USC, the front-runner in the Pacific 10 Conference's three-team battle for a Rose Bowl berth, takes on one of its two pursuers today at the Coliseum-- Oregon State.
Stifle that yawn. Hold that chuckle.
Word travels slowly out of Corvallis, Ore., but the Beavers have returned. After years of serving as the conference's punching bag, they are finally fighting back. Here it is November, and they are still in contention at 3-1-1.
It has been awhile. The Beavers are 4-3-1 overall, which may not seem like much, but it's their best start in 21 years. They haven't played in a Rose Bowl game in a quarter-century. They haven't even finished in the top half of the Pac-10 in 20 years. They haven't had five victories in a season in 18 years. And they haven't faced USC with a winning record in a dozen years.
Remember, this is a school that didn't win a game in the first season of this decade and won only four more over the next three seasons.
Dave Kragthorpe became Oregon State's coach in 1985, but progress was slow. His first season, the Beavers improved from 2-9 to 3-8. It was the first step on a journey of a thousand miles.
Last year, Oregon State was up to 4-6-1. Few were impressed.
"We were picked to be 10th in the conference this year," Kragthorpe said, "and that's no change. That's the same as it was in 1985. It's a very slow process. People get you categorized. When they start to rate the teams in the conference, they say, 'SC is always at the top, and Oregon State is always at the bottom. Now let's fill in the blanks.' "
The Beavers opened the season with a 20-16 victory over Stanford, a team headed for a dismal season of its own. But it was wins over UCLA (18-17) and California (25-14) the past two weeks that have made at least some people take Oregon State seriously.
The oddsmakers haven't been swayed. The 10th-ranked Trojans, 4-0 in the conference and 6-2 overall, are favored by 22 points.
"I think we've been able to change opinions in Corvallis," Kragthorpe said. "I think the other coaches respect our program a great deal more than they did five years ago. But I don't think other areas of the populace respect us. I don't worry too much about the respect.
"I'm only concerned with turning this program around and having a winning season. I won't be satisfied until we get to that first goal."
The key to that is fullback Pat Chaffey. When the Oregon State offense has been on the move this year, Chaffey has usually had a hand in it. Or a foot. He is both the team's leading rusher with 580 yards, an average of 3.7 yards a carry and nine touchdowns, and its leading receiver with 34 catches, a 9.4-yard average and another touchdown.
USC Coach Larry Smith is a fan.
"Take one guy like that," Smith said, "and you can turn something around. I've seen it in high school. When I first started high school coaching, I went into a program that had never won. We had one kid. The guy was a great player. He got the ball rolling, starting a winning program for the next 10 to 15 years. Sometimes it takes one guy."
There's no argument from Kragthorpe.
"(Chaffey) is the catalyst of our football team," he said. "When you have 115 guys practicing, it's hard to bring it down to one, but he sort of epitomizes this team."
How good is the 6-foot-2, 214-pound Chaffey? He may find out today when he'll run into people like Junior Seau, Tim Ryan and Dan Owens. Leaders of USC's dominating defensive front, they are not so easy to impress.
Junior Reggie Pitchford from Compton has won the starting tailback job for Oregon State, and if the Beavers elect to go to the air, the offensive load falls on quarterback Matt Booher.
The junior has started the last three games, of which Oregon State won two and tied the other. Booher has completed 61.7% of his passes for 842 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But he has also thrown seven interceptions.
The top receiver is Phil Ross, who has caught 24 passes this season and 141 in his career, the most of any tight end in conference history.
A crowd of about 75,000 is expected for the 3:30 p.m. kickoff. . . . The Beach Boys will play an hourlong concert after the game. . . . USC defensive lineman Randy Hord and receiver Marlon Washington are out with ankle injuries.