Desperation in Strawberry Canyon

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

BERKELEY, Calif. -- It's a beautiful day in the Bay Area, but the sun will set in more ways than one by the time this one is over.

That's not to say that if No. 7 USC or No. 24 California limps away with a second Pac-10 defeat that the loser's season is over -- or the winner's is made -- but it probably will feel like it.

Both teams have a lot to lose.

USC hasn't been as bad as 1-2 in conference play since Pete Carroll lost his first three Pac-10 games in 2001. A loss likely would relegate the Trojans to the bottom half of the national rankings and folks would start talking about a rebuilding season and Sun Bowl berths.

Cal, though, would go from No. 6 in the land two weeks ago to unranked. Another season of high expectations doused by a bucket of disappointment.

Not to mention the Bears would do so in front of their already frustrated fans.

Cal seems to face more challenges, both physically and emotionally.

The Bears will not be able to just hand the ball off to Jahvid Best and, well, hope for the best. Quarterback Kevin Riley, after reverting to his inconsistent 2008 for at Oregon, needs to rediscover his passing rhythm. He's got to force the Trojan defense to respect the pass.

Oregon loaded the box and it worked. USC doesn't typically do that because it doesn't need to -- it ranks fifth in the country in run defense playing things fairly straight.

As for the Trojans, they may be particularly united behind notion of winning for injured running back Stafon Johnson, who dropped a 275-pound bar on his neck while doing bench press this week and nearly died.

He's done for the season, and his teammates likely want to send him an inspiring get-well message.

Will that message come through more downfield throws from true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley? The shoulder injury that knocked him out of the loss at Washington is nearly healed, and the playbook seemed to open up a bit last week in the easy win over Washington State.

The Cal defense, which had been stout early, was whipped in every way by Oregon. They'll be looking for redemption against an offense that is far saltier at just about every position than the Ducks, other than QB.

The winner in Strawberry Canyon will reintroduce itself into the Pac-10 and national picture.

The loser? It will be scrambling to save its season.