The loss of two Heisman Trophy winners, a midseason slump and two critical games against ranked teams have not blocked Southern California’s path to a third straight trip to the national championship game.
Now all that does is its crosstown rival.
The second-ranked Trojans likely will wrap up a spot in the BCS title game if they beat UCLA for an eighth straight time on Saturday when the Pac-10 rivals square off at the Rose Bowl.
A win should give USC (10-1, 7-1) a matchup with top-ranked Ohio State for the national championship on Jan. 8. That’s because the Trojans reached No. 2 in the BCS standings this week, climbing past idle Michigan, thanks to their convincing 44-24 win over then-No. 6 Notre Dame last Saturday.
A loss this Saturday means USC would have to settle for the Rose Bowl.
“I think we’re a pretty good team right now,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ll play anybody, anywhere.”
USC even being in this position could be considered a surprise.
Besides having lost Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush to the NFL, the Trojans did not look like national title contenders during the first half of their Pac-10 schedule. They won three consecutive conference games by seven points or less before being upset by Oregon State 33-31 on Oct. 28.
However, USC responded by winning its four games in November by a combined 144-43 score, including a 23-9 win over then-No. 17 California on Nov. 18 to clinch a fifth straight Pac-10 title.
“I just think we showed how much heart we have,” Trojans leading receiver Dwayne Jarrett said. “At the beginning of the year, we were the only ones that believed in ourselves. Media guys or whoever the case may be, were saying we were going to lose or SC is struggling.”
Jarrett has keyed the four-game win streak with 24 receptions for 407 yards and six touchdowns, three of which came last week against the Irish. His 132 yards in that win were about half of John David Booty’s passing total (265).
Jarrett caught one of Leinart’s three TD passes in USC’s 66-19 rout of UCLA last season. It was the Trojans’ seventh straight victory in the series since a 34-17 loss at the Rose Bowl in 1998.
“We have a great opportunity. We have a great game coming up, a great matchup in a game we love to play in,” Carroll said. “We can’t wait to get started.”
UCLA (6-5, 4-4) already knows where it’s headed for the postseason, set to face Florida State at the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 27.
Even though this has not been the best of seasons for the Bruins, they probably would call it a very good one if they can somehow shock the Trojans.
UCLA had won eight in a row over its Los Angeles area rival before losing the last seven.
“It’s been very frustrating. It makes you sick,” Bruins cornerback Trey Brown said. “It’s been way too long, especially for our seniors that have been here and worked so hard through their careers.
“What better way to send them off than by beating USC. They haven’t had a chance to do so, and we have another opportunity. It’s great.”
UCLA has had an extra week to prepare, having been off since winning 24-12 at Arizona State on Nov. 18. It was the Bruins’ second straight victory after a four-game skid.
The Bruins originally thought Ben Olson, the team’s opening day starter at quarterback, would be available for this game, but he has not sufficiently healed from a knee injury. UCLA coach Karl Dorrell decided Wednesday that Patrick Cowan would be the starter because he has a better rhythm right now than Olson does.
“Ben’s timing and his decision-making are getting better, but that’s the part that’s just a little behind,” Dorrell said. “We need to make sure that we play as well as we can early, and Pat gives us the best opportunity to do that.”
Olson has completed 79-of-124 passes for 822 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions. Cowan is 118-of-219 for 1,428 yards and nine TDs with seven interceptions.
“I talked with both Ben and Pat, and Ben understood that Pat has a little more seasoning with playing the last few weeks,” Dorrell said. “Ben’s ready to go if the circumstances in the game call for it, but Pat is our guy this week.
Cowan, though, will be facing a defense which has looked impressive in recent weeks.
The Trojans have forced nine turnovers and allowed an average of less than 11 points per game during their winning streak. In their previous four games, they caused only two turnovers while allowing an average of 24 points.
“Really, we’re the same defense we’ve always been, but a month ago is when we finally realized it, what we are capable of,” said USC linebacker Dallas Sartz, “but we are not done yet.”