The clash between the two best teams in the Pac-10 since 2002 resumes Saturday. Cal clipped the Trojans in 2003, and has played several close games against USC since, even at the Coliseum. Pete Carroll's biggest win at home over Cal came two seasons ago when SC won 23-9, but trailed going into the fourth quarter. The Bears have had a knack for running the ball successfully against USC, and they have managed to stifle the big plays from the Trojan receivers for the most part. Can they do it again? If USC does not win this game, they will not win the Pac-10. Here's a look at the match-up.
Cal Offense vs. USC Defense
Jeff Tedford had some early success against Pete Carroll's defenses, scoring 62 points in their first two meetings. The road has been tougher since. In the last four contests, the Bears have produced similar offensive outputs, but haven't put the points on the board, averaging about 13 points per game. To have a chance, they must improve upon that. Really, it starts with the passing game.
Joseph Ayoob was terrible in 2005, and Nate Longshore has not been much better. In the past two games against SC, he has completed 30 of 67 passes for 375 yards, two TDs, and four INTs. He was not sacked much, but he took a beating in both games, and his accuracy suffered. He could wind up the starter due to a concussion to Kevin Riley, although Riley practiced Wednesday. I suspect Riley will be ready to go Saturday, and will start.
The difference between the two: Riley is a better athlete and has a better arm, Longshore is a more accurate passer. But after experimenting with Longshore as the starter in October, Tedford went back to Riley after a loss to Arizona, when the Cats blitzed Longshore into oblivion, and he was completely ineffective. That's why I think we'll see Riley.
The Bears have two regular sets: a conventional two back I set, and a shotgun three to four wide set with a back flanking the QB. With Riley back there, they will run the QB draw or the occasional read option. Still, Riley is not the kind of runner who will get a lot of designed carries, and the Bears will probably want to protect him some from a brutal SC defense.
The Bears are a zone run team who will sometimes run some man power looks. They have two excellent backs in Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen, a tandem that is very similar to the Marshawn Lynch/Justin Forsett duo of a couple of years ago. Best is not as physical as Lynch, but he is much faster and is also excellent as a receiver. Vereen and Forsett are like clones. As a result, the Bears are a force to be reckoned with on the ground.
The passing game just has not been as efficient as in past years. Cal's completion percentage is down five points from last season. Some of that comes from Riley being more likely to throw the deeper routes, but some of it has just been not hitting receivers. I think the constant fluidity of who the starter is has had an effect. No one has been able to get into a groove.
The scheme is still the same. Year in and year out, the Bears give up less than 20 sacks in a season. That's because they move the release point in the pocket around, and because most of their offense is a one read and throw offense, and often the read comes pre snap. They don't throw deep much, preferring intermediate routes. Carroll's adjustment came a couple of season ago. He does more disguising of the defense against Cal, which sometimes causes the pre snap read to be wrong. The Trojans continue to play the run straight up without safety help, and they also keep the CBs back and give up the short pass, forcing Cal to be methodical. But since Aaron Rodgers left Berkeley, the Trojans do more blitzing against the Bears because Longshore gets jumpy. It will be interesting to see if they do the same against a more mobile Riley. I suspect that they will.
Cal Defense vs. USC Offense
The Bears have converted to a 3-4 defense this year, but in a lot of ways, it's basically the same as the defense they've played the last couple of seasons. The weakside linebacker still lines up outside, way outside if there is a slot receiver. The other outside linebacker is basically a stand up guy who plays where a 4-3 end would. Cal rotates a lot of defensive linemen in and out to keep fresh, but stick with a core of linebackers in Mohammed, Felder, Williams, and Follett. They do more blitzing than they have in past seasons, but not a lot. Generally when they do blitz, they bring an outside linebackerwith a corner outside of him and try to flood the tackle.
The defense is much better than it was last year. They have beefed up their efforts against the run, and they've done a great job of forcing turnovers, particularly interceptions with 17. They done a good job of being disciplined. When they've struggled, the opposing team has run the ball well. They were awful against the run in the first half against Maryland and in the second half against Arizona, and that's why they have two losses.
In the past, Cal has done a great job against some explosive SC offenses. The Bears have neutralized the USC running game, and have forced the Trojan passing game to be patient. I suspect it will be similar this season. Still, the Trojans should stick with the running game, and they shouldn't be afraid to take their shots down the field. USC faced a similar defense in style and discipline in Arizona a couple of weeks ago. That didn't go well because the Trojans continually shot themselves in the foot. Cal will count on the Trojans self destructing on drives to keep the score down, because they can't match SC talentwise. The question will be whether USC can be efficient and cut down the penalties and mental errors.
From watching the Bears the last couple of weeks, their offense has dropped off considerably. Except fpr the bloodbath against the Cougs, they just have not got the job done. They were brutal against Arizona State. They imploded in the second half against the Wildcats. The defense score 14 points in the 41 point outburst against UCLA, and the weather rendered the Cal offense ineffective against Oregon last weekend. I doubt that Cal will have an epiphany this week and play well against the best defense in the land. They may have some success on the ground, but their passing game is the stumbling block, no matter who the QB has been. Unless Cal can turn the game into a staggering defensive struggle as UCLA did in 2006, the QB will have to play well to win.
I think USC will get after Riley, who I expect to play, and that will force some mistakes. There will be no torrential rain storm to augment the running game for either team as there was last year. The weather will be perfect. This is where the lack of accuracy this season kills the Bears. To extend drives, they have to convert third downs against SC. This has been a problem all season for Cal. They have only converted 31% of their third downs this season, and most of that has to do with poor execution by the QB on that down, along with a receiving corps that has been subpar this season. Cal's top wide receiver, Florida transfer Nyan Boateng, has only 19 catches in eight games. By contrast, Damian Williams has 30, and Stanley Havili has 18. I expect Cal to struggle against the Trojan defense.
So that leaves the onus on the offense to execute. They have been spotty this season, burying non-conference opponents, but only being good every other week in conference play. That doesn't bode well for them this week, as they scored 56 last week.
I like SC's chances though to perform well in this game. In November, this team has been very good under Carroll, and I think the USC defense will put the Trojan offense in good spots to succeed. I don't think this will be one of those games where the Trojans do whatever they want to on offense, as the Virginia, Oregon, WSU, and Washington games were. There will be some ugly spots along the way here. But I think this will be one of those games where the defense puts the team on its back, forcing turnovers and getting the Bears off the field to give SC good field position. Cal has been horrible on special teams in the coverage game, and I think that will play to SC's advantage as well.
Mark Sanchez has had it drilled into his head the last couple of weeks that he needs to take what the defense gives him. This game will be a test of that mentality because the Bears don't give you much of the deep stuff. I think Sanchez has played well this season, and has made adjustments when asked to. Against Washington, he managed to be more patient, and I think that will carry over this week. USC won't run for 239 yards, as they did last year. But 165 will be enough to turn the screws on the Bears, and I think that numbers is doable.
One more factor is that the Bears really have not been good on the road. After hammering an awful WSU team in Pullman, Cal lost to a mediocre Maryland team on the road after a horrendous start, and they fell apart in Tucson three weeks ago. The Bears are 1-6 in their last seven on the road, and are 2-7 on the road in their last nine Pac-10 games. They're 2-8 against the spread on the road in their last ten. I see no reason, with the way the Bears are playing now, for that to end.
Cal will have some success on the ground, but they won't be able to sustain it. Their inability to complete passes will force a lot of punts, and the Trojans will get a couple of INTs. USC's offense will have an up and down game with a couple of three and outs and not many big plays, but they will benefit from winning field position battle, and Sanchez will continue the maturation process with a solid and patient game. USC will win the game on the strength of their defense, running game, and short passing game.