Sparks, a redshirt junior who rushed for 1,944 yards and 35 touchdowns in 1989 at Montclair Prep, was bumped from No. 1 to No. 2 at running back on the Cougar depth chart and now finds himself rotating with Frank Madu and Kevin Hicks.
"I'm not a rotation back," Sparks said. "But it's something that's working and we're winning. So I'm a role back now."
Sparks has rushed for only 214 yards in eight games for an average of 2.9 yards a carry. But Washington State (6-2) is in a four-way tie for first place in the Pacific 10 Conference along with Arizona, Oregon and USC.
Barnum, a junior who played about five miles north of Sparks at Alemany, has moved this season from cornerback to tailback to fullback. But he didn't go in cold. He rushed for more than 2,800 yards in three seasons with the Indians, including 349 and six touchdowns in one game.
"Overall, I'm right where I want be," Barnum said. "I wanted to be a starter and I wanted to start in the backfield."
At 5-feet-10, 180 pounds last spring, Barnum had average size for a tailback and would have been small for a fullback.
Perhaps he was anticipating the second position change, because he spent the summer in the weight room and bulked up to 200 pounds. Still, Barnum blocks for a bigger man. Tailback Shawn Walters is 6-0, 225.
"I knew it was going to be a necessity, but I really surprised myself," he said. "I didn't think I could carry this much weight. But I put it on as muscle mass. Now they want 10 more."
Barnum, like Sparks, is a role player. In six games, Barnum has rushed only four times, gaining five yards. But he has proved to be a reliable receiver, with 20 receptions (third on the team) for 150 yards.
The game: Though favored, Washington State (6-2, 4-1) faces tall odds this Saturday against USC when history is taken into consideration: The Trojans are 45-5-4 against the Cougars, and Washington State has never beaten USC and UCLA in the same season. The Cougars defeated UCLA, 21-0, on Sept. 24.
"The guys realize it's a real important game," Sparks said.
"A better part of our team is from Northern California and Southern California. They're aware of (USC's history). They know about the Heisman Trophy and O.J. (Simpson) and the tradition. But those guys are done; they're not suiting up Saturday."
Barnum and the Trojans have the unenviable task of going into Pullman, Wash., and facing a defense that ranks first in points allowed (10.4 per game) and first against the run (58 yards per game) in Division I.
USC, which had a bye last week, looks better when comparing the scores against California. The Trojans beat the Bears, 61-0, two weeks ago; the Cougars beat Cal, 26-23, last week.
"It would be an error on our part to look at that as an indication of who's better," Barnum said.
"Cal is a very good football team and they didn't get any breaks against us. We'll have to play a very good game and not make any mistakes to beat Washington State. We can't give them anything."
Add Sparks: Perhaps one reason for Sparks' low numbers is his rehabilitation. He redshirted during the 1993 season while recovering from surgery in both shoulders.
"My running is improving each week," Sparks said. "But I'm still not back to the old 'D.' I gotta be patient with myself. As long as I can do something positive. . . ."
On that note, Sparks carried only four times against Cal, but one was a seven-yard touchdown run that capped a 91-yard drive. He picked up a first down on one of his other carries.
Add USC: Senior linebacker Errol Small (Notre Dame) has made game-saving plays in two recent games. Midway through the fourth quarter at Oregon State, Small came across the field to tackle quarterback Tim Alexander at the Trojan 14 after a 31-yard gain. Alexander suffered a broken collarbone on the play. USC won, 27-19. At Stanford, Small intercepted a Steve Stenstrom pass at the Trojan 36 with 4 minutes 7 seconds left and USC leading, 20-13.
Around the country: Notre Dame sophomore Cindy Daws (Louisville) has led the women's soccer team to the nation's No. 1 ranking. It marks the first time since 1990 that a team other than eight-time defending NCAA champion North Carolina was ranked first.
Two weeks ago, the Fighting Irish ended North Carolina's record 92-match winning streak. Daws, an All-American midfielder as a freshman, is second on the team with 36 points (11 goals, 14 assists). Notre Dame is 17-0-1.
Stanford sophomore midfielder Alyze Lowen (Harvard-Westlake), a part-time starter last season, is out for the season with a knee injury. The Cardinal (15-1-1) is ranked fifth.
Staff writer Kennedy Cosgrove contributed to this column.