California has three games left to earn its first Rose Bowl appearance in 48 years.
Even as the biggest game of that stretch approaches, though, the eighth-ranked Golden Bears insist their focus is on Saturday’s Pac-10 road matchup with Arizona.
Cal (8-1), which is 6-0 in conference play for the first time since going 7-0 in 1950, has a one-game lead on USC. Those teams meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Nov. 18, a game that will likely decide whether the Bears play in their first Rose Bowl since losing 38-12 to Iowa on Jan. 1, 1959.
To give itself that chance, Cal must first avoid a letdown against the Wildcats (4-5, 2-4).
“I think our guys are mature enough to understand that they need to prepare each and every day, each and every game,” said Jeff Tedford, in his fifth year as Bears coach.
Cal struggled on defense but showed off its dynamic offense in a 38-24 win over UCLA on Saturday night.
Marshawn Lynch caught one of Nate Longshore’s three touchdown passes and ran for another score as Cal won its eighth in a row and moved closer to its first conference title since 1975. Robert Jordan added two touchdown catches and DeSean Jackson went 72 yards for his school-record fourth touchdown punt return.
Three running backs and six receivers have at least one touchdown for the Bears.
“Tucson. Tucson. That’s all we’re thinking about,” Longshore said of this week’s contest.
Lynch leads the Pac-10 and is tied for seventh in the nation with 13 touchdowns (nine rushing, four receiving). He needs 12 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the third straight season.
Cal is averaging 36.3 points per game.
While the offense is rolling along, the Bears defense has had problems all season, allowing 20 points or more in five contests.
Cornerback Daymeion Hughes has been one of the bright spots on the unit. He’s tied for first in the nation with eight interceptions and is one of 11 semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation’s best defensive back.
With three games remaining, Arizona is holding onto slim hopes of making its first bowl appearance since 1998. The Wildcats’ remaining schedule, though, is difficult.
After Saturday’s game, Arizona visits No. 21 Oregon before returning home to face Arizona State. The Wildcats’ three remaining opponents have a combined 20-7 record.
“What do we have to lose?” coach Mike Stoops said. “I like our position.
“I think our guys are going to be excited to play. We are playing two Top 25 teams and then Arizona State. What can’t you get up for?”
Arizona looked prepared last week to battle tough competition as it chases a bowl berth. Quarterback Willie Tuitama returned after missing two games because of a concussion and completed 10 of 17 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown in a 27-17 upset of then-No. 25 Washington State.
With two wins in its last three games and its starting quarterback healthy, the Wildcats are feeling much better about themselves.
Arizona must win two of its last three to become bowl-eligible, and may need to sweep all three to assure itself of a bid.
“Our season has not gone as planned, but our goal is to win out,” Wildcats linebacker Ronnie Palmer said. “We all want to go to a bowl game for the seniors and to make a name for ourselves.”
Arizona’s biggest obstacle will be California. The Wildcats lost 28-0 to the Bears last season and 38-0 in 2004.
“We have not been very productive in the red zone and our scoring opportunities when we have played them,” Stoops said. “We need to turn that around in this game.”
Cal leads the series 12-11-2.