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For USC, a 4th-and-2 to relish

Almost three years ago, against Texas in the Rose Bowl, fourth-and-two cost USC a third straight national championship.

Saturday night, against Oregon in the Coliseum, fourth-and-two might have saved a national title run.

OK, call it a reach, a stretch, a headline grab.

Maybe, but we’ll see. Check back in December if USC is 11-1 and No. 1 or No. 2 in the final Bowl Championship Series standings.

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If USC loses again in 2008, forget you read this.

Fourth-and-two are words inextricably linked in USC football lore. To most Trojans fans, they are curse words.

USC needed two yards on fourth down from the Texas 45 with 2 minutes, 9 seconds left in the 2006 national title game to win its 35th straight game and third straight national title.

Matt Leinart handed off to LenDale White and well, you know, Reggie Bush was on the sideline.

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Texas Coach Mack Brown told his defense that if it held, the Longhorns would be national champs, and Brown was right.

Texas held, and it became Vince Young’s Rose Bowl.

Saturday’s fourth-and-two in USC’s 44-10 win over Oregon could never, in terms of historic significance, match the other fourth-and-two.

The difference, though, was that this one worked for USC, and it was the key play in one of the more important bounce-back games Pete Carroll has faced in seven-plus seasons as the Trojans’ coach.

USC was down, 10-3, in the second quarter, a week and two days removed from being down 21-0 in an ultimate Thursday night defeat at Oregon State.

The Trojans had to beat Oregon to avoid losing consecutive games for the first time since a Washington-Stanford combo early in 2001 -- Carroll’s first season.

But things weren’t going well. A roughing the holder penalty on USC allowed Oregon to take a field goal off the scoreboard and trade it for a touchdown.

USC had first-and-goal from the six and had to settle for a field goal.

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Then, down by a touchdown, USC faced fourth down at the Ducks’ 34.

You knew Carroll was going for it -- he usually does.

Instead of a run, though, the coaching staff went for the kill.

Mark Sanchez found Damian Williams, wide open, streaking down the left crease and hit him on his No. 18 on the way to an easy touchdown.

“Beautiful call,” Carroll said of Steve Sarkisian, his offensive coordinator. “But it wasn’t one you make to make the first down.”

The touchdown toss was called a “rub” play, and it rubbed Oregon the wrong way.

It called for USC receiver Patrick Turner to brush a defender to allow Williams to squirt free.

Sanchez loved it when he heard the play that Sarkisian had in mind.

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Sanchez didn’t just want a first down, either.

“It was a big-time call in a big-time situation,” Sanchez said.

Williams was wide open on the play but said he wasn’t nervous because . . . ?

“Honestly, I didn’t know it was fourth down,” Williams confessed. “Now that I know it was fourth down, wow, it was gutsy.”

Had the play failed, and Oregon had taken over and scored to make it 17-3, it might have been a different game -- and a different season.

Instead, Sanchez-to-Williams tied the score, 10-10, and sparked a landside in which the Trojans scored 41 unanswered points.

“Yeah,” Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said. “I thought that play took a certain amount of momentum away from us.”

USC looked like a different team after the play.

Who knows, on Oct. 4, what it will mean on Dec. 7.

There are yards and yards of season left for slip-ups and hairpin turns.

To stay in the national title race, USC can’t avoid a bad bounce, or a bobble, or a key injury.

The Trojans got a scare in the third quarter when Sanchez was yanked down from behind by defensive end Nick Reed, his former teammate at Mission Viejo High.

Sanchez lay on the field for a couple of minutes, the Coliseum crowd suddenly silent, before walking off the field under his own power.

The injury doesn’t appear serious, and USC didn’t hurt its national title cause, either.

It improved to 3-1 on a day it had to win to keep pace.

Unlike last week, when four schools in the top 10 lost, only No. 10 South Florida got sideswiped this week.

The seven schools ahead of the Trojans in the Associated Press media poll who played this week all won. No. 3 Louisiana State had a bye.

Fourth-and-two, it worked this time, and time will only tell what it means.

Maybe, three years later, USC put some down and distance between this fourth-down call and that one.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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