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October 27, 2007

No. 5 Oregon knocks off No. 9 USC

MORE: Sanchez family back together after fires | Box score

EUGENE, Ore. — Honestly, don't even bother. These Oregon Ducks aren't going to quack.

They won't discuss the BCS rankings. They refuse to talk about gaudy records and a "changing of the guard" in the Pac-10 conference. Utter the words "national title" and you're sure to get the evil eye from an Oregon player.

"Not gonna do it," linebacker John Bacon said when asked to handicap the Ducks' chances of a BCS title game appearance. "It's pointless to think about all the possibilities about where we could end up in the future.

"All that matters to us is the present."

Cliché as it may be, that game-to-game, week-to-week mindset is paying off for the fifth-ranked Ducks, who are 7-1 after Saturday's 24-17 victory over USC. The win was Oregon's first in five years against the Trojans, who, according to coach Mike Bellotti, are "as talented as any team in the country."

If that's true, Saturday's victory should certainly catapult Bellotti's squad into any conversation concerning a national title.

"I don't want to be like, 'We're the greatest team and this and that,'" receiver Jaison Williams said. "But I definitely think we have some national presence and we need to be respected. … I think we're dominant."

That may be too strong of a word to describe the Ducks' performance against USC Saturday, but hey, when was the last time anyone dominated the Trojans?

Oregon's Jonathan Stewart continues to perform as well as any tailback in the country. Stewart racked up 103 yards against a stout USC defense Saturday, with his most impressive play coming on a 15-yard, bulldozing run on third-and-14. The run kept alive the drive that eventually culminated in a touchdown and a 24-10 Oregon lead.
Both of Matthew Harper's interceptions came at crucial times. The first came on the Ducks' 15-yard line as USC was driving in the third-quarter. The next one, on the 16-yard line, proved to be the game-clincher with 11 seconds remaining.
One thing that didn't get much mention Saturday were the defensive stops Oregon made after a pair of Ducks' turnovers gave USC ideal field position. USC recovered Oregon's fumble on the opening kickoff but failed to score despite taking over on the 21. Later a muffed punt gave USC the ball on Oregon's 33-yard line, but the Trojans could only manage a field goal.
Rarely do you see a quarterback pitch to an offensive lineman, but that's exactly what happened Saturday when Dennis Dixon, under pressure, flicked the pigskin to 6-foot-7, 337-pound tackle Geoff Schwartz. And get this: Schwartz actually picked up three yards. That was all planned, right Coach Bellotti? "That was all designed, as you could probably tell by (Geoff's) ability in the open field," Bellotti joked.
USC is out of the national title hunt – and probably the Pac-10 race, too. Offensively, this clearly isn't the same machine that dominated college football a few years ago. But the Trojans may someday get back to that level if quarterback Mark Sanchez continues to progress. USC fans are probably steamed with Sanchez – and they should be - because the poor decision-making he displayed on two second-half interceptions. But Sanchez also showed some good composure by moving the Trojans into scoring position on each of those possessions. And he did in one of the loudest stadiums in the Pac-10.
Another win equals more pressure for the Ducks, who now must deal with the distractions that accompany being in the national title hunt. The good thing for Oregon is that it probably won't face a defense as strong as the USC unit it went against on Saturday. Racking up 339 yards against these Trojans is nothing to frown about.
Oregon entered the game averaging 46.6 points and ranked second nationally in total offense. But against USC it was the Ducks' defense that made the difference when it mattered most.

Trailing 17-10, USC was driving late in third quarter thanks to some clutch third-down passes by quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was making his third straight start in place of the injured John David Booty.

Oregon, though, halted the march when safety Matthew Harper picked off Sanchez at the 15-yard line. The Ducks took advantage of the turnover by staging a 58-yard drive that culminated in Jonathan Stewart's 1-yard touchdown run.

That made it 24-10, but USC countered with a scoring pass from Sanchez to David Ausberry to pull within one possession. And things really looked scary for Oregon when the Trojans got the ball back again with about 3 minutes left.

"This game felt like a championship game, like it was supposed to," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "We thought we had a chance to get back into it. We started to feel it, but we just couldn't make it."

That's because Harper came up big again for Oregon when he picked off Sanchez for the second time as USC attempted to tie the game in the final seconds. A record crowd of 59,277 went bananas when Harper made his game-clinching interception.

Before time expired, thousands of fans hopped the railing to mob the field, where many of them took pictures of the scoreboard with their cell phones.

Speaking of championships, the Trojans probably don't need to worry about any of them after suffering their second loss Saturday. USC got 277 passing yards and two touchdowns from Sanchez, whose elusiveness was impressive. At times Sanchez showed loads of poise, but his two pivotal interceptions came on passes he tried to force.

"Our defense wore down last year," Bellotti said. "This year it got better as the game went on. I couldn't be any more proud of our guys. We've played some teams that other people think are better than we are. But all that matters is what we think."

Things won't get any easier for the Ducks, who play host to Arizona State next week.

"We've got something for A-State," Williams said. "Just like we had something today for USC."

Oregon's final three games are against Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State – all "show-up games," Bellotti said.

Tough as their upcoming opponents may be, the Ducks' biggest challenge may come off the field. Now more than ever, Oregon will be talked about as a national title contender. Stewart and quarterback Dennis Dixon are being mentioned as Heisman candidates.

Dixon said he thought Oregon's loss to Cal earlier this season came partly because the Ducks were affected by the "hype" surrounding the game. He said he and his teammates won't make the same mistake again.

"We've put a big target on our backs," Dixon said. "Everyone wants to play the Ducks. I know I wouldn't want to come in here and play us."

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

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