LOS ANGELES -- If the last three weeks of the regular season are indeed a beauty pageant, when simply winning isn't enough to guarantee a team a spot in the BCS National Championship Game, then No. 4 Southern California went from Ugly Betty to USC Song Girl in less than five minutes on Saturday night.
The Trojans, who won two national titles and lost a third to Texas in the previous three seasons, are once again in position to play in the BCS title game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz. After No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan 42-39 on Saturday, USC could climb into the No. 2 spot vacated by the Wolverines in the BCS standings.
But first the Trojans had to beat No. 17 California at the Coliseum and that, like so many of their games this season, didn't come easy.
USC trailed the Bears at halftime and were tied 9-9 going into the fourth quarter. After Dwayne Jarrett put the Trojans ahead 16-9 with a brilliant 25-yard touchdown catch with 13:01 to go, in which he somehow held onto the football despite being in the middle of a violent collision between safeties Bernard Hicks and Thomas DeCoud, USC knew it wasn't enough.
So after the Bears punted on their next possession, USC coach Pete Carroll called timeout when his team faced fourth-and-2 at the Cal 37. With 8½ minutes to play, quarterback John David Booty took the snap and, to the surprise of many in the sold-out crowd of 91,672, he dropped back to pass. Booty first looked to the right flat for fullback Thomas Williams, who was covered, so then Booty checked down to see if a receiver was open on a short hook pattern.
Finally, with California's defense bearing down on him, Booty looked for his third and final option: flanker Steve Smith. Smith had bluffed a block coming off the line of scrimmage, causing cornerback Daymeion Hughes to get caught in traffic. By the time Hughes got free, Smith was running alone down the right sideline.
"He got out the back door and walked in," Booty said. "I was totally surprised. He was actually the third read in the progression, so it took a while for me to get to him. When I saw him, I said, 'Oh, God, just don't overthrow him.'"
Booty didn't and the Trojans held on for a 23-9 victory, their 32nd consecutive home win. With USC's unprecedented fifth straight Pac-10 Conference title, it is guaranteed a spot in at least the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl. But after previously unbeaten Michigan and Rutgers each lost on Saturday, the Trojans might find the back door to yet another chance at a national championship game.
"We're holding the key to our destiny," USC linebacker Oscar Lua said. "We've just got to keep fighting and keep doing what we're doing. The BCS really doesn't mean anything to us. All it can do is be a distraction at this point. It's like a playoff we're in now. We've got to win out to get to that championship game."
Next up for the Trojans is No. 6 Notre Dame, a 41-9 winner over Army on Saturday, followed by crosstown rival UCLA on Dec. 2. The Fighting Irish are No. 5 in the BCS standings, right behind No. 3 USC and No. 4 Florida, and remains in contention for a spot in the BCS title game. USC won at Notre Dame 34-31 last season, after tailback Reggie Bush helped push quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with three seconds left.
"Notre Dame is always a big game here," Booty said. "The BCS doesn't change anything, at least not for me."
USC seemed out of the national championship race following their stunning 33-31 loss at Oregon State on Oct. 28, which ended USC's 27-game winning streak against Pac-10 opponents. The Trojans fell from third to eighth in the BCS standings after that loss, but then four teams ahead of them in the rankings -- West Virginia, Louisville, Auburn and Texas -- each lost during the next two weeks.
Now that the Wolverines and Scarlet Knights have lost, too, the Trojans didn't seem too concerned about their slow start against the Bears, who missed an opportunity to secure its first Rose Bowl trip since 1958.
"A win is a win is a win," USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson said. "That's a pretty good team. There was a lot riding on this game. You can't expect to blow out a good team like that."
But when you're the University of Still Contending, voters and computers will dissect every team's warts. And the Trojans had plenty of them on Saturday night. They allowed a safety, had a touchdown pass nullified by a false start penalty (one of 10 flags against them in the game) and the game would have been closer if two Cal touchdowns hadn't been overturned by instant replay.
But USC's defense grew sharp teeth the last three games, allowing only two touchdowns in the last 13 quarters. The Trojans limited Cal's high-octane offense to only 275 yards in the game and no points in the second half. Tailback Marshawn Lynch was held to 88 yards on 20 carries, and quarterback Nate Longshore threw two interceptions and was sacked once.
"They stacked the box," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "They played a lot of guys in there and they have great players. You're not going to break a lot of runs. They've grown a lot over the year and are hitting their stride."
USC's offense seems to be hitting its stride, too. Freshman tailback C.J. Gable ran 19 times for 91 yards and had a 35-yard receptions, and Smith and Jarrett combined for 11 catches.
"If we were going to go down, we were going to go down swinging," USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. "We had to get the ball to Dwayne and Steve."
It was certainly better than the Trojans' start. They sputtered throughout the first half and looked like anything but the second-best team in the country, let alone its state. USC drove deep into Cal territory twice during the first two quarters, but again was foiled by red-zone problems.
On its first possession, USC had first and goal at the Bears 10. On first down, Booty threw to the right side for Jarrett, who bobbled the pass as he tried to bring it into his body. The football was stripped by DeCoud, and linebacker Mickey Pimentel scooped it up and ran down the left sideline for an apparent 82-yard touchdown. But officials ruled the pass incomplete, and their call was validated by instant replay.
USC tailback Chauncey Washington ran for six yards on second down, and then Smith caught a pass on a crossing pattern on third and goal from the 4. But Smith was stopped by safety Bernard Hicks for only a two-yard gain, and the Trojans settled for Mario Danelo's 19-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
The Bears seemed to be driving for the go-ahead touchdown on their next possession, but Longshore overthrew DeSean Jackson badly on a deep route, and the pass was intercepted by safety Taylor Mays at the USC 3. On the next play, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane blasted through the line and stuffed Washington for a safety, cutting the Trojans' lead to 3-2.
In the second quarter, after the Trojans stopped a Cal scoring threat when Jackson sacked Longshore and caused him to fumble inside the USC 30, they again drove inside the Bears' 20. On first-and-10 from the 11, Booty's pass was batted down. Freshman tailback Gable was stuffed for a four-yard loss on second down, and then Booty misfired to Smith in the end zone. Danelo kicked a 32-yard field goal to make it 6-2 with 5:56 to go in the first half.
The Bears went ahead 9-6 late in the half with a six-play, 73-yard drive that barely took more than two minutes. Longshore completed passes of 36 yards to Jackson and 29 to Robert Jordan on consecutive plays, then threw a six-yard touchdown to Lavelle Hawkins on third-and-goal. Tom Schneider's extra-point kick gave the Bears a 9-6 lead, which they took into halftime.
"We weren't concerned at all," said Booty, who completed 18 of 31 passes for 238 yards with two touchdowns, no sacks and no interceptions. "They weren't really stopping us. We had a couple of mistakes and a couple of balls I should have thrown better, but we knew once we put it together, we would really start moving the ball."
USC finally put it together in the fourth quarter to put away the Bears.
"We're Trojans," Carroll said. "We do what we do, that's what we are about. To finish like that in the fourth quarter, that was just an awesome finish."
Two more wins and the Trojans just might finish the season in Glendale.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.