Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Cal hoping to bounce back with statement win against Trojans
By Ted Miller Special to ESPN.com
Remember that scene in the mockumentary, "This is Spinal Tap," when the band introduces its epic song "Stonehenge"? The spoken-word introduction, dramatic lighting and air of mystery generate electricity throughout an arena anticipating totally awesome heavy metal theater as a replica of the ancient monument descends upon the stage.
Cal will need a healthy Nate Longshore to beat USC.
Only it's a mere 3 feet tall because of a miscommunication on the model's dimensions.
"I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf," notes Spinal Tap guitarist David St. Hubbins after the show.
"That tended to understate the hugeness of the object."
Why the cinematic detour? Call it a free association that arose when considering USC's visit to California on Saturday (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).
This "monumental" Pac-10 clash -- everyone's conference game of the year in August and September -- turns out to be only 3 feet tall, the participants variously crushed by Cardinal or Ducks or Beavers or Bruins or Sun Devils. A combined five conference defeats between the two wobbling powers tends to understate the hugeness of the game.
The Trojans, the consensus preseason No. 1 team, are ranked 17th in the BCS standings. The Bears, on the cusp of a No. 1 ranking as they took the field against Oregon State less than a month ago, are presently unranked after losing three of four.
While anything can happen -- and this season it probably will -- the stakes are most likely the Holiday Bowl. Or maybe the Sun or Las Vegas Bowls.
And there was much rejoicing.
These diminished possibilities explain why typically outgoing Cal quarterback Nate Longshore doesn't seem very chatty these days. He's been living in the training room, nursing a bum ankle he hurt late in the Bears' red-letter victory at Oregon on Sept. 29, trying to reignite the spark of an offense that was once among the nation's most dynamic.
"It's just as the season wears on, you get tired of talking about things," he harrumphed. "I'm just anxious to play instead of talk about it."
During the preseason, Longshore colored his hair blue to amuse his teammates. Blue now symbolizes the Bears' general mood.
A boneheaded -- and now infamous -- play by backup quarterback Kevin Riley in the waning moments cost them a chance to send the Oregon State game into overtime. They blew a fourth-quarter lead against UCLA, Longshore tossing an interception inside Bruins territory to end what appeared to be a game-winning drive. They couldn't maintain a 20-7 lead at Arizona State.
A mostly uninspired win over Washington State last weekend hardly suggests the Bears have rediscovered their mojo.
John David Booty will try to get back on track against Cal.
"I don't know how teams got them, necessarily, but they still look loaded to us," USC coach Pete Carroll said.
Carroll's Trojans, whose lowest ranking in the previous four meetings with Cal was No. 4 last year, still haven't found their offensive rhythm nine games into the season. Quarterback John David Booty returned last weekend against Oregon State after missing three games with a broken finger, but he wasn't sharp by any stretch during the 24-3 victory.
"I thought he was a little rusty," Carroll said. "He didn't feel as comfortable as we hoped. He didn't feel like he could just step back into the groove. He missed a couple of balls and wasn't quite as clean as he's been."
Booty's not getting much help from an injury-riddled offensive line, not to mention numerous dropped balls from his receivers, who haven't lived up to their golden prep pedigrees.
The star-laden defense, however, has ranged from good to outstanding, though it too has suffered through numerous injuries. It turned in its most dominant performance of the season against the Beavers, piling up nine sacks.
That's probably why Cal coach Jeff Tedford isn't buying projections that USC's tumble from the nation's elite is at hand.
"Are you kidding me?" he said. "When you watch their defense -- it's the best defense I've seen, without a doubt. They do a great job schematically and have so much speed."
When Longshore is healthy -- i.e., not appearing to favor his right ankle when he throws -- Cal's offense is second only to Oregon's in the conference. All the weapons are still there: receivers DeSean Jackson and Lavelle Hawkins, tailback Justin Forsett and lightning-quick freshman phenom Jahvid Best.
But when Longshore will be 100 percent is still in doubt. Perhaps in response, Tedford has been more conservative in his play calling of late, which has provoked muted irritation from a fan base that mostly still believes he walks on water. In the workmanlike 20-17 victory over the Cougars, the Bears produced long drives --17, 20 and 11 plays -- but their longest pass went for just 19 yards. Forsett had a 44-yard touchdown run, but gained only 88 yards on his other 31 carries.
Moreover, the Bears must contend with this: USC is 21-0 in November under Carroll, though that perfect mark conveniently leaves out last season's Dec. 2 loss to UCLA that knocked the Trojans out of the national title game.
"We're in a playoff right now," Carroll said. "It's kicked in. Hopefully, we're going to really jack it up again."
The nation might not be transfixed, but both teams know the losers likely will sport much longer faces at season's end.
"I think the motivation is very high anytime you play those guys," Tedford said. "I don't think there's any doubt that motivation will be there."
Because the winner will go to that mystic land where the dewdrops cry and the cats meow. Or maybe just the Holiday Bowl.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.