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Monday, October 22, 2012
Is USC finally ready for its close-up?

By Mark Saxon

LOS ANGELES -- T.J. McDonald had to do a double take after what someone had just asked him.

"Do I think we can hang with them?" the All-American safety asked, repeating the question.

Yeah, do you think you can hang with them?

"Yeah," he snapped.

Proving time is coming, 12 days from now.

The second-ranked Oregon Ducks visit the Coliseum Nov. 3 -- a week from Saturday -- and for those few hours, this USC Trojans football team finally has a chance to prove to us all that it's as good as we thought it was back in August. That it's as explosive as it began suggesting one year ago. That the occasional bumbling and immaturity through these first seven games was only Lane Kiffin lying in the weeds.

The Trojans could have set every record since Y.A. Tittle on Saturday afternoon against a bad Colorado team -- and, at times, it felt as if they did -- but it didn't tell us anything about the test that's coming here soon in a blur of green-and-yellow and the thunder of Nike-shod feet.

Matt Barkley completed 95 percent of his passes Saturday. The only one he didn't complete Curtis McNeal dropped. Barkley was sitting on the bench by halfway through the third quarter. Robert Woods became the most accomplished USC receiver of all time, at least -- maybe -- until Marqise Lee passes him.

And the Trojans' afternoon was the second most-impressive offensive performance in the Pac-12.

Two nights before, USC players sat in their dorm rooms and watched Oregon on ESPN score six touchdowns in a span of 18 minutes on the road at Arizona State. Four of those touchdowns came on runs of more than 70 yards.

Yeah, the Trojans have to go to Arizona first -- and, who knows, they might blow the whole Oregon build-up by losing in the desert. Some have already called it a trap game. But it looks as if they'll still have the benefit of a national spotlight game against the Ducks to vault them back in the BCS mix. If they beat Oregon, the sky is the limit for this season.

The Trojans moved up another notch in the Associated Press rankings Sunday in the wake of the South Carolina blowout loss. They could vault over another team or three by winning their next two games and that means nothing -- including the BCS title game -- is off the table yet.

So, ready or not, here it comes. But are they ready for that kind of test?

The evidence has been far from convincing, but I still feel as if they are. This is the best USC defense since Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga were swallowing entire backfields four years ago. Kiffin has been feeding Barkley more and more rope, trying to build to another late-season flourish. Remember, USC looked pedestrian through its first seven games last season, too, before averaging 43.6 points per game in its final five and convincing plenty of voters that it was the best team in the nation going into 2012.

"The seasons have been pretty similar," Kiffin said.

That phrase ought to buy Kiffin a little faith from USC fans still stinging from that loss at Stanford. But no words -- or even the four wins since -- will accomplish anything if these guys get embarrassed by Oregon or lose to Notre Dame. The Trojans' final four opponents are 28-7 combined, the schedule getting stiffer just as USC begins to hit its stride, a convenient confluence. Neither Oregon nor Notre Dame has lost yet this season.

USC has plenty of time to grab the college football world by the collar still.

McDonald watched that Oregon-ASU pinball game. He's one of the guys who has to figure out how to account for all that speed moving in so many different directions.

"They looked good. They looked real good," he said. "We're competitors. We want some competition."

Said tight end Randall Telfer: "They have a really strong offense. Very strong offense. But I'm very confident in our defense."

And how about in this offense, if it needs to match Oregon's scoring?

"Absolutely," Telfer said.

If only it were time to play already.