USC and its legion of fans head north for another 'Big Weekend' in the Bay Area, where the Bears and Best await.
The consensus No. 7 USC Trojans (3-1, 1-1 in the Pac-10) continue their 2009 conference schedule on Saturday, October 3, against the California Golden Bears (3-1, 0-1), ranked No. 19 in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 24 by the Associated Press, at 5 p.m. (PDT) in Berkeley's Memorial Stadium and in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the 97th meeting between the schools (the Trojans' most against any opponent), with USC leading the series, 61-30-5. A season ago, USC's defense throttled the Golden Bears in a 17-3 Trojan victory at the Coliseum - Troy's fifth consecutive victory over Cal. USC's last visit to Berkeley, in 2007, featured a rain-soaked 96-yard fourth-quarter TD drive that led to a 24-17 Trojan victory.
A week ago, the Trojans jumped to an early 20-0 lead before again stumbling offensively on their way to a 27-6 victory against overmatched Washington State. True freshman quarterback Matt Barkley returned to the lineup and threw a pair of beautiful first-quarter touchdown passes to Brice Butler and Damian Williams, while the Trojan defense was again outstanding, notching eight sacks. Meanwhile, then-No. 6 Cal was stunned and destroyed, 42-3, at Oregon. After averaging more than 48 points per game in three victories, the Bears managed only a field goal (on their first drive, following an Oregon fumble) and were outgained - 524 yards to 207 - by the Ducks.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (91-16 overall, 59-11 in the Pac-10), having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, California headman Jeff Tedford (62-31, 36-24 Pac-10) is in his eighth season in Strawberry Canyon. Though he's taken Cal from league doormat to an annual player in the national discussion, the Bears have yet to get over the hump and earn a major bowl bid during his tenure.
One reason for that is the type of loss Cal suffered a week ago in Oregon. A bigger reason has been the Bears' inability to recover from such games in recent seasons. One problem Tedford hasn't solved in Berkeley is how to keep his team from spiraling out of control following an unexpected defeat. Two years ago, Cal was just minutes away from earning the No. 1 national ranking for the first time in more than 50 years before Oregon State upset them in Berkeley. The Bears' response to that tough loss? Losing five of their next seven games. If Cal is to change its ways in 2009, it must start this Saturday against the Trojans.
California Offense When new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig left Utah for the hills of Berkeley earlier this year, he knew he was inheriting a group led by possibly the nation's top running back, Jahvid Best. And with Tedford's quarterback track record during his days as an assistant and early in his reign at Cal, Ludwig had to also figure he was going to encounter an excellent stable of quarterbacks. He had to like what he saw in Kevin Riley's fast start in 2009, as the junior completed 64 percent of his passes, with five TDs and no interceptions in the Bears' 3-0 start. However, a week ago in Eugene, when the Ducks bottled up Best, Riley struggled immeasurably. As most insiders know, the way to beat Cal since the departure of Aaron Rodgers has been to slow their rushing attack and force the Bears' questionable quarterback (whether Joseph Ayoob, Nate Longshore or Riley) to beat you. The Cal offense did nothing to change that conventional wisdom last Saturday.
The good news for the Bears, still, is that Best remains a home run threat on every play. The Heisman candidate - even after putting up just 55 yards in 16 carries at Oregon - is averaging 117 yards per game and has scored nine touchdowns (including one as a receiver). He was very special two weeks ago in Minnesota, where he scored five times and almost single-handedly helped the Bears escape a game that was deadlocked entering the fourth quarter. He is the key to Cal's 418-yard and 37-point averages thus far. Cal also has sophomore Shane Vereen as a very capable backup. He's got five scores of his own (one receiving), is averaging 4 yards per carry and has been a big-time threat as a kick returner. As usual, Cal's fullback position rarely carries the ball, but senior Brian Holley is a capable and physical blocker and not bad as a rare pass catcher.
Cal's underachieving receiver corps has not helped out Riley and the offense as much as the staff would like. Senior Verran Tucker is the deep threat and nominal leader (nine catches, 22.1 yards per), but his inconsistency in route running and his tendency to drop the ball now and again have made him suspect for a No. 1 option. Sophomore Marvin Jones has eight grabs, and has been solid but unspectacular. Junior Jeremy Ross had a couple of big catches down the stretch at Minnesota, but was held to just eight yards on three catches at Oregon. The Bears also like to get their tight ends involved, but sophomore Anthony Miller has been so-so thus far.
The Golden Bear offensive line is a mix of experience and youth. Before being overmatched by Oregon's frenetic defensive attack (77 rushing yards, five sacks allowed), this group had played fairly well. Last Saturday, however, Oregon's speed off the edges exposed a potential Cal weakness. Senior Mike Tepper is back at left tackle after missing 2008 with a torn pectoral muscle. Junior Chris Guarnero has done well replacing all-conference center Alex Mack. Redshirt freshman Matt Summers-Gavin (LG) and sophomore Justin Cheadle (RG) beat out returning starters Mark Boskovich and Chet Teofilo at the guard spots, and have held on to those jobs. Big things are expected from sophomore Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle.
California Defense Speaking of big expectations, Bob Gregory's Cal defense was expected to perhaps supplant USC as the conference's top unit, what with the entire defensive front (in a 3-4 set) and secondary returning, plus two key playmakers at linebacker. However, after allowing 63 points in its past two games - and an unfathomable 524 yards to what had been a struggling Oregon offense - this group is once again looking for its identity. What Cal does clearly do well is put pressure on quarterbacks (14 sacks), cause turnovers (10 in four games, with a +1.8 per game margin) and get in opponents' backfields (34 tackles for loss [TFL]).
Up front, the Bears have an excellent six-man rotation for the three line spots. Experienced starters Tyson Alualu, a senior end, and juniors Derrick Hill (nose guard) and Cameron Jordan have combined for 40 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Alualu, a rare bright spot for the Bears a week ago, is third on the team with 22 stops and leads Cal with 3.5 sacks. Behind this group is a youthful rotation that Cal is unafraid to throw into the fire. Sophomore ends Trevor Guyton and Ernest Owusu see plenty of snaps, as does redshirt freshman guard Kendrick Payne.
As usual, the Bears have a very athletic group of linebackers, led by sophomore inside backer Mychal Kendricks and junior outsider Mike Mohamed. Kendricks leads the Pac-10 in tackles, averaging nearly 10 per game, while Mohamed adds two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble to his 29 tackles. Senior Devin Bishop replaced sophomore D.J. Holt in the starting lineup at the other inside spot last week. The two have 37 tackles between them. Senior Eddie Young, the lone returning starter is steady.
Cal's secondary was heavily touted in the preseason, and for good reason. The experience-laden group is led by senior CB Syd'Quan Thompson, perhaps the conference's top shutdown corner. However, the Bears have given up 521 passing yards the past two games and have looked a bit rattled at times. Redshirt freshman Josh Hill has taken - for now - the other cornerback job away from junior Darian Hagan (who will still see plenty of time). Seniors Marcus Ezeff and Brett Johnson are the starters at safety, with sophomore Sean Cattouse a very capable reserve.
California Special Teams As usual, the Bears are solid on special teams - not only with Vereen as the kick returner, but Thompson and Ross are both threats as punt returners. Sophomore punter Bryan Anger is one of the conference's best, though he too suffered through a brutal afternoon in Eugene a week ago. He's still averaging 40 yards per boot, even after that troubling performance. Freshman placekicker Vince D'Amato won the job in fall camp. He's just three-of-six on field goal attempts, but has plenty of leg. He booted a 47-yarder at Oregon for the Bears' only points.
USC Offensive Gameplan Barkley's return to the starting lineup last week left no doubt that he is the leader and the talent USC needs at quarterback for at least the next two-and-a-half seasons. Though the Trojans muddled through the second half with a series of mistakes and at-times-uninspiring play selection, the first half showed just what Barkley is - and will be - capable of. It also had to inspire some hope in what the USC offense could eventually look like on a more consistent basis in 2009.
One hopes that "could eventually" falls sometime around 5:15 p.m. Pacific time this Saturday - and doesn't disappear until sometime in January. Cal's 3-4 look and its array of different pass rushers are designed to confuse quarterbacks, a definite concern with Barkley in just his fourth game at the college level. However, while the Bear defense has a good group of playmakers and has shown the ability to make big plays, they have also shown some clear weaknesses.
Against both Minnesota and Oregon, the Bear linebackers and safeties were exposed in pass coverage. Intermediate routes, from the sidelines to crossing routes in the middle of the field, routinely beat the Bear linebackers and forced Cal's safeties into a playmaker role, which they didn't exactly shine in. Look for the Trojans to come out throwing, trying to take advantage of this - even though Cal's corners are very solid. Stanley Havili's pass catching skills are likely to get an early workout, while Trojan tight ends Anthony McCoy and Blake Ayles should also see more balls thrown their way. In recent seasons, USC has also been able to run the ball successfully against the Bear defense. One hopes that the Trojan brain trust takes a look at film from the 2007 battle in Berkeley, where Chauncey Washington physically battered Cal with more than 220 yards rushing. If they do, those who have been yearning for more carries for Allen Bradford may finally get their wish.
USC Defensive Gameplan Even though the Bears struggled mightily a week ago, this is still a very potent group. Beyond their yardage and point totals, the Bears also boast 25 plays of more than 20 yards thus far in 2009, showing a quick-strike ability. At the same time, Cal's three lost fumbles last week were the Bears' first three turnovers of 2009, and Riley is on a 115-attempt streak without throwing an interception.
However, the blueprint to slow the Bears remains the same as it has been the past five years - years in which Cal's vaunted offense has averaged just 11 points per game against USC and has failed to reach 20 points in any single game against the Trojans. It's actually pretty simple defensive football taken out to the Nth degree - slow down Best and make Riley beat you. The Trojans have done that well in recent seasons, holding Best to 30 yards in 13 carries in last season's 17-3 win. Obviously, it will be beyond difficult to hold Best to those kinds of numbers in Berkeley, but if USC can keep him under 100 yards rushing, they have to like their chances.
Expect the Trojans to commit early and often to stop the rush. A cause for concern could come at the weakside linebacker spot, where Malcolm Smith is trying to return from an ankle sprain suffered at Washington. If he's unable to go, converted safety Shane Horton may get the first crack. In this game, it will be crucial for the Trojan linebackers to play good technical football and stay in their lanes to minimize the damage Best can do when he gets beyond the first level. At the same time, USC has had good success pressuring Cal's quarterbacks in recent years, though they didn't record a sack in the 2008 meeting. The Bears showed major susceptibility to edge rushing a week ago, which has to be a major concern with USC's speed at defensive end and the fact that the Trojans lead the nation with 18 sacks in four games.
The Pick While I've discussed the things that SHOULD happen if USC hopes to win its sixth straight game against California, that in no way means I - or anyone else, for that matter - can truly tell you what to expect in this game. These two teams have yet to create identities, and the questions swirling around each team's lone inexplicable loss are big enough to make you wonder which teams will show up on Saturday. In the 10 seasons I've written game previews for USCFootball.com, I cannot remember a single game where I knew less of what to expect than this one - this game is a true enigma.
One thing I can tell you for certain is that Cal's fan base will be undaunted by the Bears' loss a week ago. Bear fans seem to actually detest USC more than they like their own team. Have no doubt they will be wild and loud at the outset. While it won't be as tough of an environment as Columbus was three weeks ago, it's not going to be a walk in the park for USC in Strawberry Canyon on Saturday night.
Fans don't win games however. Players do. In a match-up as shrouded in mystery as this one, it actually helps to look back in history to find cues that lead you to making a pick. And the history is not on the Bears' side here. Though the Trojans look like a shaky group whose season could go either way, USC under Carroll has always seemed to pull together at these key moments. The loss this week of Stafon Johnson to a freak weightlifting accident is likely to bring the team even closer together as it goes into enemy territory. Make no mistake, however - this game is the absolute tone-setter for the rest of the USC football season. And against Cal, which is the least penalized team in the conference, the Trojans cannot afford the same kind of mental and physical errors that slowed them against Washington State to occur here.
On the other side, Cal has consistently struggled to right the ship after epic slip-ups like the one it suffered a week ago. Tedford has his team all saying the right things and on the same page, at least in comments to the press this week. The Bears have never been 0-2 in the conference since Tedford's arrival, and they've won nine consecutive home games - the last defeat coming on the Trojans' previous visit in 2007. Can the Bears pull it together this week, against their toughest rival - a rival that has frustrated them with stellar defensive play and just enough offense to handle them by an average of more than 13 points during the past five years?
They certainly could - they have the talent and the firepower on both sides to do so. However, in a game this enigmatic, I'm going to stick with recent history. I see the Trojan defense stifling the Bear offense, slowing down Best just enough and forcing Riley into bad decisions. This will allow the USC offense to continue its baby-step growth for another week.
USC 20, California 13
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at [email protected]