from tucson — Exotic location, chilly winds, clanging scoreboard. If it looks like a bowl game and feels like a bowl game …
Well, why not? A week after college football's bowl-banned team would have become bowl-eligible, USC acted as if it was going to treat the rest of its season like one long New Year's afternoon, complete with parades and floats, everything but the roses.
On Saturday night, it was all about the thorns, USC storming through the desert and scaling a prickly roadblock to win what felt like a Cactus Bowl, a 24-21 victory over the18th-ranked Arizona Wildcats.
"Our heart is still here, our passion is still here, we're playing this out not only for the future, but for right now," said quarterback Matt Barkley, his jaw clenched long after his passes popped.
Seriously, why not? If these kids can't play in an official bowl game even though some were in junior high when Reggie Bush once roamed the Trojan earth, why not play in four unofficial bowl games?
"We want to finish strong," Coach Lane Kiffin said after his first victory over a ranked team on the road, and this was certainly a good start.
You love those parades? How about the Trojans running game, facing the nation's 10th-ranked rushing defense, marching downfield for 205 yards, double what the Wildcats usually give up?
If you've been waiting for Marc Tyler to fight off his leg injuries and grow up into a true Trojans running back, this was the game, as he bounced and battled for a career-best 160 yards and a touchdown, including 53 painful yards in the fourth quarter.
Painful as in, well, listen to him afterward.
"I'm dying," he said with only a tiny grin, standing outside the Trojans' bus. "I want to go home."
But during the game, he wanted to stay on the field, carrying the ball 31 times despite barely being able to walk for some of them.
"He would limp off, come back in, limp off, come back," Barkley said. "He stood tall."
Do you also love those funny floats? How about the field-goal team executing a fourth-down play for a first down in the second quarter, Mitch Mustain hitting Jordan Cameron on a seven-yard pass deep in Arizona territory to lead to the third Trojans touchdown?
"We've haven't turned a corner," Barkley said. "We're heading down the straightaway."
Afterward, it even looked like a bowl game with many players leaving the locker room and returning to a corner of the Arizona Stadium field to clap and chant and dance to a small, screaming group of Trojans fans and the swaying Trojans band.
The fist pumping leader of this cheering group was struggling kicker Joe Houston. He finally improved his average to .500, floating in a 30-yard kick in the third quarter to give the Trojans a 10-point lead they didn't lose. You go, Joe.
"I told these guys, if you go on the road, you better back your running back and your defense, and we did," Kiffin said.
The s-l-o-w-l-y improving defense gave up 404 yards, but was bowl worthy because it came up with two big fumbles that warmed the night.
In the first quarter, with the Wildcats trying to start a drive, Shareece Wright nailed quarterback Nick Foles from his blind side, forcing a fumble that DaJohn Harris recovered at the Arizona 22. Three plays later, the Trojans scored.
"Things are starting to click," linebacker Michael Morgan said.
Then, early in the third quarter, with the Wildcats trying to finish off a drive, Malcolm Smith forced the ball from receiver David Douglas, with Wright recovering at the USC 15. This led to Houston's eventual clinching field goal.
The Trojans improved to 7-3, and could now reasonably finish 10-3, one game better than Pete Carroll's last season, which raises an obvious question. Who would have thought that a team going nowhere could go further than a team that could go anywhere?
Much credit goes to Kiffin, who is building them into a team with a conscience and a clue. He has turned a lost year into found promise, fashioning a group that plays increasingly smart, increasingly careful and always hard.
On nights like these, one thinks about the possibilities of next year. One thinks that, with this powerful offense and growing defense, with two of this year's three losses coming on last-second field goals, the Trojans could actually challenge for a national championship next season.
Then one realizes, oh yeah, for now, they will still be on probation.
USC has appealed the second season of penalties, with an NCAA decision expected in January. But since a change in the bylaws in January 2008, only one in 11 appeals has been successful.
On that date, the NCAA changed its rules to read that appeals are only upheld if "the penalty is excessive such that it constitutes an abuse of discretion" by the NCAA Committee on Infractions.
Nah, I don't think they have a chance either. So for now, the bowl beggars can't be choosers.
Next up, next week in Corvallis, Ore., the Beaver Bowl.
Well, why not?