wholesale substitutions. Still, the freshness doesn't offer an explanation for why Oregon's defense has allowed only seven points in the fourth quarter this season.
"It's like the secret to Coke," Kelly said. "We not telling anybody."
The secret is that there is no secret. A team could beat Oregon by showing up to the stadium in peak physical condition and by playing a mistake-free game. But get tired for a second -- make one mental mistake -- and it's over. The Ducks will run away and never look back.
And then one more opponent will be rendered faceless, just another team Oregon beat by three touchdowns.