LOS ANGELES -- Saturday marks the renewal of a rivalry with Oregon that has become the most competitive matchup for the Trojans over the last decade or so.
While USC has a decided edge in the overall series, compiling a 36-18-2 record against Oregon, the Ducks have been a legitimate opponent in recent years, including wins in three of the past four meetings and eight of the past 13. The stakes of the rivalry are usually high, too -- this will mark the eighth straight USC-Oregon game in which both teams are ranked -- and one of these teams has either won or shared the conference title in every season since 2000.
The shift in the competitive nature of this rivalry began in 1998, when the Ducks ran off four victories in a row over the Trojans. It's not like Oregon was exclusive in establishing win streaks against USC in those days -- the Irish and Bruins had recently experienced some pretty good streaks of their own against the Men of Troy -- but the Oregon rivalry wasn't viewed with the same level of tradition as Notre Dame and UCLA, so a four-game streak was somewhat unexpected.
Oregon had always been a nice conference opponent up north that would occasionally offer a strong fight, but the Trojans were pretty accustomed to coming away with a victory. Things started to change in Eugene, though. Suddenly, you had Ducks safety Michael Fletcher knocking Carson Palmer out of action with a separated shoulder in 1999. There was Joey Harrington leading a last-minute drive against USC's defense in Pete Carroll's first year in 2001.
That game was an important lesson for Carroll. He prided himself on his secondary, and the fact that Oregon drove for the game-winning score while throwing the ball gave him an early indication of where things stood in the Pac-10.
By the time the two teams met at Autzen Stadium in 2002, Carroll had done a terrific job of turning around the culture of the USC program, but Oregon was still a major hurdle. As if the Trojans needed a reminder of the Ducks' success, the school placed a huge billboard on the side of a downtown Los Angeles office building before the season, displaying an image of three Oregon wide receivers.
It was a bold move on Oregon's part and certainly not the way USC was used to being treated. As harsh as it was, Oregon had the scoreboard, and the only way for USC to put an end to it was to break the four-game losing streak to the Ducks.
The Trojans trailed 19-14 at halftime before pouring on 30 unanswered points on the way to a 44-33 win. Palmer set a career-high with 448 passing yards and five touchdown passes. Freshman wide receiver Mike Williams caught 13 balls for 226 yards and a pair of scores. Senior running back Justin Fargas -- a transfer from Michigan who was seeing his first extended action after an early season injury -- ran the ball 27 times for 139 yards and a touchdown.
When it was all over, the USC wide receivers ran to the back of the end zone to mockingly pose for photos in the same pose used by the Oregon receivers on the billboard.
"I loved every second of it," Palmer said after the game. "There's nothing better than playing in this place and beating these guys."
So much was validated for the Trojans with that win. Palmer had never beaten the Ducks, and it can be argued that his Heisman campaign began in earnest that day. From that point in the season -- and the following three seasons after that -- the Trojans went on a run that was as good as any in college football history.
The Trojans and Ducks didn't play in 2003 or 2004 and by the time the rivalry was renewed in 2005, USC had regained control at the top of the Pac-10. The Trojans beat Oregon 45-13 in 2005 and 35-10 in 2006.
In 2007, it was the first time that both teams met while ranked in the top 10, with USC at No. 9 and Oregon at No. 5. The Trojans were starting Mark Sanchez in place of the injured John David Booty in front of the largest crowd in Autzen Stadium history, and some ill-timed USC turnovers in the second half helped Oregon come away with a 24-17 victory. Sanchez got revenge in 2008 with a 44-10 victory at the Coliseum.
By the time 2009 rolled around, the Ducks has risen to the level of an elite national program. Their new coach, Chip Kelly, was the mastermind of a fast-paced spread offense that was taking the college football world by storm. The Trojans actually came into the game as the higher-ranked team, as they had climbed to the No. 4 spot behind a freshman quarterback named Matt Barkley. The only USC loss to that point had come in a game that Barkley sat out due to injury, and he already had the experience of a tough road environment at Ohio State under his belt.
Barkley kept the Trojans in the game for much of the first half by keeping pace with the Oregon attack, but key dropped passes halted the USC momentum, and the Ducks took off in the second half on the way to a 47-20 win. It was a shocking game for many USC fans, as no one had put up 47 points against the Trojans under Carroll before, serving as a good indication of just how different things were looking with the Oregon offense under Kelly.
By the time the two teams played last season, things had changed even more. Carroll was out as coach of the Trojans, Lane Kiffin was in, and there was no doubt about which team was currently at the top of the conference. In fact, when the Ducks came to town, they were ranked as the No. 1 team in the country.
USC once again kept pace early, but it was another self-imposed miscue -- this time a botched shotgun snap -- which caused the Trojans to get out of rhythm. That was fatal, as Oregon exploded from that point on and ran away with the game, 53-32.
Now it is time for the 2011 version of this matchup, and the stakes are high once again. Incredibly high.
The Trojans are on a roll and playing their best football in years. There is no better way of proving that you are truly back than to go into Autzen and beat a team that is fighting for a spot in the national title game. Kiffin said this week that he considers Oregon to be the hottest team in the country right now. Having a chance to cool the Ducks off is a great opportunity in yet another important meeting between the two schools.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.