Holiday Bowl may be the stakes for USC-Arizona

Everybody wants to talk about the ending of USC's 28-7 win over UCLA. In fact, 2,000 words of Pete Carroll's news conference Tuesday were about the Trojans' late 48-yard touchdown pass and the general nuances of sportsmanship.

Carroll yielded little under questioning. He believes in two things: 1. competition; 2. fun. He doesn't believe you can ever have too much of either, even if others wonder about when a compounding of them might push a team past the boundaries of decorum.

"We talked about it yesterday in the meetings about what can happen by showing the excitement," Carroll said. "I'll remind you that last year in the Rose Bowl the officials told us at halftime that if we continue to celebrate as much on the sidelines they were going to call a 15-yard penalty on us. I blew it because I wanted to make them call that penalty. I wish we would have done it so they would have called the penalty on us, so we could have gotten penalized for having too much fun. Because I don't understand that."

Oh, by the way, USC plays host to Arizona on Saturday in a game that will play a big role in deciding the Pac-10's bowl pecking order. The winner likely has the inside track to the Holiday Bowl.

Both teams had bigger goals a few weeks ago, but both are coming off of hard-fought victories in rivalry games, so the glass feels half-full, particularly for Arizona (7-4, 5-3).

"I think we seemed like we were in a better place last night [at practice] than we were a week ago," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops, whose team two weeks ago was knocked out of the Rose Bowl race when it lost a double-overtime thriller to Oregon.

USC (8-3, 5-3) didn't look particularly good while beating the Bruins. While the defense played fairly well against one of the Pac-10's worst offenses, the offense was mostly stagnant.

At least until the end, and we're not talking about Matt Barkley's bomb to Damian Williams that nearly ignited a riot.

The best moments for USC came before that. After the Bruins cut the margin to 14-7 in the fourth quarter, Barkley and company drove 73 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. It was the evening's best drive. Barkley completed 4 of 5 passes for 43 yards, and Allen Bradford ran four times for 30 yards.

Then the defense forced a four-and-out, which appeared to end the game's drama until emotions ran high at the end.

Still, Stoops found himself in the unusual position of seeming to have to build up the Trojans as an opponent.

"They look like USC to me when I watch them play," he said. "I think they're starting to get comfortable and get their confidence and their swagger back, so they present some huge problems defensively with their personnel."

Stoops' high-powered offense hit the skids in the second half at Arizona State. Injuries, as they have been all season, are an issue. Starting tailback Nic Grigsby won't play again Saturday because of a lingering shoulder injury, while quarterback Nick Foles is trying to play with a broken non-throwing hand.

USC knows all about injury woes, but it's as healthy as it has been all season. Williams and tight end Anthony McCoy, whose absences substantially hurt the passing game, figure to be closer to 100 percent this week than they were against UCLA, and preseason All-American center Kristofer O'Dowd will be back in the starting lineup after he lost his job for much of the year due to a lingering knee problem.

Still, Arizona typically gives the Trojans problems. USC has won the past two games by a touchdown and it hasn't scored more than 20 points against the Wildcats' defense since 2005.

"We've always struggled with these guys," Carroll said. "They've been a very difficult scheme against us, and we know it's going to be very hard again."

The stakes are still substantial, in large part because the winner continues to feel good in a season when that wasn't always the case.

As Carroll vaguely alluded, "Kind of feeling good feeling about getting back on track after the two weeks, you know, prior."