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Leader of the (middle of) the pack


EUGENE, Ore. -- There would be no banner headlines after this game. No breaking news bulletins or upset alerts. No, USC came to Autzen Stadium and did exactly what it was expected to do against Oregon. It lost.

For the first time in six years the Trojans came into a game as the underdogs and no one was surprised when they went home as losers. No one was forced to label the result as the "biggest upset" or the "greatest game" or any other superfluous adjective. Nope. It was a conventional game with a predictable outcome which, in the end, is what made it such a watershed moment.

It was the day the Trojans, which had won a record 27 straight Pac-10 games and five consecutive Pac-10 titles, became a middle-of-the-pack team in the conference they used to dominate. The Trojans, who are now 6-4 in their last 10 conference games, are currently behind Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon in the Pac-10 standings.

After beginning the season with dreams of playing in the BCS National Championship Game or the Rose Bowl, the Trojans are staring at another nightmarish reality they haven't experienced since 2001. If the season were to end today they would likely be headed to the Las Vegas Bowl.

It's been a fast fall from grace for a team that was labeled as the most talented team Pete Carroll had ever assembled and quite possibly the most talented ever put together in college football history based on sheer blue-chip recruits and the hyperbole of Jim Harbaugh.

"I don't know what's going on," said John David Booty, his middle finger still wrapped up as he stood alone in the visiting locker room. "This is not the kind of football we're used to playing around here.

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Booty had started the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, on the cover of preview magazines and a fan favorite who had inspired countless witty bootleg T-shirts playing off his last name. Since cracking the middle finger on his right throwing hand against Stanford, a game in which he threw four interceptions, he has been viewed as the scapegoat for the Trojans' offensive woes. After his replacement Mark Sanchez sealed USC's fate Saturday with two interceptions, one on the potential game-tying final drive, he's beginning to wonder when people will see the big picture.

"I don't know what everyone is expecting Mark or myself to be but we're doing the best we can to help our team win," said Booty, who believes he's healthy enough to reclaim his starting job next week and salvage what's left of the season. "There's 11 guys on the field and if 10 of them do something right and one of them does something wrong it can mess up the whole play. We hate to lose and our head coach hates to lose but it gets hard sometimes and you have to live with what happens. It's so hard to stay on top in this game."

While the game might be viewed as the end of an era, Oregon, which appears to be in the conference's driver's seat heading into its home game next week against Arizona State, didn't seem to care that it ended the Trojans' stranglehold on the Pac-10. As far as the Ducks were concerned the Trojans haven't been anything special for some time now.

"It's not like they have [Matt] Leinart and [Reggie] Bush," said Oregon defensive back Patrick Chung. "That might have made them more intimidating but that doesn't matter anymore. They're another team that we have to play. They're regular players. I bet teams were intimidated in the past but they're a regular team. They're not some super power. Just because they're USC doesn't mean anything."

Oregon, at least for the time being, seems to have taken over USC's former role with an explosive spread offense led by Dennis Dixon, who passed for 157 yards and rushed for 80 and a touchdown, and Jonathan Stewart, who rushed for 103 yards and two touchdowns. Heading into Saturday's game the Ducks were second in the nation in total offense and scoring offense and ranked third and fourth respectively in rushing and passing efficiency.

"Everyone is taking their game to the next level and feeding off our success," Dixon said. "Things are just clicking right now for us."

After the game, Dixon, wearing a light green argyle sweater, was surrounded by a sea of green-and-gold-clad fans, signing autographs on his way outside of the stadium. Sam Baker, USC's All-American offensive tackle, meanwhile, could barely limp away from the nearby visiting locker room on his strained hamstrings, which kept him out of the lineup late in the game. Two players on two teams going in opposite directions.

"I don't think we're going to go in the tank," Baker said. "That's not an option for us. That's the way we've always been here. We're going to go back to work and see where the season takes us, wherever that is."