A week ago, this weekend's USC-Cal clash was considered a seismic Pac-10 showdown. But after Washington stunned USC 13-10, Oregon's 42-3 pounding of Cal administered the coup de grace. Still, while this game has lost some of its national-title implications, it maintains much of its luster.
With one Pac-10 loss each, the Bears and the Trojans now find their margin of error razor-slim. A Cal defeat would give the Bears their first 0-2 Pac-10 start under
Cal and USC aren't playing for a Rose Bowl guarantee--they are playing to avoid Rose Bowl elimination.
Johnson wasn't as explosive as
USC's depth should help ease the loss of Johnson's on-field production, but the effect on the team's psyche is another matter. "We're connected. This is a very tight program and a very tight team," Carroll said. "Stafon's been a spiritual leader and a leader on the field in all ways for a long time here and a beloved guy. So this is something that does affect you. We all will feel it for some time."
Carroll's teams have responded well to on-field setbacks in the past, never suffering consecutive losses since his first season. But this is a different animal. Quarterback
Unfortunately, the Bears don't have 1-3 Washington State to rebound against the way the Trojans did after losing to Washington in Week 3. Instead, they must try to get back on track against a team they haven't beaten since a triple-overtime victory at Memorial Stadium in 2003.
"You've just got to come back and you can't think about it," Cal quarterback
It'll only be a fight, though, if Cal's offense regains its footing in a hurry. The Trojans lead the nation with 18 sacks and haven't given up more than 16 points in a single game. For Cal to avoid a second crushing loss, Riley needs better protection from an offensive line that failed to offer resistance against an Oregon front that had 11 tackles for loss, including five sacks.
Voters will let one subpar performance slide, but now the pressure is squarely on the 5-10, 195-pound speed freak. A big day in the biggest game of the Bears' season could help erase the Oregon game and vault Best back to the forefront of the race. Another dud, though, could leave him as the most entertaining player who won't be making a trip to New York in December.
The numbers aren't on Best's side. The Trojans are giving up a Pac-10 best 59.5 yards per game on the ground and a minuscule 1.7 yards per carry, third nationally. On top of that, last season against USC Best had one of the worst performances of his career, finishing with 30 yards and no scores as the Trojans won 17-3. That failure still weighs heavily on Best.
"It just gives me a little bit more motivation to go out there and produce this weekend, just to show that I can produce," he said.
"The same things that made him special are the same things that made
"You try to string out and he can beat you to the corner. If you over-pursue, like we did a few times, he can cut back and complete his run. A few runs he started strong-side B [gap], and wound up back-side B and then flat-out outran us.
"I think if you can, come up with a game plan where you're pressuring weak. They like to run power strong, which makes them dangerous. But [the ideal is] kind of like what Oregon did: backside pressure and make him go one way so you can have a better chance."
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