December 4, 2008

Pac-10: USC still has plenty to play for

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This week is a time for remembering at USC.

Remembering when both the Trojans and UCLA wore dark jerseys in their rivalry game. Remembering what's at stake for USC. Remembering 2006.

That's when the second-ranked Trojans blew a chance at the national championship game with a 13-9 loss to UCLA in the regular-season finale. Another lapse against the Bruins on Saturday would keep the Trojans from playing in the Rose Bowl and sever the hair-like thread on which USC's national title hopes are hanging.

USC (10-1) leads the Pac-10 standings, but a loss would drop the Trojans back into a tie with Oregon and Oregon State. Oregon State would win the tiebreaker.

"Our team gets kind of lax at times," USC senior defensive tackle Fili Moala said this week. "Coach [Pete] Carroll does a very good job of expressing to us that [UCLA] could be a snake in the grass."

Perhaps, but not all snakes are venomous. And these Bruins (4-7) would be better described as earthworms on the sidewalk after having lost three of their past four, although their defense is solid and ranks 35th in the country. But UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft has thrown 12 interceptions and no touchdown passes in the past four games, and that doesn't bode well when facing USC's defense - which ranks No. 1 in the nation.

Indeed, Carroll doesn't appear too worried or he likely wouldn't agree to sacrifice a timeout to have the visiting Trojans wear their cardinal jerseys. NCAA rules require visiting teams to wear white.

It's a nice idea, and the color will look great on TV. But normally coaches look for every available edge and aren't willing to accept a disadvantage - although UCLA reportedly has agreed to burn a timeout, too.

UCLA and USC both wore their home jerseys back in the '80s.

"For a number of years I've been hoping to get back to this tradition that stood a long time ago, of both schools wearing their home jerseys when they played here in town," Carroll said. "It just didn't work out for one reason or another."

He later added: "It always looked awesome. It was just a part of the matchup and the spectacle, kind of playing for rights here in Los Angeles and in southern California. So hopefully everybody will get something out of it. Maybe I'm getting into trouble by doing this, I don't know."

That's doubtful, but if the Trojans are in trouble, they likely will know it by halftime.

In the Trojans' only loss this season, they trailed Oregon State 21-0 at intermission. And in 2006, they held a slim 9-7 lead over UCLA at the half.

"If you remember back to that game, like some other games when we've struggled, we struggled early," Carroll said. "The format of that game [in '06] was reminiscent of the Oregon State game. Same kind of thing happened, although we played much better defense [against UCLA]."

Carroll acknowledged that rivalry games always boost emotions on both sides, and that could have an effect on performance.

"Guys can look at it like it's their last opportunity to do something, to make plays that they haven't made," he said.

That would be something to remember.

  • Best matchup
  • THE SCHEDULE
    Saturday
    Washington at California, 3 p.m.
    USC at UCLA, 4:30 p.m.
    Arizona State at Arizona, 8 p.m.
    Arizona pass offense vs. Arizona State pass defense. Behind quarterback Willie Tuitama - who ranks third in the Pac-10 in passing - wide receiver Mike Thomas and tight end Rob Gronkowski, Arizona has a productive passing offense. Tuitama has been intercepted just seven times this season. Meanwhile, Arizona State has had some issues on pass defense this year but has compensated by grabbing 15 interceptions. Mike Nixon leads the way with five and Troy Nolan has four. Defensive end Dexter Davis has 10 sacks.

  • Players to watch
  • California running back Jahvid Best. He has a shot at overtaking Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers to become the league's leading rusher. Rodgers, who did not play in last week's loss to Oregon, has gained 1,253 yards and averages 113.9 per game. Best has rushed for 1,083 in 10 games and exceeded 200 against Stanford in the Bears' most recent game. If Best rushes for 171 yards this week against Washington, that would increase his total to 1,254 and give him a 114.0 yards-per-game average. Washington ranks ninth in the Pac-10 against the run, allowing 223.3 rushing yards per game.

  • Who's hot
  • Oregon sophomore quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has passed for 298 yards and 274 yards, respectively, in consecutive victories over Arizona and Stanford. In those two games, he combined for five touchdown passes and no interceptions. The top-ranked USC defense flexed again in last week's 38-3 victory over Notre Dame. That marked the ninth time in 11 games the Trojans allowed one touchdown or less. USC allowed Notre Dame only 91 yards and did not give up a first down until late in the third quarter. Arizona State's defense has allowed just 28 points in the past three games combined. Furthermore, the Sun Devils haven't allowed a touchdown in 10 consecutive quarters and have forced 18 turnovers in the past six games. The Sun Devils tied an NCAA single-game record by scoring four defensive touchdowns (three interception returns, a fumble return) in last week's win over UCLA. UCLA kicker Kai Forbath has converted his past 13 field-goal attempts.

  • Who's not
  • UCLA hasn't been hot in the first three quarters all season. The Bruins have trailed going into the fourth quarter in nine of 11 games. The only games in which they led going into the fourth quarter were against Washington and Washington State. Oregon State's running game produced just 89 yards with injured Jacquizz Rodgers on the sideline in last week's loss to Oregon.

  • What they're saying
  • "It would be a good feeling to ruin their chances at a bowl like they've done to us, but we're not going to look at it as revenge."
    Arizona's Mike Thomas on Arizona State, which must win to become bowl eligible.

    "For us seniors and myself, it's a big game because we can say we never lost to them. Anybody can say anything they want about what type of careers we've had or what type of people we are or whatever. But at the end of the day, they're going to have to respect us a little bit about what we did here as far as playing against the University of Arizona."
    Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who hopes to end his career with four wins over Arizona.

    "It won't. Not from me, it won't. It's always been about our football team and our football players, and hopefully never about me."
    Washington coach Tyrone Willingham, when asked if his last game as Huskies coach will be sentimental for him.

  • Etc.
  • A victory over Arizona State would enable Arizona to reach seven victories for the first time since 1998, which also was the last season the Wildcats appeared in a bowl game. Wildcats running back Nic Grigsby needs 48 yards to become Arizona's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2001. With Jahvid Best reaching 1,000 yards, California has had a rusher reach that benchmark in seventh consecutive seasons. UCLA punter Aaron Perez has set a school career record with 11,762 punting yards. Wide receiver Terrence Austin has 1,802 all-purpose yards, which leaves him 61 short of the school single-season record set by Maurice Jones-Drew. Oregon State's loss to Oregon last week guaranteed that USC would at least share its seventh consecutive Pac-10 championship.

    MORE PREVIEWS: Big East

    Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




     

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