LOS ANGELES — When Taylor Mays elected to stay at Southern California for his final season, the All-American safety never thought he'd be hoping his senior day ended with a berth in the Holiday Bowl.
For the first time in eight years, the Bowl Championship Series is revving up without USC in the mix. For the first time in a half-decade, the Rose Bowl will have to go on without the Trojans.
Instead, No. 20 USC (8-3, 5-3 Pac-10) heads into an unusual season finale Saturday against Arizona (7-4, 5-3) simply hoping to salvage a trip to San Diego from what qualifies as a down year for coach Pete Carroll and his Trojans.
"No regrets. It's not somebody else's fault that we've lost," said Mays, who stayed behind while quarterback Mark Sanchez and a handful of star linebackers left the Trojans' fourth straight Rose Bowl team for the NFL last spring.
"I knew that I had a chance to keep getting better, and that's what I did," Mays said. "The season hasn't gone how we expected, but I'm not mad."
For just the second time this decade, the Trojans will finish a regular season against a team other than traditional rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. USC and Arizona moved their matchup to Dec. 5 to give both schools an extra bye week, but it meant upstaging the finality of the Trojans' crosstown showdown and the Wildcats' Territorial Cup win last weekend.
At least both teams still have strong motivation. USC needs a win to hold onto a face-saving share of second place in the Pac-10, which likely will mean a Holiday Bowl berth against a strong Big 12 team.
"I don't know about how this plays into where we're going, or what other eventual things could happen," Carroll said. "We won't be using that and talking about that at all. We don't need that kind of motivation. We need to go out and play one more great football game to get the season to a complete ending and do it in a fashion that we respect."
Injured tailback Stafon Johnson, who had 184 all-purpose yards against Arizona last season, is among 19 seniors who will be honored at the Coliseum, where USC once seemed unbeatable before last month's thrashing by Stanford. Arizona must do something similar to claim a share of second place and its first eight-win regular season since 1998.
Arizona coach Mike Stoops doesn't expect his team to be intimidated by the Trojans — not after playing them close in recent years while the Wildcats rose in the Pac-10 standings.
"Competing against USC, I think, tells you a lot about where you're at," Stoops said. "I think the maturity and consistency is what we all want in our program, and I think that's starting to show. I think our players reflect that over the last several years — or last couple, let me put it that way."
USC has lost to Arizona just six times in their 32 meetings, winning the past seven straight. Yet Stoops' brother, defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, anticipates an energy boost when his roster laden with California-born players returns home.
"It's going to be their last game of the season, especially playing at the Coliseum, so I don't think they're going to be that vulnerable," said Wildcats right guard Vaughn Dotsy, who's from Ventura. "They're still USC. They still have all the athletes they have. It's going to be a tough game, like any other game, but I think with the team we have this year, it's a good time to get them."
The outcome could hinge on which USC defense shows up to challenge Arizona quarterback Nick Foles and the offense that struggled against Arizona State. The Trojans allowed 102 total points in their blowout losses to Stanford and Oregon, yet just 122 in their other nine games combined, keeping them atop the Pac-10's scoring defense list.
USC tailback Joe McKnight is expected to play despite missing most of the week's practices with a bruised thigh. McKnight needs just 21 yards to become the Trojans' first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush and LenDale White in 2005.
But whether McKnight or Allen Bradford does most of the ball-carrying, the game is one last chance for improvement from the Trojans' struggling offense and quarterback Matt Barkley. The offensive line will attempt to keep Barkley away from Pac-10 sacks leader Ricky Elmore, but Barkley also needs improvement in his late-season swoon.
"If it was easy, everybody would be great," said sixth-year senior Jeff Byers, who is expected to move from center to left guard with Kristofer O'Dowd's return to the lineup. "If we do things right, we're really good. We're confident we can get that out of Matt and everybody on our team. This is a great opportunity to show what we can do."