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USC better not look past Oregon, Clay says

Trojans better not be looking ahead this week, Clay Helton says, this Ducks team is as serious a threat "as a heart attack" -- or something like that and he's not backing off.

It's been five days since last we saw them after the Cal game so no wonder there was plenty of news Tuesday from USC's Trojans.

Ticking them off one at a time, Clay Helton had his list and was sticking to it.

*** UH OH, OREGON IMPROVED: Helton opened with Oregon, a team that in his mind could easily be 6-2 except for three-point losses to Nebraska and Colorado and a double-overtime loss at Cal. Make the Ducks 6-2, Clay said, and forget the defense, now that they've found their young quarterback, Justin Herbert -- :"just like us," Clay said. They're as "serious" a threat as the proverbial "heart attack."

Herbert is a 6-foot-5 raw-boned kid from right in Eugene who has thrown for 10 TD passes the last two weeks as the Ducks put up 103 points. He's not kidding around, Clay said, and USC better not either.

*** MAX BROWNE has his USC release now allowing the backup quarterback to talk to anyone in college football for transfer purposes that the grad student is interested in in a search for what Clay said would be "the perfect fit."

And maybe that would even include staying at USC and getting his MBA here but that would seem to be the longest of longshots. Transferring at the semester to a program that needs a veteran QB for spring football is the most likely way this goes with Max asking for, and receiving, permission to talk to anyone, anywhere in the world of college football including any Pac-12 team.

"He deserves to find the perfect fit," Clay said, "he has been so good for this football team." And as a graduate, Max can go anywhere and play right away. "He asked for permission to talk to everyone," Clay said, "to get the word out."

And USC said yes. After losing his starting job after three games to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, Max is still No. 21 in the nation and No. 5 in the Pac-12 in passing accuracy with a .637 completion percentage behind Darnold, who is No. 13 in the nation and No. 3 in the Pac-12 at .674.13 nationally and No 3 in the Pac-12 with .674.

*** DARNOLD NEXT: No surprise the driving force behind USC's four-game win streak and a near-miss on a fifth in his first start at Utah is the second-year guy from San Clemente who likes talking about what he has been learning and learning quickly. One of those lessons came in his first answer: "Oregon is a great defense," Sam said in his best coach-speak, "they run around like Cal."

Indeed they do. While Cal ranked 123rd out of 128 FBS teams in total defense, allowing 505.9 yards a game and 124th in scoring defense, allowing 41.8 points, both totals USC surpassed with 45 points and 629 yards of offense Thursday, Oregon is a tad worse. The Ducks come into the Coliseum Saturday (4 p.m., ESPN) No. 127 in total defense (allowing 529.8 yards a game) and No. 124 in scoring defense (42.3 ppg). So Sam should be able to do what redshirt freshman don't often do, as Clay put it, "take what the defense gives you," after his second straight five-TD-pass game against the Bears when he distributed the ball to four different receivers for the scores.

"He's starting to take more of a leadership role," says center Nico Falah, who like Sam was a backup through fall camp before stepping in to take over for the injured Toa Lobendahn. "It's easier now. We know each other really well. His hand placement under center. His voice so you don't think it's a defensive guy calling out signals. And now he's making calls for us. If he sees a blitz, he'll change the protection."

"I'm more confident now," Sam says after the Cal game. "I'm learning to know the whole play," he says of his mistaken mechanics on the run-pass option ball-handling that had Ronald Jones knock the ball loose for one of his two fumbles and then not seeing "the one-high safety coming over" on his lone interception. "I'll continue to learn from that."

One thing he says he's learned since the Utah game is to "trust my offensive line," Sam says, "I'm starting to realize how talented our offensive line is."

Tee Martin has said all along how talented his quarterback is. "I thought he did a good job," he said of the Cal game, "except for two or three plays . . . we're tough on him. He loves tough coaching so Clay is tough on him, Tyson [Helton] is tough on him and so am I . . . you guys may not hear it but even out here, we're on him . . . he's always liked it."

*** WARE INJURED: With senior tailback Justin Davis unlikely to be able to return this week from the high ankle sprain that's hobbled him the past two weeks, the lineup was likely to remain the two sophomores from Texas the way it was against Cal. Until that is, Aca'Cedric Ware was carted off after injuring both his left ankle and spraining his knee at Tuesday's practice. And even though both Ced and Justin are "tough as nails," Clay said, painting a scenario where they maybe might miraculously step up Thursday in practice, that's probably not happening.

Nor is the burning of freshman Vavae Malepeai's redshirt after coming back from his broken collarbone who would only be a candidate to play in an extreme emergency. "He's got us drooling," Clay said, and that's just for his special teams possibilities. "We're going to try to protect Vai as much as we can." So the "next man up" this weekend will be sophomore speedster Dominic Davis, who did not get into the Cal game. Clay said on his conference call after the Cal game that Dominic's time would come. And after Tuesday, that time will be Saturday.

*** JEFFERSON'S RETURN: Still a bit of mystery over the return of talented sophomore defensive lineman Noah Jefferson, who talked with Clay in recent days after starting to build himself back up last week with some strength and conditioning work following a concentration to get his academics up to speed. "We'll get more of that this week," Clay said. "And if we get through this week, we can get him back out here for some individual work next week."

If that sounds like Noah will be ready for Washington, it does not. But "he's in a good place now," Clay said, and that he was "getting rid of some of the personal issues he has . . . I hope we can get him back." 

Tuesday footnoted

Leon McQuay, Christian Rector and Adoree' Jackson all practiced despite the flu bug each of them have been fighting although Adoree' did it with long pants and a sweatshirt under his shorts and jersey . . . Boodah Tucker's hamstring allowed him to practice as did Uchenna Nwosu's knee sprain . . . Jonathan Lockett's hip problem "does not look good" for this week, Clay said, although he was out in pads but unable to do anything. McQuay could move back there where he started the season or Ajene Harris could jump in there, Clay said . . . Justin Davis did manage to do some rehab running across the end zone but barely half speed and with no cutting . . . For more play-by-play for today's practice, go to TUESDAY OREGON WEEK GHOST NOTES.

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