By ANDREW BAGNATO
LOS ANGELES—When this goofy college football season began, the game of the year on the West Coast was supposed to be Southern California at California on Nov. 10.
That's still a big one. But the game that might decide the Pac-10 is ... Cal at Arizona State. Circle the date: Oct. 27.
The second-ranked Golden Bears (5-0, 2-0 Pac-10) and 14th-ranked Sun Devils (6-0, 3-0 Pac-10) are the conference's only remaining unbeatens after Stanford's stunning 24-23 victory over USC, which fell from No. 2 to No. 10. Cal plays Oregon State and at UCLA before it gets to the Sun Devils, who face Washington at home and have a bye week.
Cal-ASU for the Pac-10 title? It became a possibility after a strange Saturday night in Los Angeles. The Golden Bears had taken the week off, and the Sun Devils had survived at Washington State when the Cougars missed a last-second field goal. Then Stanford beat USC, and the result from the Los Angeles Coliseum sent shock waves across town and across the country. At the Rose Bowl in nearby Pasadena, the crowd at the Notre Dame-UCLA game began to roar as word of the final score spread. The Trojans might be the bitterest rival of both the Fighting Irish and the Bruins, and their loss united fans of both teams. "Listening to the crowd, I knew there was at least one upset," Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis said. A few minutes later, Charlie Weis Jr., approached his father on the sideline and told him the score, which soon flashed on the videoboard, prompting another long cheer. "It didn't hurt my feelings," Weis said. The Bruins fans weren't celebrating for long. UCLA's 20-6 loss to the Fighting Irish, who had dropped seven straight games, was made no more bearable by the Trojans' defeat. The Bruins lost to a team led by freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen, making his fifth start. USC, meanwhile, lost to a team led by sophomore quarterback Tavita Pritchard, who had played only a handful of snaps. It's not as if John Elway had magically reappeared for the Cardinal, or Joe Montana for the Irish. UCLA (4-2, 3-0 Pac-10) entered this season with dreams of challenging for a national title. But the Bruins, who have mustered a total of four field goals in losses to Utah and Notre Dame, are beginning to look like a quintessential Pac-10 softie. In fairness, UCLA lost starting quarterback Ben Olson to sprained knee ligaments in the first quarter, and coach Karl Dorrell turned to walk-on McLeod Bethel-Thompson, a redshirt freshman who had not thrown a pass in college. Bethel-Thompson committed five turnovers in the second half.
As bad as UCLA looked on Saturday night—and seven turnovers is mighty bad—the Bruins still control their own Rose Bowl destiny. They're tied with Arizona State for the conference lead. If the Bruins win out, they'll celebrate New Year's Day on their home field. "We're in pretty good shape in conference," Dorrell said. "We have to evaluate where we are." That won't pacify Bruins fans, who were seething as the Irish and thousands of their faithful celebrated Notre Dame's first trip to the Rose Bowl since Jan. 1, 1925. As the clock ran out, chants of "Fire Dorrell" went up in the grandstand below the press box. That's right: fans of the Pac-10 co-leader were calling for their coach's dismissal. Unthinkable? Well, consider what was happening across town at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Cardinal, who had been outscored 141-51 in their first three Pac-10 games (all losses), hung in there until the final minute, when quarterback Tavita Pritchard found Mark Bradford in the end zone for the winning score. Pritchard had taken a handful of snaps before Saturday night, and he was only starting because T.C. Ostrander had a seizure last week. Ostrander is OK but may have trouble winning his job back.
But as bad as the Trojans looked on Saturday night, they also control their own Rose Bowl destiny. And because they only dropped to No. 10 in Sunday's Associated Press Top 25, the Trojans still have a shot at the Bowl Championship Series title game. After all, Oklahoma dropped to No. 10 after an ugly loss to Colorado a week ago, and eight days later the Sooners climbed to No. 6. It's not the way Pete Carroll drew it up. But in this goofy season, anything can happen—and already has.