Southern California coach Lane Kiffin insists his team is not looking ahead to its game against No. 2 Oregon, while Arizona State coach Todd Graham admits it was hard not to. And Washington’s Steve Sarkisian is trying not to look back.
At the halfway point of their season, the Ducks have yet to face the teams that many believe pose their biggest challenge in Pac-12 play, including No. 11 USC and No. 17 Stanford.
The list also includes the Pac-12 South-leading Sun Devils, who face Oregon next Thursday night in Tempe, Ariz., and No. 10 Oregon State, which gets the Ducks in the annual Civil War at regular season’s end.
But at 6-0, speedy Oregon appears to be racing toward the Pac-12 championship and beyond. Just ask Sarkisian’s Huskies, who lost 52-21 to the Ducks last weekend.
“We have a hungry team," Oregon running back Kenjon Barner said. “I will just leave it at that."
With USC eligible again for the postseason this year and ranked No. 1 in the preseason, many circled the meeting between the Trojans and the Ducks in Los Angeles on Nov. 3 as a preview of the conference championship game between the league’s north and south divisions. Then USC lost to Stanford, and the Cardinal lost to Washington, taking some of the shine off the showdown.
“We’re not playing well enough to be looking forward to anybody. Obviously we’ve already had one screw-up," Kiffin said this week, adding somewhat unconvincingly: “I don’t know if our guys even know when that game is."
What has not diminished is the speculation about whether anyone in the Pac-12 can take the Ducks down. The Trojans, who defeated Oregon last season at Autzen Stadium, get the Ducks at the Coliseum. Stanford visits Eugene on Nov. 17.
The surprise in all of this is Oregon State, who went 3-9 last season but is 4-0 to open this one. The Ducks will visit Reser Stadium, where the Beavers are notorious for pulling off big upsets, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Oregon State (4-0, 3-0) plays out of the conference at BYU today, while USC (4-1, 2-1) is at Washington (3-2, 1-1), and Stanford (4-1, 2-1) is at Notre Dame (5-0).
Oregon, which is off this weekend, ranks seventh nationally in total offense with an average of 542 yards, fourth in scoring with an average of 52.3 points per game, and fourth in rushing with just over 302 yards a game.
“I would say off the top of my head, just from watching their scores and the game (against Washington) the other night, their defense is probably the best it has been, even with losing their safety (John Boyett, to knee injuries), and their offense just continues to plug people, it doesn’t matter who it is," Kiffin said.
“There’s a reason they’re No. 2 in the country," Kiffin added.
Sarkisian singled out Oregon redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, who follows a string of mobile Duck quarterbacks from Dennis Dixon to Jeremiah Masoli to Darron Thomas. Mariota is tied (with USC’s Matt Barkley) for the most touchdown passes in the Pac-12 this season with 15. He has thrown five interceptions. His passing efficiency rating is 156.42, 21st in the nation.
“None of them had the speed that Marcus has," Sarkisian said, referring to Mariota’s predecessors. “That’s been one of the biggest differences in preparing for them and then ultimately seeing them live and in person. His ability to escape and his ability to create is much different than the last guys."
Mike Leach, the new coach of Washington State, also had a firsthand look at the Ducks. The Cougars lost 51-26 in a game played in Seattle. Before that, Oregon blanked Arizona 49-0.
Leach was asked this week about the ongoing speculation about Oregon’s postseason chances on the national stage. The Ducks played in the BCS title game two seasons ago, losing to Auburn.
“They’re real well-coached; they’re quick," Leach said. “I don’t know that they’re as physical as some other teams that might be in the conversation."
But before they can even begin to consider a return to the national championship game, the Ducks have Arizona State (5-1, 3-0), which sits atop the Pac-12’s South Division. The Sun Devils defeated Colorado 51-17 on Thursday night at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo., and now await next Thursday’s game at home against the Ducks.
“I can tell you for the last week and a half I’ve been watching Oregon every day. It’s hard not to do that, especially when everyone keeps asking you about it," said Graham, Arizona State’s first-year head coach. “I will tell you that our players didn’t look at Oregon at all. ... It’s hard to get guys up for every game but you got to, you got to get up for every single week, and it won’t be hard to get them up this week."