Trojans meet Boston College in Emerald Bowl

SAN FRANCISCO Instead the Trojans spent the holidays a few hundred miles north, where they will take on Boston College in the Emerald Bowl on Saturday night while the BCS championship will be held in their backyard at the Rose Bowl.

For a school that has known nothing but Bowl Championship Series games the past seven seasons and always has its sights on playing for a national championship, this could be seen as a letdown.

"People have been asking me the past couple of years if we were disappointed to play in the Rose Bowl, and I never understood that," coach Pete Carroll said. "Our players like to work out; they love to play games. I can guarantee you that they're going to play this game like it's the national championship game."

USC (8-4) has played in four straight Rose Bowls, including the last three years when the national championship was decided at the other BCS sites and the trip to Pasadena was seen by some as a consolation prize.

With the championship being held at the Rose Bowl this season for the first time since the Trojans lost to Texas four years ago, they were hoping to stay home again come bowl season.

That looked to be a real possibility early in the season after USC won at Ohio State behind freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. But then came a loss at Washington, blowouts to Oregon and Stanford and a season-ending loss at home to Arizona that dropped the Trojans into a tie for fifth place in the conference and into the Emerald Bowl against Boston College (8-4).

"When we started losing some games we knew we were going to be in a different setting than we'd been in. When it came up that we'd get to go to the Emerald Bowl and San Francisco, that was really exciting," said Carroll, who was born here and spent much of his life in the Bay Area.

The Trojans could be without star running back Joe McKnight, who didn't arrive in San Francisco until Wednesday night because of an investigation into whether he violated rules by using an SUV that doesn't belong to him.

This bowl experience is very different for the Trojans, who were able to sleep in their own beds, practice on their own field and go through their usual routines when their bowl trip consisted of a bus ride to Pasadena.

"Normally, this whole process is in L.A. and it's real familiar to us," senior safety Taylor Mays said. "It's the first time we've really been away - having to go to an away hotel, practicing away, being in a different city than we're accustomed to. I don't know where I'm going here, so I'm going to follow whatever coach P.C. does."

While Carroll took the team to a pair of Orange Bowls and a Las Vegas Bowl early in his tenure at USC, there's only one player on the entire roster who has experienced a bowl game away from campus.

Sixth-year senior offensive lineman Jeff Byers was a freshman when the Trojans went to the Orange Bowl and beat Oklahoma to win the 2004 national championship. Every other year he's been at USC has ended with a Rose Bowl bid.

"Disneyland is great and stuff but we've all been living in L.A. and you always go to Disneyland," Byers said. "It's still really special to play in the Rose Bowl, but it's in our backyard, which takes some of the glamour away from the bowl game. So the team is really excited to be here in San Francisco. It's a change of scenery.

"It's not necessarily what we wanted. We'd love to be back at the Rose Bowl this year stuck in L.A. But you have to make the most of your situation."

The opportunity to play in the Emerald Bowl against a heralded opponent like USC is a major accomplishment for Boston College (8-4), which was picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic division following a difficult offseason.

The turmoil began when coach Jeff Jagodzinski was fired for interviewing for the New York Jets opening and replaced by longtime assistant Frank Spaziani.

Then came the shocking news in May that reigning ACC defensive player of the year Mark Herzlich had been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Herzlich hopes to return to the field next season, but has served as an inspiration to his teammates this year.

Then led by a 25-year-old freshman quarterback, Dave Shinskie, who had spent his time since high school pitching in the minors, the Eagles got blown out in their ACC opener before recovering to earn their 11th straight bowl bid.

"The fact that we won games surprised a lot of people," center Matt Tennant said. "We lost guys to the NFL. Mark was diagnosed with cancer. We went through the coaching change. A lot of things happened to us but we stuck together."

And the reward is a matchup against one of college football's most storied programs.

"You can't really set the stage any better," linebacker Mike McLaughlin said. "This is my fifth year and the last college football game I'll be playing. It doesn't get any better. When you talk about the mecca of college football, USC is that. We're preparing like we're playing the New England Patriots."

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