Needed: Noise and an inspired defense

From the first question in the Pac-10 Media Teleconference on, it may have appeared that everybody was figuring that the USC Trojans will come into Autzen Stadium on Saturday, and make the Oregon Ducks the next victim in a game that will be televised live on ABC starting at 4 p.m. Everyone that is, with the exception of the man to whom the questions were directed, Oregon Head Coach Mike Bellotti.

Bellotti confessed in the Pac-10 Media Conference that was streamed live on that USC in without a doubt a great, great football team. A two-time defending national and Pac-10 champion, off to a 2-0 record in a dominating fashion making the point of just how good the Trojans are. Southern California has two players that are surefire Heisman Trophy candidates -- running back/receiver Reggie Bush and quarterback Matt Leinart. Oh by the way, Leinart won the award last year, if anyone has forgotten. So far this season the Men of Troy have demolished Hawaii (63-17) and then last week made Arkansas wish Bill Clinton was still President so that he could have declared Fayetteville a national disaster area upon the Razorbacks' return from Los Angeles on the heels of a 70-17 loss. They could be the best team Bellotti has seen in the Pac-10, at least on film. After all, the Ducks and Trojans haven't met in competition in two years.

"Yes, although the Washington (National Championship team) was really good," answered Bellotti to the question if USC is the best team he has seen. "This (USC) is certainly the most explosive offensive team. I thought the Penn State team we played in the Rose Bowl (1994) was pretty good, but I think this one tops that. Washington's defense team in '90 or '91, whenever year that was, was the most dominant team I've seen in that regard. This team (USC) just because right now (of) their offensive productivity may easily be the best team we've played."

The statistics regarding USC reflect just how dominating the Trojans have been this year, at least against the out of conference opponents. Bush is averaging 105.5 yards rushing with three touchdowns and has also caught seven passes this year for a total of 128 yards and a touchdown or a 64-yard per game average. Leinart is averaging 356.5 yards per game passing with seven touchdowns and one interception. Steve Smith is the leading Troy receiver with 11 catches for 314 yards and a touchdown or a 157.0-yard per game average. Dwayne Jarrett also has 11 catches for 167 yards and he has five touchdowns.

Overall the Trojans are averaging a whopping 627.0-yards per game, 234 yards rushing and 394 yards passing. Interestingly USC has not done much inside the opponents 25-yardline. Not that they have had to, but in redzone efficiency, USC has converted seven scores in 11 times inside the 25. That is 72.7 percent and is ninth in the Pac-10.

Obviously the Trojans are scoring on big plays and giving up big plays and slowing down the Trojan offense is the key in Bellotti's mind in playing USC.

"The biggest thing that you try to strategize is how to slow them down and how to avoid giving up a big play and the fast score," observed Bellotti. "Most of the time the games by half time have not been very close. I think the longer you stay close the more it becomes a football game the more it becomes a reality that you can play, that you can win. Especially in our stadium there are a lot of things that buoy that confidence for the home team."

Sounds simple enough, just exactly how do the Ducks slow down a team likes USC? By playing inspired defense is how Bellotti described it and judging for the Ducks' performance against Fresno State it looks like the Oregon defenders maybe doing just that at least against the running game. So far this season the Oregon defense has held opponents to 81.0 yards per game rushing. Passing defense has been a bit more porous and clearly that is going to be a big question mark if the Ducks' front line can put enough pressure on Leinart and if the Oregon secondary can keep up with Bush and company and avoid explosion plays.

To date in this year's campaign, the Ducks have given up at least one long scoring pass play in each game, but when the Ducks have most needed their defense to stop the big plays, they have been able to do so. Against Houston, two quick bombs (70, 62 yards), burned Oregon in the first quarter of the game, but after adjustments were made, Houston was done with the big hitter. Against Division I-AA Montana, the only meaningful score was a 33-yard touchdown lob that Oregon cornerback Aaron Gipson misjudged in his leap to block the incoming pass. Against Fresno State, the Oregon secondary was lit up for one bit play of over 25 yards and that was a 36-yarder in the third quarter.

The Duck defenders in all three of its first three games were able to physically take over in the second half of the games and control the pace. Conditioning then may also be a factor if Oregon is able to slow down the Trojans.

Special teams and the speed of the Trojan special teams is concerning Bellotti. While USC has not scored on a kickoff or punt return nor kicked a field goal, they have been able to place itself in excellent field position. USC kick return specialist Desmond Reed has a 44.7-yard return average on three kick returns and one being for 51 yards.

"Speed on special teams, that's what shows up," claimed Bellotti. "They have some really fantastic football players that are probably second and third string somewhere, but they are first string on special teams, they do a nice job."

The Trojans have had problems with the injury bug. Linebacker Dallas Sartz (shoulder), cornerback Terrell Thomas (knee), defensive end Jeff Schwelger (foot), fullback Sean Kelly (shoulder), offensive guard Jeff Byers (hip), tailback Hershel Dennis (knee) and offensive tackle Thomas Herring (knee) are all definitely out due to injury. Tailback Chauncey Washington is ineligible. Oregon's only roster player definitely out is Shawn Flanagan, who suffered a pectoral muscle injury early in fall camp.

Defensive end Kyle Moore (knee), safety Darnell Bing (hip), linebacker Brian Cushing (shoulder), defensive end Chris Barrett (calf), wide receiver Whitney Lewis (shoulder), safety Mozique McCurtis (abdomen) and cornerback Will Harris (ankle) are all listed as possible this week. Oregon's running back Jonathan Stewart is given a day-to-day status because of an ankle sprain suffered in the Montana game.

Bellotti's counterpart Pete Carroll thinks that while the two teams have not met in a couple of years that doesn't necessarily give either an advantage. USC hasn't seen Oregon in a while, and Ducks haven't seen the Trojans since 2002. Oregon's new spread offense has produced over 400 yards per game of offense and Oregon's senior quarterback Clemens is averaging 313.3 yards per game passing and another 45.7 yards rushing. What does Carroll think of Clemens?

"Whether it is on the options, making great runs and finishing plays...he's creative and productive...Kellen is having a great start to his senior year," said Carroll of Clemens. "I'm sure they (Oregon coaches) are just jacked about him. He is difficult, really difficult...He causes tons of problems."

The Ducks will need Clemens to be at his top form along with all of his teammates, and Bellotti would like a noisy Autzen Stadium to welcome the Trojans back to Eugene. Before the stadium was renovated, Autzen was extremely noisy due to the configuration of the stadium and the Omni Turf that was on the field. While Bellotti tried to duplicate the conditions, it didn't quite work out, but Autzen is still a wild place.

"It is still loud...but it was even louder before," said Bellotti of the noise in Autzen Stadium. "Now our fans have to make the difference...they did it last week."

There is no doubt that this is the biggest game of the year for the Ducks in terms of meeting a ranked opponent. Bellotti has described each game this season as a step along the way. The first game was on the road, the second was the home opener and the third was against the first ranked opponent. The Ducks have been successful in each step of the way. Oregon is a program that wants back into the national spotlight and to be in a position to compete for the national championship and taking on USC is as good as it can ever get in facing that next step to the big challenge of winning it all. While some may think it is an impossible step to take for this Oregon team, Bellotti isn't one of them.

Kickoff is at 4 p.m. on Saturday.

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