Wednesday, November 07, 2007

San Jose Mercury: Little, but pride, rides on USC game

By Jonathan Okanes

It's finally here. Nov. 10. USC vs. Cal. The Pacific-10 game everybody has been waiting for this season. The showdown for . . . third place?  A strange thing has happened since ABC chose this game for its "Saturday Night Football" package, since the game sold out before the season, since the Trojans and Bears were the preseason picks as the top two teams in the Pac-10. The rest of the conference caught up. Now, instead of being a battle for Pac-10 supremacy with possible Bowl Championship Series implications, Saturday's game at Memorial Stadium simply will be a survival to stay relevant. "The picture sure has changed, but at the same time I don't think that's going to cause us to go out there with any less fight," Cal linebacker Zack Follett said. "We're still going to go out there and give SC all we've got. We're kind of out of the Rose Bowl picture. But it would feel good to knock them out of it knowing they've been on top for so long."  USC wasn't just the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason. Many believed the rest of the nation was playing for second. The Trojans captured 62 of a possible 65 first-place votes in the first Associated Press top 25, and Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh went so far as to say they "might be the best team in the history of college football." The Bears, meanwhile, were considered the one team that could possibly knock off USC. They started the season ranked No. 12 and ascended to No. 2 after a 5-0  start.

But the uncertainty that has characterized college football nationwide hasn't skipped over the Pacific-10 Conference. The Trojans were shocked at home by Stanford and lost on the road at Oregon, which now seems to be the class of the conference. Cal lost three in a row after beginning 5-0 and is out of the national and Pac-10 race. The Bears enter Saturday ranked No. 24 by the Associated Press. USC is ranked 12th, and 17th in the Bowl Championship Series standings. This is the first year since 2001 that the Trojans aren't in the hunt for the national title. "Reality says we haven't played well enough and haven't put ourselves in position to make this that national game that everyone was talking about," Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said. "Maybe it doesn't have the national attention or the weight if we would have played four weeks ago. But it still carries a lot of weight to us, and I'm sure it still carries a lot of weight for USC. It's just not the national thing that everybody was making it out to be." At one point, this game looked as though it might be even bigger than initially expected. After Cal knocked off Oregon to improve to 5-0, it moved up to No. 3 in the rankings, directly behind No. 2 USC. But the next week, while the Bears were enjoying a bye, the Trojans suffered their loss to Stanford. Cal followed up by beginning its three-game slide.

The game actually comes at a good time for the Bears. With not as much to play for now, Cal should have no trouble getting motivated for USC. The Bears and Trojans have developed a good rivalry in recent years, as Cal has regularly been the team that's come closest to knocking USC from its perch atop the Pac-10. The Trojans have at least shared the conference title three years in a row - they tied with Cal last season. "You'd be a fool to not think this is a rivalry," Cal linebacker Worrell Williams said. "We could be the last two teams in the Pac-10 and it would be a rivalry. If you can't get pumped up for this, we might have to take you to the hospital. You might not be alive."

• Tedford said defensive end Rulon Davis (knee) is out again this week. Davis has missed five games this season with foot and knee injuries.

• The family of former Cal standout running back Marshawn Lynch is providing free turkeys for families 1-3 p.m. Nov. 18 at Oakland Tech High School.

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