Posted by ESPN.com’s Ted Miller
In Los Angeles, everyone asks USC about the BCS. In Berkeley, everyone asks California about big, bad USC.
Trojans coach Pete Carroll practically had to beg this week for questions about the Bears, who visit the Coliseum on Saturday. Meanwhile, Cal coach Jeff Tedford admitted that his best efforts to treat USC like just another game likely would fail to register with his team.
“They’re not going to buy that,” he said after Cal dispatched Oregon last weekend. “They will know that we have to prepare the same no matter whom we play every week, but when you go down to play USC, you have a tendency to get really hyped up.”
That’s where we are. USC is trying to keep the focus on Cal, while Cal doesn’t want to think too much about the Trojans.
USC, 24-0 in November under Carroll, dropped two spots to seventh in the latest BCS standings after beating winless Washington 56-0. The win over Oregon propelled Cal into the standings at No. 21.
USC is Cal’s biggest hurdle toward earning the program its first Rose Bowl berth since 1959.
The grumpy Trojans see Cal as an opportunity to make a statement to pollsters that they are the nation’s best team, even if their schedule makes it difficult to prove that.
As for the Rose Bowl, it’s “officially” USC’s first goal every season.
Only the Trojans played in Pasadena four of the past five years, the lone break in the annual routine being a trip to Miami to secure a second consecutive national championship after the 2004 season.
That’s why it seems the set-in-stone party line of “don’t talk about the BCS” was deviated from this week around Heritage Hall. <!–more–>
“Every one talks about [the BCS standings] here and there — ‘We’re winning but we’re dropping — we might as well lose!'” linebacker Rey Maualuga said. “To me, you can only control what you can control, which is win every game.
“Then again, all the veterans are getting tired of seeing Disneyland and all the same stuff we’ve been seeing the past couple of years. That national title is why we all came back to take this team towards. But sometimes things just don’t go your way.”
Or as Carroll said this week when asked about the BCS system, “I think it stinks. I don’t think it’s the way it should be.”
California thinks it stinks that USC wins the Pac-10 every year. The Bears finished second in 2004 and 2006 (officially tied with the Trojans but lost the head-to-head matchup), and are sensing opportunity.
That’s part of the reason players, such as running back Jahvid Best, amid the euphoria of the victory over Oregon, said they started thinking about USC the second after the clock struck zero.
Best initially tried to retreat from that position Wednesday. He briefly parroted the notion that it was “just another important Pac-10 game.”
It didn’t take much prodding, though, to get him to own up to his and his teammates true feelings. He even noted that the increased traffic on his MySpace and Facebook pages were constant reminders of how hungry Bears fans are to beat the Trojans for the first time since a triple-overtime win in 2003.
“It obviously is a little bit more but we don’t want to blow it out of proportion,” Best said. “We don’t want to get caught up in all the hype.”
Last year, a beleaguered Cal team that had lost three of four after earning a No. 2 national ranking dug deep and fought hard in a rain-soaked battle with the Trojans.
Trailing by seven with just under three minutes left with a first-down on the USC 36-yard line, Cal quarterback Nate Longshore threw an interception, his second of the game, that clinched a 24-17 win for USC.
It’s a moment many Cal fans point to as why they favor Kevin Riley over Longshore at quarterback. Yet, with Riley just returning to practice Wednesday after suffering a concussion against Oregon, it’s possible that Longshore will get one more shot at the Trojans.
Of course, whoever plays quarterback will have a formidable task ahead. The Bears will face the nation’s best defense with a beaten up offensive line and a receiving corps that has been inconsistent much of the season, and that’s not even mentioning that Best is nursing elbow, foot and ankle injuries.
“There’s really no chinks in their armor,” Tedford said. “You’ve just got to make plays. If you are one-on-one, sometimes it’s just your guy against their guy and hopefully you can make some plays.”
One of the ways the Bears can make plays is on defense. Cal is tied with North Carolina with the most interceptions in the nation (17) and is No. 1 in the Pac-10 in turnover margin.
If USC has shown any weakness, it’s an inconsistent offense led by quarterback Mark Sanchez, who runs hot and cold.
“I’ve learned some tough lessons but we’ve been winning,” Sanchez said. “More than anything I’ve just had a couple of off-nights. There’s a couple of passes that I want back that could have changed the whole outlook of the game in every contest where I haven’t been my best.”
Cal’s best hope is another bad night for Sanchez.
Mistakes, in fact, typically decide games when opponents challenge USC.
If the Trojans are too focused on the big picture, or the Bears get too hyped for the big, bad Trojans, then that could break things one way or the other.