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Unexpected Rose arrangement

For the 36th time, the crosstown matchup has a Pasadena postseason invitation (and maybe a coaching job) on the line, not that either USC or UCLA thought it would turn out this way

November 26, 2007|Gary Klein and Chris Foster | Times Staff Writers

OK, so it's not for a berth in the Bowl Championship Series title game.

USC, a near-consensus No. 1 at the start of the season, lost its chance with a shocking and embarrassing defeat to Stanford.

UCLA, a senior-dominated team with a supposedly easy schedule, fell by the wayside after a loss at Utah and an even more embarrassing home stumble against Notre Dame.

Still, there will still be more than bragging rights at stake Saturday when eighth-ranked USC plays UCLA at the Coliseum in the 77th meeting between the crosstown rivals.

Much more.

Both teams have a shot at playing in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. This will be the 36th time the Trojans and Bruins will meet with the Rose Bowl on the line for one or both teams.

"There's a lot going on with this game, a lot to it in the buildup and what's at stake," Carroll said Sunday. "It's the kind of stuff you love: playing for championships."

USC, 9-2 overall and 6-2 in the Pacific 10 Conference, can clinch its sixth consecutive league title and make its third consecutive Rose Bowl appearance with a victory over the Bruins.

UCLA, 6-5 and 5-3 in the Pac-10, must defeat the Trojans, and then hope that Arizona defeats Arizona State later Saturday.

"Our goal was to be in position for this opportunity," Coach Karl Dorrell said. "I can't tell you that I thought we'd be 6-5 with this opportunity. But it is what it is."

UCLA's situation is only one of many that have characterized one of the strangest seasons in college football history.

Consider: USC fans found themselves in the unfamiliar position of rooting for the Bruins on Saturday against Oregon.

UCLA's 16-0 victory over the Ducks opened the Rose Bowl door for the Trojans, who moved up three spots in the Associated Press media poll and from 11th to eighth in the BCS standings after defeating Arizona State, 44-24, Thursday.

"We had to go win this game to be eligible, it didn't matter to us who we were helping out," Bruins defensive end Bruce Davis said.

USC was seemingly out of contention for the Pac-10 title after the Oct. 6 loss to Stanford at the Coliseum and a 24-17 loss at then-No. 5 Oregon, which appeared as if it were on its way to the BCS title game.

But Oregon's season changed when quarterback Dennis Dixon, a Heisman Trophy front-runner, aggravated a knee injury that ended his season in a loss against Arizona on Nov. 15.

Now, the Trojans again control their own destiny going into their final game, though for the first time in five years, the prize at stake is not a BCS title-game berth.

In 2003, second-ranked USC finished the regular season with a victory over Oregon State and was installed atop the AP and coaches polls. But the BCS computers put the Trojans third behind Oklahoma and Louisiana State.

In 2004 and 2005, season-ending wins over UCLA propelled the top-ranked Trojans to the title game.

Last season, USC appeared primed for a third consecutive championship game appearance before losing to UCLA, 13-9, at the Rose Bowl. Despite having virtually no chance to play for the BCS title, USC players said they would have no problems this week with motivation.

"UCLA basically spoiled our chances of going to the national title last year," junior linebacker Brian Cushing said.

Said nose tackle Sedrick Ellis, a fifth-year senior: "Our focus is to go the Rose Bowl every year. That's what Coach Carroll has been preaching since I was a freshman. That's still our goal now, and it's very obtainable."

UCLA players feel the same.

"The fact that we still got life right now, even though we don't control our own destiny, is great," Davis said. "We're going to do our best to handle our end of the deal, then wait to see if some other stuff works out.

"If we make it to the Rose Bowl, so be it. I'll love every second of it."

So would Dorrell, who has endured a season of diminishing returns until now, leaving his future murky. The Bruins talked about national-title possibilities when the season began. That stopped in Salt Lake City, after Utah pasted them, 44-6. The players continued to carry "Pac-10 Champions: finish" wristbands, cutting them off after losing to Arizona on Nov. 3.

With the nonconference gaffes against Utah and Notre Dame, and a rash of injuries that sent them on a three-game losing streak in conference play, the Bruins were scrambling just to be bowl-eligible.

Then came UCLA's shutout victory over a similarly depleted Oregon team.

"This season hasn't turned out the way we wanted it to, but this gives us hope," Davis said. "This gives us a chance."

Now a victory and a little help could make the Bruins the first team to reach the Rose Bowl with five losses.

"It's amazing," tailback Chris Markey said. "With the ups and downs, all the injuries, to know that we can still make it to the Rose Bowl, play in our home, is a wonderful feeling."

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gary.klein@latimes.com

chris.foster@latimes.com

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THE RIVALRY

USC (9-2, 6-2) vs. UCLA (6-5, 5-3)

Saturday at the Coliseum

1:30 p.m., Channel 7

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