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Down on the Corner

Times Staff Writer

USC’s Justin Wyatt does not see a problem.

And it has nothing to do with the starting cornerback’s left eye, which remains bloodshot after he was kicked in the head on a freakish play during practice two weeks ago.

Despite injuries and illness that have thinned the top-ranked Trojans’ defense in the last seven days, Wyatt envisions opportunity for the makeshift cornerback corps that will try to contain Oregon’s spread offense in today’s Pacific 10 Conference opener here at Autzen Stadium.

“We just have to pull another one out of the bag,” Wyatt said. “You just have to deal with it.”

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But top-ranked USC also must confront another nagging issue when it takes the field against 24th-ranked Oregon: The Trojans came out flat in each of their last two conference openers on the road.

It cost them two years ago at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, where California defeated the Trojans in triple overtime. It was USC’s last loss before it began what is now a 24-game winning streak.

The streak would have ended at 12 if USC had not overcome another sluggish start in last season’s conference opener at Stanford. After giving up an 82-yard touchdown run on the last play before halftime, the Trojans trailed by 11 points.

They rallied for a 31-28 victory, but memories of the last two conference openers linger.

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“That’s in the back of our minds,” junior running back Reggie Bush said. “We know that and we’re going to do our best to make that a different story this year.”

USC (2-0) is averaging 66.5 points and has displayed a propensity for fast starts.

Against Hawaii, Trojan safety Darnell Bing intercepted a pass during the first series and returned it for a touchdown. USC’s offense did not get onto the field until 1 minute 24 seconds remained in the first quarter and the Trojans still won, 63-17.

In last week’s 70-17 victory over Arkansas, Bush scored the first two times he touched the ball and USC’s offense produced four touchdowns in 1:32 of possession time in the first quarter.

Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, who passed for four touchdowns and ran for another against Arkansas, anticipates a tougher test against unbeaten Oregon, which broke into the national rankings this week after victories over Houston, Montana and Fresno State.

“Pac-10 teams are familiar with our style of play and what we can do,” said Leinart, the national leader in passing efficiency.

Today’s game, however, will be the first time Oregon has faced Leinart in a starting role.

Because of a Pac-10 scheduling quirk, USC and Oregon have not played since 2002, when Carson Palmer torched the Ducks for a school-record 448 yards passing.

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Oregon appears to have rebounded from last season’s 5-6 finish, Coach Mike Bellotti’s first losing record in 10 seasons with the Ducks.

The Ducks are thriving with an offense that makes full use of quarterback Kellen Clemens’ varied talents. Bellotti said Oregon’s attack borrows elements from Utah, Bowling Green, Northwestern, Brigham Young and Texas Tech.

“It is something that has been in bits and pieces that has been on my desk for about 2 1/2 years now,” he said. “And now I kick myself because I think I should have done it sooner.”

Clemens, a fifth-year senior who ranks third nationally in total offense, passed for 332 yards and four touchdowns in Oregon’s 37-34 comeback victory over Fresno State last week. The Ducks trailed in the first half, 17-0, before turning to a no-huddle approach, a tactic likely to be repeated against a largely untested USC defense that features John Walker and sophomore linebacker Thomas Williams starting for the first time.

“The longer it is a controlled game, a close football game, the more advantage that goes to us and to our psyche,” Bellotti said.

USC Coach Pete Carroll said he was not overly concerned about a Trojan defense that is giving up 381.5 yards a game and will be without linebacker Dallas Sartz, who suffered a dislocated shoulder against Arkansas.

Senior receiver William Buchanon switched to cornerback this week after Terrell Thomas tore knee ligaments against Arkansas. A few days later, doctors diagnosed freshman cornerback Kevin Thomas with mononucleosis.

Buchanon will back up Wyatt, a two-year starter, and Walker, a fifth-year senior making his first start. The shuffling in the secondary should not be a problem, according to Carroll.

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“They get challenged every day by a real nice-looking throwing game,” he said. “They’re playing against a terrific quarterback and receivers on a daily basis.”

Wyatt said he had monitored the play of his teammates in the secondary and dispensed his usual advice:

“I’ll just tell them what I tell all the young guys: ‘Don’t get beat deep, and make the tackles.’ That’s Coach Carroll’s philosophy, keep everything in front of you.

“If we do that, we’ll be fine.”

*

The matchup zone

Highlighting some of college football’s key games:

No. 16 Notre Dame

at Washington

12:30 p.m., Ch. 7

No. 21 Iowa at

No. 8 Ohio St.

9 a.m. PDT

No. 15 Georgia Tech

at No. 4 Virginia Tech

12:30 p.m. PDT

No. 18 Arizona St.

at Oregon State

7 p.m., TBS

MONDAY

No. 10 Tennessee

at No. 3 Louisiana St.

4:45 p.m. PDT, ESPN2

Note -- UCLA is off. Washington comes to

the Rose Bowl on Oct. 1, 7:15 p.m., FSNW2


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