Preview: No. 7 USC at No. 24 Cal
No. 7 USC at No. 24 Cal
Saturday October 3, 2009
For six years and counting, one of the most anticipated match ups of the college football season has been the annual collision between Cal and USC. This year is no different, as the Trojans travel north for a contest that may give the winner the inside track to the conference championship, while essentially eliminating the loser.
CAL GOLDEN BEARS (3-1)
Last week: lost to Oregon 42-3
In some ways, the Cal Bears have faced similar circumstances to those of their weekend foe. Where Cal’s Jahvid Best is arguably the elite running back of this college football season, the Trojans boasts an elite surplus of tailbacks to counter. Though quarterback Kevin Riley took plenty of snaps under center in season’s past, this is his first time experiencing full command of the Bears offense, without having to look over his shoulder. The Trojans, likewise, will bring a new field General to Berkley on Saturday. Cal’s defense took a hit, with a linebacker corps thinned from a year ago, but an outstanding secondary remained intact. Such is the situation in Southern California, where all 4 starting linebackers were lost, but they returned a ball hawking secondary headlined by All American Taylor Mays.
The Cal offense is centered around Jahvid Best, and his production contributes to their national ranking of 24th in rushing, which is 4th best in the Pac 10 conference. Best averages 116 yards per game, and has accounted for 9 of 20 Bears touchdowns this season, but his talent won’t find a worthy compliment in the passing game.
If anyone provide a blueprint for containing the Bears, it was Oregon last weekend. The ducks stacked and smothered the run, leaving coach Jeff Tedford to do or die with a passing attack. Kevin Riley and his offense responded with lifelessness, as Oregon routed Cal in Autzen stadium.
Defensively, the Bears rank 53rd in the country, which is a more formidable unit than the Trojans saw against Washington State, Washington, and San Jose State, but isn’t anywhere near the defense fielded by the Buckeyes. Cal surrenders 336 yards of offense and 20 points per game, and Oregon provided the bulk to that total. A Trojan offense that featured Mark Sanchez a year ago struggled offensively in a 17-3 victory. A new offense relying on conservative play may experience even more difficulty against these Bears on their home field.
USC TROJANS (3-1)
Last week: defeated Washington State 27-6
What is USC? That is the question still being asked after four weeks of football. Are they the team that can turn it on, as they did to begin the game against Washington State? Or are the the snails paced vulnerable offense that we’ve seen for the majority of snaps?
We’ve been spoiled by Southern California teams of the past finding their groove early and often. We’ve now wandered into a new territory, and we greet each game with uncertainty. As a fan base, we’ve moved from a motto of “leave no doubt” to beginning each game in doubt. We now sit with our hearts in our stomachs, no longer knowing victory in imminent, but hoping that it will come. These are our Trojans, playing in a much improved Pac 10 conference.
The Southern California defense hasn’t skipped a beat. Despite all the changes, this unit ranks 4th in the nation, stingily allowing opponents just 10 points per game. This is a defense that is likely to hold its own against Jahvid Best, while creating havoc for Kevin Riley and receivers. Best had his poorest output of 2008 (32 rushing yards) last year in the Coliseum. To avoid a repeat, Cal will have to challenge the secondary and air it out.
Matt Barkley still isn’t 100 percent, but he will be starting for the second straight week. USC was rattled by the weightlifting injury and emergency surgery performed on Tailback Stafon Johnson earlier this week, but expect the inspired Allen Bradford to fill in nicely for his teammate.
Penalties have killed the Trojans in each game, and you will need nearly an error free outing to defeat California on their home field. Much is made of the failure to convert on third downs, but a lot of the struggles are a result of penalties that increase the amount of yardage needed to move the sticks.
Analysis: A couple of Pac 10 favorites find themselves limping into a crucial game. Cal receives the comfort at home, and young Matt Barkley will taste another hostile road environment. All things point to a defensive struggle, and if the script plays out, victory may be determined by the play on special teams. Pete Carroll’s Trojans are always up for the bigger games, where Tedford’s Bears have historically been sluggish. This game can be the difference between representing the conference in a BCS bowl game or appearing in a postseason bowl played before January first. Expect both programs to play with an adrenalin rush, and a slight edge is given to USC.
All Time Series: USC leads 60-25-4
Streak: USC has won 5 straight