Thursday, November 16, 2006

Seattle Times: Hey, Pac-10 Has a Big Game, Too

SEATTLE - After a loopy, lurching season of Pac-10 football - Oregon State dead, buried, reincarnate; Arizona ditto; Stanford somehow slinking into the victory circle - we've arrived at precisely the point most people anticipated back in August.

California at USC, Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, BYOB for the BGOC - Best Game Outside Columbus.  The buzz seems somewhat muted. Perhaps that's what happens when Ohio State-Michigan dwarfs everything in the Western world. Or maybe it's the aftermath of Cal's loss at Arizona last week. But the stakes are not trifling. A victory by USC keeps the Trojans on a course that very likely puts them in the BCS title game if they win out. A triumph by Cal is worth the Bears' first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1959, or almost back to rumble seats and raccoon coats. Prevailing wisdom is that these two programs are like ships passing in the night_USC finally on an uptick after a sleepwalking October, Cal trending downward after a strong first half. But in the Pac-10, prevailing wisdom has usually been akin to crumpled pari-mutuel tickets underfoot at the horse track. The player on whom falls the greatest burden Saturday is Nate Longshore, the Cal quarterback. He's symbolic_in more ways than one_of Cal's recent slide to looking pedestrian, and of the reality that Bears coach Jeff Tedford, for all his magical chemistry with that position, can't always work miracles.

Tedford has been the most proximate threat to USC's reign under Pete Carroll. But last year, Cal came up short with Joe Ayoob at quarterback. And after Longshore rebounded from the Tennessee disappointment and played strongly, he has been Joe Average lately, throwing six interceptions and seven touchdown passes in the past five games. "There are going to be days like that," Tedford said this week, referring to Longshore's three picks at Arizona. "He's a young guy, doing a great job. He's just got to keep his head up and keep working at what he's doing." Tedford sounded like a guy knowing his only chance is to squeeze confidence back into his quarterback. Who knows? It's possible Longshore may find himself against the Trojans, but he's going against the Pac-10's premier defense statistically (290.1 yards allowed per game). "They're the best defense we've played against all year long," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. "SC's defense is better, Cal's offense may be better. SC, at the line of scrimmage, is maybe a better football team." Surprisingly, the Bears are only ninth in Pac-10 defense, allowing 378.5 yards per game. That suggests an opening for a USC offense that's hardly spectacular, yet effective. The Trojans seemed dead in the water vis a vis the national title after they lost to Oregon State, until The Saturday That Was last week. Looking back, Carroll grudgingly concedes that perhaps the OSU setback was something his program needed. "I hate to think that's what you need," he said. "We have to admit that, I guess." Besides Longshore, here are two ways Cal can get it done: It has the league's best turnover margin at plus-8, while USC is plus-1. And then there's the DeSean Jackson factor. The Cal wideout/punt returner has suddenly become the conference's successor to Reggie Bush's wondrousness. Jackson, who chose Cal over USC two years ago, leads the nation in punt returns and just set the Pac-10 record for season scores (4) on them. "He's just had a huge year," said Carroll. Fair to say, the same description is still within the grasp of either program.

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