Target on the No. 2 Ducks in the Pac-12
USC coach Lane Kiffin insists his team isn't 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, and No. 10 Oregon State, which gets the Ducks in the annual Civil War at season's end.
But at 6-0, speedy Oregon appears to be racing toward the Pac-12 championship and beyond. Just ask the 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 back in the postseason this year and ranked No. 1 in the preseason, many circled the meeting between the Trojans and the Ducks 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 hasn't 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. The Cardinal visit Eugene Nov. 17.
The surprise in all of this is the Beavers, who went 3-9 last season but are 4-0 to open this one. The Ducks will visit Reser Stadium, where the Beavs are notorious for pulling off big upsets, on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
But Oregon State was hit this past week when starting quarterback Sean Mannion injured his left knee and required surgery. There's no timetable for the sophomore's return, but there's a chance he could be back in time for the Ducks. The Beavers are playing junior Cody Vaz, who has not started since high school, in the meantime.
Oregon State (4-0, 3-0) plays out of the conference at BYU on Saturday, 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 a 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, 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 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 with 15. He's thrown five interceptions. His passing efficiency rating is 156.42, 21st in the nation.
''None of them had the speed that Marcus has. That's been one of the biggest differences in preparing for them and the ultimately seeing them live and in person,'' Sarkisian said. ''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. 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 but lost 22-19 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 all of that, 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 before 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,'' Graham said. ''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.''