Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sacramento Bee: Cal vs. USC: Bears can step up - or fall hard

BERKELEY-How does a college football program become elite? By winning games like the one this Saturday, when Cal travels to Los Angeles for a breathlessly anticipated showdown against USC. For a Cal program on the cusp of elite status, they just don't get any bigger than this. Awaiting them in a cauldron of 90,000 screaming fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will be the lights and cameras of a national television broadcast in prime time across much of America. Facing them will be a Trojans team on the rise, playing their best football of the season, and still very much in the running for a shot at a national championship.  Looming over them will be a blessed Rose Bowl berth, the first for Cal in nearly 50 years and attainable only if Cal defeats the Trojans in a stadium where USC has not lost in five years. This level of grandeur is all new for the Bears, the next massive step in the ascension of a program that coach Jeff Tedford revived beginning in 2002. Since then, bowl game appearances have become a given for Cal, old hat.  But this? This is different. This game could be the difference between being a curiosity and being a contender; between being a team the East Coast establishment is vaguely aware of and being a prime-time attraction.

Of course, USC has been here before. The Trojans have played bigger games than this. They are considered by many the logical choice to play the winner of Ohio State-Michigan in the BCS National Championship Game in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 8. But Cal? Admission to the fraternity of Big Boys will come only by winning a game where the Bears are the decided underdogs, and rightly so.  "To win (the Pac-10) Conference you have to go through them, you have to beat USC," Tedford said this week. "That's not as easy as just saying it."

No it's not. Cal last traveled to Los Angeles two years ago and outplayed a USC team loaded with Heisman Trophy winners Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. And Cal still lost 23-17.

By the admission of Tedford and USC coach Pete Carroll, the Coliseum was ablaze with emotion that day.  "It was a wild scene," said Tedford of the Coliseum effect on opponents -- of the hex lurking within the ancient stadium of two Olympics and decades of Trojans ghosts. In packed stands that seem to scrape the clouds, the atmosphere is akin to Mad Max at Thunderdome. Still, Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- now with the Green Bay Packers -- completed an NCAA-record 23 consecutive passes. The Bears cut through a powerful USC defense for 424 yards of total offense with major bowl game representatives in attendance that day, sizing Cal up as a budding national power. And though that game was played in early October of '04, it was understood that a Cal victory could bring a conference title and the chance of a look at a national championship. And then Cal found itself on USC's 9-yard line with 1:47 left in the game and a chance to win, though it trailed only because of a fumbled punt and a botched snap on a punt that resulted in 10 dubious Trojans points.

It shouldn't have even come down to four shots at the end zone -- but it did. And it was then that Cal's deadly offense sputtered and was ground into the hot Southern California turf by the elated -- and relieved -- Trojans. Bye, bye, Rose Bowl, national championship and nationwide acceptance to the elite. Now we're here, and the stakes are even higher because that '04 game was not a winner-take-all deal. There were still many games to be played and potential upsets to ruin the story line of two California powers knocking heads -- of Northern California vs. Southern California battling with the Rose Bowl as the prize. "I've been thinking about this ever since I committed to Cal," said Bears quarterback Nate Longshore. "It's all about this one game, and there is definitely a buzz in our locker room, on our team." A Cal win means that a half-century of Old Blues will have their most cherished wish answered -- they will see another Rose Bowl before they die. But a loss will bring the deepest cut of all for a program aspiring to greatness. It will mean being good isn't enough.


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