A couple of weeks ago, USC-California was going to be the Game of the Decade in the Pac-10. Now it might not be the most interesting game Saturday in the Bay Area, ceding that honor to UCLA-Stanford.
So it's become the Biggest Game West of Walnut Creek and North of San Leandro, Late-Saturday Division. Tuesday, the questions for Cal coach Jeff Tedford on the weekly Pac-10 conference call filled only half his allotted 10 minutes. The Trojans-Bears game has lost some sheen with recent events — USC's loss to Washington, Cal's evisceration at the hands of Oregon, and the Monday injury to USC running back Stafon Johnson, who had seven hours of emergency surgery to his throat after a weightlifting accident.
"He's one of everybody's favorites," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "He's one of the spiritual leaders of this group. "It hit everybody pretty hard. It's hard to believe something could happen like that." On a more mundane level, almost the same could be said about Cal's visit to Oregon, where it suffered a 42-3 loss Saturday as a favorite, the worst defeat in the eight years of Tedford's coaching regime at Cal.
Rather than writing it off to a team not being ready to play, Tedford described the loss as a lesson in what goes wrong when 10 players execute and the 11th one doesn't. "We're one guy away, here and there," he said. "We didn't make the big plays we'd been making. We were one step away from making a lot of big plays, but we didn't get it done. "We have a play where we're pulling, and have a lead blocker, and we fall down. The first play of the game, we've got a guy running wide-open down the middle of the field, and we're late getting out of our stance, and we get sacked."
The game could evolve into a black-and-blue affair, the sort of which is becoming de rigueur in the Pac-10, because both defensive units appear superior to the other side. Since a triple-overtime victory by Cal in 2003, Carroll has had his way with Tedford. This is the fourth straight year both have been ranked at game time, and USC has won each.