For a long time, this one loomed large on USC's schedule: a pothole game on its way to a third national title against a rising power in...

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For a long time, this one loomed large on USC’s schedule: a pothole game on its way to a third national title against a rising power in the Pac-10, in one of the few coaching matchups in which the Trojans’ Pete Carroll has no edge.


Now it’s just another game in which Troy is a 19-point favorite.


“Their numbers are unbelievable,” gushed Cal coach Jeff Tedford, whose team hosts the Trojans today (12:30 p.m., Channel 4). “They make it look so easy.”


Not that the Bears are exactly conceding anything. They’ve been the only program in the league that has consistently pushed the Trojans, losing in 2002 partly because of an official’s blown call on a Kareem Kelly touchdown; upending them in triple overtime in 2003, USC’s last loss before a 31-game winning streak; and taking them to the wire in a six-point defeat a year ago.


But this Cal team (6-3) doesn’t seem sufficiently capable of derailing the Trojans. It’s young in spots, and quarterback Joe Ayoob has been inconsistent. The six teams the Bears have beaten are a combined 11-44.


Referring to the recent history in the series, Tedford says, “We’re so young now. We’re a much different team. We had a lot of guys the first three years that had kind of been in the arena before, who had a lot of experience, like [Kyle] Boller and Aaron [Rodgers]. There are probably a few guys left, but we have a lot of young guys.”


There are signs that the much-questioned USC defense is coming around. It shut down Washington State, and USC was on top of Stanford 37-0 before allowing three meaningless scores.



Today’s Pac-10 games


USC at Cal, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 4


UW at Arizona, 3 p.m.


Stanford at Oregon St., 3:30 p.m.


Arizona St. at UCLA, 4 p.m., Ch. 4


Oregon at WSU, 7:15 p.m., FSN


“It’s a lot easier said than done against these guys,” Tedford says.


The Trojans, headed for a possible showdown with Texas in the Rose Bowl, lead the country in scoring offense at 49.9 points a game, a figure that impresses even Carroll.


“That’s pretty extraordinary,” he said. “That’s a lot of points every week. You don’t ever think of your goal as, ‘Let’s average 50 points.’ “


Stanford at Oregon State


In August, or even on Sept. 17, this wouldn’t have looked much like a game with bowl implications for both teams. That September afternoon was the one when OSU fell to Louisville, 63-27, and Stanford lost to Cal-Davis, 20-17.


But both teams have persevered past that ugly day, and now OSU is 5-4, a win shy of bowl eligibility. Stanford is 4-4, and since it finishes with Cal and Notre Dame, faces the closest thing to a must-win scenario.


“I don’t need to talk about it,” said Stanford coach Walt Harris. “The more I talk about it, the harder it becomes.”


Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards has been very good, completing 63.6 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.


“No question, he’s up there with the other top quarterbacks in our conference,” says Harris. “[USC’s] Matt Leinart is a great quarterback, but if Trent was sitting back there behind that offensive line, throwing to those wide receivers, he could accomplish just about those same goals.”


At OSU, meanwhile, the remarkable story of kicker Alexis Serna continues. The goat of the LSU loss in 2004, he is now 39 of 44 on field goals in two seasons and a top candidate for the Lou Groza Award.


“That was true anguish,” said OSU coach Mike Riley, referring to Serna’s three missed PATs in the LSU game. “He took it like a man. The rest is history.”


Arizona State at UCLA


With the Bruins, go figure. Undefeated entering November, they were walloped by Arizona, 52-14, bringing about more hitting in early-week practices.


“It was blame across the board for that performance,” said UCLA coach Karl Dorrell. “We have a lot of great things to keep working for. It might have been the best wakeup call for our team.”


One positive for the Bruins: In ASU, they aren’t facing one of the league’s punishing ground games. The Sun Devils are sixth at 137 yards a game. Then again, Arizona is only eighth, at 121 — after crunching the Bruins for 315 yards on the ground.


The game follows USC-Cal, at 4 p.m. on Channel 4.


Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com