HATTIESBURG, Miss. — With 13 seconds to play Saturday night at M.M. Roberts Stadium, California Coach Jeff Tedford had a decision to make.
Victory over Southern Mississippi was assured, Cal comfortably if not overwhelmingly ahead, 26-16.
Cal would finish 10-1, equaling its best winning percentage since the 1949 team achieved the same mark. The Bears lost only to top-ranked USC, 23-17.
But would it be enough to allow the Bears to keep their No. 4 spot in the bowl championship series standings, giving them a berth in the Rose Bowl? Or would No. 5 Texas, idle this week but breathing down the Bears' neck, squeak past Cal? A fifth-place finish would send Cal to the Holiday Bowl.
With second and seven at the Golden Eagle 22-yard line, Tedford had the option of going for additional points, of padding the lead, of perhaps convincing an uncertain voter or affecting the computer tabulation.
Tedford said such a move never entered his mind. He told his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, to take a knee, ran out the clock and then handed the ball to the BCS, which will announce its final rankings today.
"Ten wins, I hope, is enough," Tedford said. "This is a tough place to play here in Hattiesburg. We didn't play our best and we still found a way to win. The one loss we had was against the No. 1 team in the nation at their place. It's out of our control now, but we hope good news comes our way."
Tedford shook off the idea of going for more at the end.
"The game was really over and I don't see that anything comes out of that," he said. "I have great respect for [Southern Mississippi] Coach [Jeff] Bower and assume that, if they were in the same situation, he would do the same thing."
Said Cal defensive end Ryan Riddle:
"If you have to run up the score to get to the Rose Bowl, something is wrong with the system."
While the score was respectable, it didn't appear it would be so with just under six minutes to play. Even though Cal running back J.J. Arrington rushed for 261 yards, the Bears struggled right to the end against an Eagle team that was facing the highest-ranked opponent ever to play in this stadium, in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 27,480.
Southern Miss -- 6-5 and already invited to the New Orleans Bowl to face North Texas on Dec. 14 -- seemed poised to tie the score with 5:56 to play after quarterback Dustin Almond slipped across the goal line from a yard out. That left the Golden Eagles just an extra point shy of the Bears, 17-16.
Visions of roses were floating away in the Mississippi night on the Cal sideline.
But then Cal defender Thomas DeCoud leaped into the air and got his outstretched hand on kicker Darren McCaleb's PAT attempt.
The ball wound up in the hands of the Bears' Wendell Hunter, who raced all the way to the Eagle end zone 85 yards away. That was worth two points, which extended the Cal lead to 19-16.
Marshawn Lynch tacked on a 12-yard scoring run to give Cal a little cushion for the BCS' consideration.
Along with the tension over today's announcement, there was sadness in the Bear locker room. Geoff McArthur, the team's top receiver, suffered a broken left leg in the fourth quarter, assuring that he won't be playing in either bowl game.
"I think we could play with any team in the country," Rodgers said. "SC knows that. I hope the rest of the country knows it as well."