More Than a Budding Dynasty?

Times Staff Writer

Call it a steppingstone game.

Top-ranked USC can clinch the Pacific 10 Conference title and at least a berth in the Rose Bowl by beating Arizona tonight at the Coliseum.

In previous years, those would qualify as fulfilling achievements and cause for celebration.

But USC, which played in the Rose Bowl last season and shared the national title with Louisiana State, is not angling to spend New Year’s Day in Pasadena.


The Trojans see themselves in Florida, preparing for their first bowl championship series title game and a shot at becoming the undisputed national champion.

A victory tonight would keep the Trojans on track for the Orange Bowl as they head into their final two games against Notre Dame and UCLA.

“This is the first goal we have a chance to achieve and so we’ll try to knock this out,” said Coach Pete Carroll, who is 11-0 in November games with the Trojans.

USC, 9-0 overall and 6-0 in Pac-10 play, is an overwhelming favorite against an Arizona team that has won only two games in Coach Mike Stoops’ first season.

USC, meanwhile, has won 18 games in succession, 19 consecutive home games and 13 straight Pac-10 games.

Last season, USC shut out the Wildcats at Tucson, 45-0.

“You can’t focus on the other team’s schedule or record and everything else like that,” said Trojan running back Reggie Bush, who has returned punts for touchdowns in two consecutive games. “You’ve just got to go out like it’s just another game that you need to win.”

USC is happy to be home after weathering trips to Washington State and Oregon State.


The Trojans experienced a pregame hailstorm and sub-40 degree temperatures in Pullman, Wash., where they won, 42-12, then rallied for a 28-20 victory at fog-shrouded Corvallis, Ore.

Showers are possible and temperatures in the 50s are expected tonight for a homecoming game that is expected to draw 75,000 to 80,000.

USC has already recorded two shutouts at home -- against Colorado State and Washington -- and the Trojan defense is aiming for another against the Wildcats, who ended a seven-game losing streak with a 23-13 victory over Washington last week.

Led by defensive lineman Shaun Cody, a Lombardi Award finalist, and linebacker Matt Grootegoed, a Butkus Award finalist, USC ranks in the top six nationally in every defensive category. The Trojans surrender only 11.9 points a game.


Arizona averages 13.4.

“Arizona will have nothing to lose so we can’t let anything slip past us,” defensive tackle Mike Patterson said.

Running back Mike Bell is the most dynamic threat for a Wildcat offense that ranks seventh in the conference in rushing and is last in passing and total offense.

Arizona’s defense ranks fifth in the conference, surrendering 343 yards a game.


“Obviously, we have to get some breaks early and play flawless football to play with Southern Cal,” said Stoops, the former defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. “We have shown signs that we can do that.

“If we continue to hurt ourselves and let them -- especially their special teams and guys like Reggie Bush -- get going, it will disintegrate.”

Carroll’s biggest concern during the week was the Trojans’ recent rash of fumbles.

Bush fumbled once and backup quarterback Matt Cassel fumbled twice against Washington State. Bush and running back LenDale White each lost fumbles against Oregon State.


“The last couple of weeks, we’ve given the ball up too many times and it almost cost us,” said Carroll, whose team ranks second nationally in turnover margin. “That’s a major concern because it’s the No. 1 emphasis in our program.

“I’m concerned that we aren’t getting the results that we need right now. That’s the biggest concern because that can cause a loss for us.”

If USC wins the rest of its games and Oklahoma also finishes unbeaten, the Trojans might play the Sooners in the Orange Bowl.

Asked if Stoops’ defensive scheme might offer clues as to what the Trojans could see against Oklahoma, Carroll feigned surprise.


“Oh, gosh no,” he said. “I haven’t made that connection at all.”

Then he grinned.




Down the stretch they come

The top six schools are guaranteed bowl championship series game berths. Utah (9-0), No. 7 in the BCS, currently doesn’t automatically qualify. Today’s matchups, with BCS rankings:

No. 1 USC (9-0) vs.

Arizona (2-7)


7:15 p.m., FSNW

* Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush can make their Heisman cases but don’t expect the Trojans to put the season on cruise control.

No. 2 Oklahoma (9-0) vs.

Nebraska (5-4)



* With Baylor looming next week, Oklahoma can virtually clinch the Big 12 South and solidify its BCS place for another week.

No. 3 Auburn (9-0) vs.

No. 8 Georgia (8-1)


12:30 PST, Ch. 2

* The real SEC title game? Perhaps, but Auburn has its sights set higher and needs to win to keep those in focus.

No. 4 California (7-1) at

Washington (1-8)


12:30, no local TV

* After last week’s scare against Oregon, Cal seems to be in need of a decisive victory to quiet the critics.

No. 5 Wisconsin (9-0) at

Michigan St. (4-5)


12:30 PST, no local TV

* If Wisconsin can win this week and on the road at Iowa next week, no one can say the Badgers didn’t earn their Big Ten title.

No. 6 Texas (8-1) at

Kansas (3-6)


9 a.m. PST, FSNW

* Its tenuous spot in the BCS standings should be all the motivation that Texas needs to deliver an emphatic victory.