Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 11/18/11

It’ll be a battle of the old guard against the new when the USC Trojans travel to Eugene this weekend to take on the Oregon Ducks.

Redshirt freshman Dion Bailey, one of USC's top defenders, is one of three Trojans' freshman starting at linebacker against the Ducks.

The Trojans ruled the former Pac-10 for nearly a decade under Pete Carroll, but in the last few years, the Ducks have sprinted their way to the top of the conference – literally. Known for its uptempo pace and prolific offense led by one of the nation’s premier running games, Oregon’s not only among the best (if not the best) in the Pac-12, but the Ducks are sitting pretty for a spot in a BCS bowl, if not the national championship.

USC isn’t the unstoppable powerhouse of the Pete Carroll days, but rather than bemoan the NCAA sanctions and use the postseason ban as an excuse, the team has done an admirable job thus far of getting back on track. The 8-2 Trojans are currently ranked 18th and are on an upswing following a big win at Notre Dame, a triple overtime loss to Stanford, and another big win against Washington.

The USC offense, led by veteran quarterback Matt Barkley and elite young receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, is in the top 25 in total passing yards, passing touchdowns, completion percentage, and average yards per game.

Woods is fourth in the nation for receptions, with 92, but he’s been playing hurt. Against Washington last week, the Trojans’ won, 40-17, but Woods had just two catches for five yards. USC head coach Lane Kiffin said Woods might not be able to play against the Ducks, which might not be as big of a blow as it might seem. Woods was basically a non-factor against the Huskies, yet USC still scored 40 points. The Ducks are a much better team than Washington, but the Trojans have plenty of players who can get in the endzone.

In the wins over Notre Dame and Washington, the story for USC on offense was the run game. Junior Curtis McNeal has blossomed this season, taking advantage of senior Marc Tyler’s time out of the lineup to become the team’s leading rusher, with 787 yards and five touchdowns. McNeal rushed for a career-high of 148 yards against Washington; he had 145 yards against Stanford two weeks earlier, when he handled nearly all the carries when Marc Tyler was out with an injury.

McNeal’s emergence as one of the Trojans’ featured backs has helped USC develop a stronger run game and a more balanced offense. Oregon, though, has one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, headed by junior LaMichael James. James is averaging 150.9 yards per game; he has 1,207 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns already this year – and he’s missed two complete games with injuries. In the last two years versus USC, James has 422 yards and four touchdowns.

It’s going to take everything the Trojans have to stop him – but they can’t afford to throw everything at him and overlook Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas. Thomas, who was committed to USC and switched to Oregon at the eleventh hour last year, is the team’s leading receiver this year. He’s a running back, but he’s been a factor in the short yardage passing game, with 27 catches for 423 yards.

The Trojans’ defense is much improved over last year. Its run defense, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry, is second in the Pac-12 and eighth in the nation – but even the Pac-12′s number one defense, Stanford, couldn’t stop or even slow down LaMichael James; he ran for 146 yards and 3 touchdowns in Oregon’s 53-30 win over the Cardinal last week.

The Trojans are starting three freshman linebackers: Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson, and Hayes Pullard. They’ve played well to this point, but this will be their biggest test. The defensive line is only allowing 100.4 yards per game rushing, but they haven’t met an elite rushing attack like Oregon’s. Will they be able to slow down LMJ and Co., and will they be able to continue playing at a high level as the game goes on, or will they wear down late in the game? It’ll be a test of conditioning as much as talent, but the offense could help out by staying on the field with long scoring drives.

Weather may be another factor in Eugene this weekend. Cold rain, and possibly snow showers, are in the forecast for Saturday. Messy conditions often take away from the passing game, USC’s edge, in favor of the run, which is Oregon’s strength.

For a big game on a Saturday night, Autzen Stadium will probably be like nothing the younger players have experienced. Kiffin needs to have them prepared, but also loose and energized to go beat the Ducks at home. As he said earlier in the week, for USC, the pressure’s off.

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