Inside their team meeting room, Cal's triumphant charges celebrated their 26-16 victory over Oregon by belting out the traditional "Bear territory" chant with unusual gusto. On the other side of the wall, their fans were exiting Memorial Stadium chanting a different tune:
As tedious as Saturday's rain-tortured, turnover-laden game was, it was forgotten just that quickly. For its next act, Cal heads to USC where, for the third time in five seasons, it will play a game worthy of just about whatever significance you care to infer upon it.
"We talked about it (Friday) night," coach Jeff Tedford said. "The games you remember are the games in November — if you're fortunate enough to be in a position where it means something. Today was a big win for us, and next week we'll prepare hard to go play the team everyone is shooting for in this conference."
That Tedford would acknowledge the next game as his players were still peeling off their water-logged uniforms from the last game was telling. Like most football coaches, he is loath to discuss 3 o'clock before the 2 o'clock hour has run its course.
But when someone asked if he would try to convince his players that traveling to USC to play for the Pac-10 lead constitutes just another game, he didn't hesitate.
"They wouldn't buy that," he said. "It's a different environment, probably the most electric place we've played. The year we went down there with Aaron (Rodgers) was electric. It was a great experience."
Saturday's win improved Cal's conference record to 4-1. USC, with its riotously easy win over Washington on Saturday, is 5-1. Oregon State (4-1 after beating Arizona State on Saturday night), is in the hunt as well.
But while Cal and Oregon State are in USC's conference, they aren't in USC's league. The Trojans have won five consecutive Pac-10 titles. Oregon State has never won one outright. Cal's conference championship drought stands at 49 years.
Saturday will be the Bears' next best chance to change that.
"It's definitely going to be a big game," linebacker Mike Mohamed said. "They've got one loss in conference, we've got one loss. The Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl are up for grabs."
A quick review of the two other times a Tedford-led Cal team had this opportunity:
In 2004, No. 7 Cal trailed No. 1 USC 23-17, late in the game. Rodgers, who completed his first 23 passes, led the Bears to a first down at the USC 9-yard line with less than two minutes left. His fourth-down pass missed a diving Geoff McArthur in the end zone. USC went on to capture the national championship. Cal, denied a Rose Bowl berth by the BCS, settled for the Holiday Bowl.
In 2006, No. 17 Cal led No. 4 USC at halftime, 9-6. But the Bears wore down in the second half and lost, 23-9. USC went on to win the national championship. Cal settled for the Holiday Bowl.
How does the re-rematch stack up? Cal's revolving door at quarterback has taken another turn. Saturday's starter Kevin Riley was knocked out of the game with a concussion late in the first quarter. Nate Longshore came off the bench to successfully manage Cal to victory.
Tedford was noncommittal when asked who would start against USC (Riley would have to be cleared to play). But neither quarterback has enjoyed the kind of sustained excellence that portends well for a game of this magnitude.
Whereas Cal's 3-4 defense did an impressive job slowing down Oregon's run-happy spread offense. The Bears, in their all-gold uniforms, were active and aggressive on a saturated field.
"We called ourselves the buzzing bees," Mohamed said, somewhat sheepishly.
Injuries have thinned the herd on both lines. Cal's special teams are sound. All things considered, this seems as good a time as any for the team to take another whack at fulfilling what the chanting Old Blues consider their historical imperative.
"We look forward to going down there and giving it our best shot," Tedford said.
Because you never know when this kind of opportunity will come again. Or if.
Contact Gary Peterson at email@example.com.