by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Running back Kenjon Barner and the Oregon Ducks' top players have been able to smile and take it easy down the stretch in every game this season, but they could get a four-quarter challenge at USC on Saturday.The Oregon Ducks have outscored eight opponents 290-56 in the first half. They've led by an average of 29.3 points at halftime.

Oregon's smallest halftime lead was 23-19 versus Washington State — and they blitzed the Cougars with 21 points in the third quarter to win 51-26.

The Ducks led Arizona 13-0 at halftime, with the Wildcats consistently deep in UO territory in the first half, and then Oregon ran away with the game, winning 49-0.

The moral of the story? As they head to Los Angeles to play 18th-ranked USC, the No. 2 Ducks haven't been in a tight game in the fourth quarter.

"I'm glad we haven't had to be," running back Kenjon Barner says. "If you can get up on teams and blow teams out, then why not? Instead of letting it come down to the fourth quarter when anything can happen.

Will the Ducks encounter a close game Saturday against USC in Los Angeles Coliseum (4 p.m., FOX)? Maybe, maybe not.

"Am I worried about a fourth-quarter challenge? Absolutely not," Barner says. "I know what this team can do, I know where our mindset is and how our preparation goes. Because of how we prepare throughout the entire week, I'm not worried about any fourth-quarter game."

It would be interesting to see how Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota played in a tight game.

"You can go through (late-game situations) in practice," UO coach Chip Kelly says.

But, he adds, "You don't know, it's still an unknown. He's never been in it. I'm not going to predict the future. It's a fair thing to look at. Do we know what we're going to get? No, we don't."

Defense would be another thing to keep an eye on.

"It hasn't happened this year, yet, but look back to 2010 and 2011 — we know how to finish pretty good, when things are tight," Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti says. "We'll wait to see if we run into one of those games. I don't care if we do. It's kind of nice how it's going. We can keep it going. It's a lot less stress on your heart."

• The Ducks are 8-0 overall and 5-0 in Pac-12 play, and have the lead in the North Division.

USC (6-2, 3-2) has losses to Stanford 21-14 and Arizona 39-36, but Arizona State and UCLA also have two losses in the South Division. It is still possible for USC to make the Pac-12 title game and play the Ducks with the Rose Bowl on the line.

That USC has lost twice doesn't surprise Kelly, because "I'm not surprised by anything that happens in college football. It's very difficult to stay unscathed."

He adds: "Stanford's a good football team. I've seen Arizona, and I know that offensively they're very explosive. I was very, very scared of (QB) Matt Scott. The biggest difference in our game was he got banged up against us; he wasn't the same."

• Arizona kicked up its offensive tempo and rallied to beat USC last weekend.

Oregon has the best offensive tempo in the Pac-12, if not the country. It makes sense that the Ducks have their sights set on making the Trojans play fast.

"USC has some depth issues," Mariota says. "We'll see what we can do."

Adds Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich: "Tempo was a part of it (for Arizona), and they made a lot of plays. SC is playing more guys than they have (played), historically. But that wasn't the sole defining factor."

Depth could be an Oregon advantage.

"There are probably not too many teams that have depth at every position that we have," Barner says. "Going into any opponent, I feel like we have the advantage there."

• USC quarterback Matt Barkley has completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 283.2 yards per game and 25 touchdowns, with eight interceptions.

He torched the Ducks last year, and he returned for his senior year to try to win the Pac-12 and national championship with the Trojans.

"Unbelievable competitor. He's gotten better and better through his experience," says Kelly, lauding the QB for his knowledge, accurate arm and mobility.

USC sophomore Marqise Lee has an astronomical 76 receptions for 1,129 yards and 10 touchdowns — by far the best among receivers in the Pac-12 — but he can't turn pro until after his junior season. He had 16 receptions for a Pac-12 record 345 yards against Arizona

Robert Woods has 53 receptions, 585 yards and nine TDs for Southern Cal. Silas Redd, the Penn State transfer, averages 80 yards per game and has scored seven touchdowns, as he shares duties with Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan.

"It's a diverse offense," Kelly says. "Lane (Kiffin) does a good job of making sure you've got to gotta the entire field.

"Lot of formations, motions, shifts, they try to confuse you at the snap."

• The Trojans have a smaller, faster defense, led by safety T.J. McDonald, cornerback Nickell Robey, linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard and defensive lineman Morgan Breslin.

Kelly says he expects USC and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin — father of the head coach — to try to stop Oregon's running game. It's a strategy that Monte Kiffin has used throughout his career.

So, can Mariota make them pay? Kelly says he is "very confident" in UO's downfield passing game.

"We haven't asked him, at times, to throw the ball. (Just) when the situation presents itself," Kelly says. "The best thing for your passing game is a great running game, and play-action off that opens up things even more, and you have bigger windows to throw through."

• All eyes will be on UO cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill, as well as safeties Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson in support roles, as the Ducks try to stop the passing game of Barkley, Lee and Woods. The three corners struggled last year against the USC trio.

"Our guys were young last year, and they're still young," Aliotti says. "We just need to be prepared for SC's offense, figure out how to play better than them.

"They have a lot of weapons — great quarterback, tight ends, receivers, running backs, I assume they're big and strong on the offensive line. Other than that they're pretty (bad)."

Adds Kelly: "Arguably, you're talking about three first-round (NFL) draft picks (in Barkley, Lee and Woods). We faced some teams with one good receiver, but nobody with a combination of two guys. That makes it really difficult. You can't double them. ... Every team they've faced said, 'We've got to stop the Barkley-to-Lee and Barkley-to-Woods connections, and they still can't do it. ... If you're a competitor you want to play against great players. It's going to be a great challenge for us."

• Mariota grew up in Honolulu, but he remembers watching the Trojans play in the Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush years, and he remembers Matthew Harper picking off two passes as UO won the 2007 matchup.

"It'll be cool," he says, of Saturday. "Playing in the Coliseum is always something I've wanted to do. Should be fun.

"Going into enemy territory, take it for what it is. Control what you can control. Don't let outside influences affect you."

• A lot has been made of the UO-Southern Cal game. As defensive tackle Isaac Remington says, the Ducks still have to play Cal, Stanford and Oregon State, "and Oregon State's doing pretty well."

He adds: "We still have a lot of the season left. It's not over if we beat USC."

• USC leads the country with 82 penalties, including 18 for personal fouls.

"It's not a street fight," Lane Kiffin says. "It's a game. And there's rules within that."

The Trojans also had five turnovers against Arizona.

"Five turnovers on the road is not a recipe for success," Kiffin says.

• The Trojans have seen their national championship hopes go away, but Kiffin hopes his players rally to the cause of beating the Ducks. He calls Oregon "the best team in the country," adding that the Trojans don't have a choice to be jacked up and ready.

The Trojans "will be blown out of the stadium if they don't (show up motivated)," Kiffin says. "We have to be ready, and I think our players are."

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