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USC pulls signature win from the brink of an epic collapse

Reporting from Eugene, Ore. -- If the USC at Oregon game Saturday didn’t leave you breathless, you probably don’t have breath or have never played defense against Oregon’s offense.

“Wow” and “whew.”

It wasn’t, technically, the Pac-12 title game. That game will be played Dec. 2 and USC can’t participate because the Trojans are on NCAA probation.

But Dec. 2 will be hard-pressed to top Nov. 19.

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A lot of games this year, or any, would have a tough time matching these dramatic turns.

USC pulled off the stunner, 38-35, when Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado hooked a 37-yard field goal attempt as time expired.

“‘SC is back!” Trojans cornerback Nickell Robey shouted afterward.

That didn’t begin to tell the back story.

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Had USC (9-2) lost, it would have been remembered as one the school’s biggest choke jobs.

It would have been the ugly bookend to the 1974 comeback against Notre Dame. USC trailed in that one, 24-0, and won, 55-24.

USC didn’t lose this one, though, and walked out of Eugene with a signature win and a message to all.

USC may be on probation, but it’s not in hibernation.

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The Trojans can’t go to a bowl this season, but they can keep you from the one you might have wanted to attend.

“That’s all we can play for until next year,” safety Jawanza Starling said. “This game was mainly to show that USC is back.”

Saturday, USC had the game in the refrigerator on a night when the temperature dipped to 36 degrees.

The Trojans led 38-14 in the third quarter, largely muffling the home crowd of 59,933 at Autzen Stadium.

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But Oregon, impossibly, charged back, to the brink of victory.

De’Anthony Thomas started Oregon’s engine with a 96-yard kickoff return for touchdown.

OK, no big deal. After a missed two-point conversion, USC still led 38-20.

Then Kenjon Barner scored on an eight-yard run early in the fourth quarter.

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OK, USC still led 38-27.

No problem?

Well, big problem.

USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who had played brilliantly all night, was intercepted by Ducks safety John Boyett.

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Oregon scored again, this time on LaMichael James’ one-yard run with 7:05 left.

The two-point conversion cut the lead to three.

USC didn’t panic, methodically driving downfield. But all mayhem broke loose when Marc Tyler fumbled at the Oregon 14 with 2:31 left.

Oregon raced downfield but, for a change, couldn’t finish the job.

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Oregon had won 21 straight home games and 19 straight in conference play before it all ended.

Oklahoma State’s loss on Friday night to Iowa State had put Oregon, No. 4 in the BCS standings, back in the national title hunt.

And now Oregon is out of the race.

Everyone knew Oregon was a second-half team — it has a history of wearing teams out after halftime.

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The Ducks, though, have rarely been in this deep.

Oregon trailed Stanford, 21-3, in the first half last year in Eugene before rallying to win easily.

Saturday was the opposite of easy.

What a strange, memorable, night.

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Barkley fumbled a snap on USC’s first series. It looked like “here we go again” in Oregon.

The Trojans had not won in the state since 2005 and had allowed 100 points in their last two blowout defeats to the Ducks.

Instead of everything going wrong after an early turnover on the road, though, everything started going right.

On a cold November eve, in far-off NCAA probation land, USC beat the Oregon Ducks.

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NCAA probation prohibits USC from hoisting a league or bowl championship this season. But probation did not take USC off the schedule or off television.

Probation did not require the Trojans to give up on themselves or the season. It did not take Barkley out of the Heisman Trophy race.

Barkley, in fact, should have a seat at the table after his four-touchdown performance. Finally, he had his signature win.

Last week, in Stanford’s home loss to Oregon, Andrew Luck Stanford quarterback threw for 256 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

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USC players who weren’t involved in the sanctions involving Reggie Bush had decided to make every week a bowl week.

Saturday capped another wild weekend in college football. It began Friday night when unranked Iowa State shocked No. 2 Oklahoma State in Ames.

Where does the season go from here?

Title contenders Oklahoma State, Oregon and Oklahoma all lost, meaning the top three teams in Sunday’s BCS standings might all hail from the Southeastern Conference’s West Division.

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The order might be Louisiana State, Alabama and Arkansas.

USC Coach Lane Kiffin, scorned by the SEC when he was at Tennessee, did No.2 Alabama a huge favor by knocking off Oregon.

Others schools had their chances to break up the SEC’s monopoly.

Boise State blew a golden opportunity last week.

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Oregon can still clinch the Pac 12 North with a win against Oregon State next week, but the Ducks have lost their national title shot.

“When you lose a game, it’s big,” Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas said.

Oregon will be happy to know USC can’t return to Autzen if the Ducks end up hosting the Pac 12 title.

There can’t possibly, though, be a better Pac 12 title game than the one played Saturday night.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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