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Road to Pac-10 Title Goes Through Eugene

Times Staff Writer

Forget the traditional showdowns against UCLA and Notre Dame. USC quarterback Carson Palmer knows that Saturday’s game at Oregon is the one that most matters for the Trojans this season.

“It’s the biggest game of the year, by far,” he said.

A victory would prove the Trojans finally belong among the elite in the Pacific 10 Conference and go a long way toward exorcising the demons that have plagued them on the road.

A loss to 14th-ranked Oregon would leave No. 15 USC with two conference losses and needing help to climb back into championship contention.

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“It’s huge,” Palmer said. “This is the game we’ve all been waiting for.”

Behind four touchdown passes from Palmer, USC rolled past Washington, 41-21, Saturday for its seventh consecutive victory at the Coliseum.

But away from home, the Trojans have struggled in important conference games.

They have not beaten a ranked Pac-10 opponent on the road since 1995, the year of their last conference title. Since then, USC is 0-7-1 in such games and has lost the last seven, most recently at Washington State, 30-27, in overtime Oct. 5.

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No one in the Trojan locker room Saturday needed reminding that Oregon’s raucous Autzen Stadium has been an especially difficult place to play. Palmer, in particular, has endured a personal chamber of horrors at Autzen.

The fifth-year senior lost there as a freshman, 17-13, in 1998 after the Trojans settled for a field goal after a touchdown was nullified by penalty. He suffered a season-ending broken collarbone late in the first half of a 33-30, triple-overtime loss at Autzen in 1999. And he watched last season as Jared Siegel kicked a field goal with 12 seconds left to hand visiting USC a 24-22 defeat.

Yet Palmer said he looks forward to the challenge of playing his final game at Autzen and trying to end a four-game losing streak to the Ducks. Because of a quirk in the Pac-10 schedule, he will be one of the few players ever to play four conference games in an opponent’s stadium.

“It’s a tough place to play, but I think we all love to play there,” Palmer said. “It’s a fun place to play.”

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If nothing else, the Trojans know Oregon is vulnerable at home after Arizona State stunned the previously unbeaten Ducks, 45-42, Saturday to move into a first-place tie with idle Washington State at 3-0. USC is 3-1; Oregon is next at 2-1.

Palmer echoed what many Trojans believe: This USC team should not be compared to past teams that have found ways to lose.

“We’re a different team than we’ve ever been before when we played” Oregon, he said. “We need to come out and run our offense. We don’t need to do anything spectacular. Just play tough defense like we always do and cut down on all the mental mistakes.

“We’ve gotten so many penalties at that stadium and have had so many dumb things happen to us. We’ve just got to do our stuff and win the game.”

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Mike Pollard, USC’s senior middle linebacker, said it comes down to playing well in all phases of the game -- offense, defense and special teams. The Trojans were firing on all cylinders in their 40-3 romp at Colorado on Sept. 14, but breakdowns contributed to losses at Kansas State, 27-20 on Sept. 21, and at Washington State.

“If you don’t execute in all three phases, you’re not going to win a big game on the road,” Pollard said. “In the K-State and Washington State games, we didn’t execute in all phases. That’s why we got [beat]. From now on, everybody has to do their jobs.”

Another senior, strong safety Troy Polamalu, called the Oregon game “a huge test,” one he believes the Trojans are prepared to pass.

“You will definitely see the character of this team come out,” he said.

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Palmer, on pace to become the Pac-10 career passing yardage leader, nearly tied a USC record Saturday for touchdown passes in a game. But he was denied his fifth touchdown when flanker Keary Colbert dropped a pass in the end zone in the third quarter.

“Oh, well,” Palmer said. “It doesn’t matter. I’d rather win.”

Rodney Peete set the record against Stanford in 1987.

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A week after tailback Sultan McCullough rushed for 176 yards in 39 carries against California, USC managed only 74 yards rushing in 34 carries. Coach Pete Carroll wasn’t entirely disappointed, though, pointing out that the Trojans succeeded in having a balanced attack. They attempted 34 passes.

“When you stop trying to run the ball, you’re in trouble,” Carroll said.


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