By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006
Southern California is riding a Pacific-10-record 26-game conference winning streak, but the team that is looking more and more like the class of the league resides a few hundred miles north in Berkeley.
California has made vast improvements, most notably at quarterback, since a 17-point loss at Tennessee on Sept. 2. Since the loss, the Golden Bears have scored 40 or more points in five straight games, a team record.
None of their victories this season was more impressive than Saturday night's 45-24 triumph against then-No. 11 Oregon at Memorial Stadium. The Bears (5-1) intercepted Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon three times and showed why they were a popular top 10 choice in the preseason.
"I said this was probably the most athletic football team we will have played on both sides of the ball," Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti told reporters after the game. "They are physical up front and they did some really good things. Am I surprised by how well they played? Yes. It was not what I anticipated."
The Trojans, on the other hand, have not played like the nation's third-ranked team the past two weeks against Washington and Washington State. In two six-point victories, USC (5-0) needed last-second stops to remain undefeated.
The most drama occurred at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday, when Washington drove to the USC 15-yard line with two seconds remaining but failed to get a snap off before time ran out. USC's usually high-powered offense has been hampered in recent weeks by injuries to receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Chris McFoy. Sophomore Patrick Turner turned in an impressive effort Saturday by registering career highs in receptions (12) and receiving yards (116).
After the game, USC Coach Pete Carroll pinpointed the defense, which was expected to be the strength of the team, as one of the problems. "We are not getting any sacks," Carroll said. "We are not getting any turnovers. Those are major changes, and we need them and we're just not doing it. Until we make those things happen, games are going to be close."
Those areas had better improve by November, when the Trojans play three potent offenses (Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame) in consecutive weeks. The most difficult opponent could be the Golden Bears, who are one of only two teams to have beaten USC over the past 50 games (the other is Texas).
California's 34-31 triple-overtime victory in 2003 also marks the last time USC lost a conference game. The 2004 meeting between the teams was just as dramatic, as the Trojans stopped QB Aaron Rodgers from finding the end zone in the final moments of a six-point victory.
Last year's game at Memorial Stadium was expected to continue the trend, but Cal Coach Jeff Tedford did not have a capable quarterback to offset USC's Matt Leinart. Nate Longshore missed almost all of last season with an ankle injury.
Disappointment under center continued at the start of this season, when Longshore threw for only 85 yards at Tennessee. But he has been superb ever since, throwing for 17 touchdowns and four interceptions in the past five games. It also helps that Longshore has on his side a speedy playmaker like DeSean Jackson, who has 18 touchdowns in 17 college games.
As a result, California will once again have a legitimate chance to dethrone USC.
"The biggest difference in Cal's team from last year to this year is Nate Longshore," Bellotti said. "He is the missing ingredient that they did not have last year."Seven Overtimes
Saturday's most unusual game occurred in Denton, Tex., where North Texas won an NCAA record-tying seven-overtime game against Florida International.
Denis Hopovac's 34-yard field goal won the game for the Mean Green, which entered the game as the only Division I-A team that had never played an overtime game in the 10 years since the NCAA instituted the rule. Even more bizarre, Hopovac and Florida International place kicker Dustin Rivest each missed four field goals in overtime. Hopovac tied an NCAA record with nine field goal attempts in the game.
The other two seven-overtime games involved Arkansas -- against Mississippi in 2001 and Kentucky in 2003.Longhorns Roll
Texas won the Red River Shootout in convincing fashion in large part because of the play of cornerback Aaron Ross, who had two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
In the fourth quarter, Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson attempted to throw a lateral to running back Adrian Peterson, but the ball ricocheted off his hands. Ross returned the fumble three yards for a touchdown that helped give the Longhorns a commanding 28-10 advantage with just over 10 minutes to play.
Coaches "teach not to ever give up," Ross said. "I wasn't sure if that ball was going behind him or not, but I was going to let the ref make that call."
There are nine unbeaten teams, including three, West Virginia, Rutgers and Louisville, from the Big East, which last season was widely considered the worst conference among the six power leagues. . . . Georgia starting quarterback Joe Tereshinski, who returned from a sprained ankle against Tennessee, completed 7 of 9 passes in the first half. In the second half, he completed only 5 of 11 attempts and threw two interceptions, as the Volunteers scored 37 second-half points in a 51-33 blowout.