Preview: USC at Cal
It has been eight years since Cal shocked No. 1 USC in Berkeley to establish a short-lived conference rivalry that would fade before Pete Carroll’s departure. The Trojans responded with seven consecutive victories, outscoring the Bears 95-20 in the last three, to not only show the gap that remains between the two programs, but also how much it has grown since that field-storming day. But USC has the appearance of a program that is vulnerable, and if there is a time when the fruit is ripest for the picking, for Cal, that time is now.
California Golden Bears (3-2)
National Rank: none
Last Week: Loss at Oregon 43-15
Offense: In Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones, the Bears boast one of the Pac 12’s best receiving tandems. Allen enters Thursday’s contest second in conference to USC’s Robert Woods for receptions per game (7.8), and 6th nationally in receiving yards (133.60 ypg). The key to their effectiveness is quarterback Zach Maynard (11 TDs, 3 INTs), who will sometimes struggle, completing just 51 percent of his passes on the season.
Isi Sofele is the team’s rushing leader at 99.8 yards per game, but hasn’t appeared to be the homerun threat we’re accustomed to seeing in a Bears backfield. Cal, as a team, ranks 57th best in the nation on the ground, which is fourth best in conference.
Defense: The major difference between this Cal team and those of the past is on the defensive end. The Bears finished 2010 among the twenty best defenses in the country, but through five games they have managed a statistical ranking of 53rd. The unit is less than average defending the run (51st), and most susceptible to the pass.
It would be easy to pinpoint the absence of defensive end Cameron Jordan as a catalyst, but the vacated post hasn’t decreased pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The team has 15 recorded sacks on the season, at an average of three per game, and is also ranked 14th in the nation in tackles for loss. The problem is in the secondary, as it is for most Pac 12 teams. Surrendering an average of 228 yards per game, the Bears rank just 74th in the country defending the pass, though the numbers place them second only to Washington State in conference.
USC Trojans (4-1)
National Rank: None
Last Week: Bye
Offense: Matt Barkley and Robert Woods combine for the nation’s best pitch and catch combination, and places USC as the third best passing attack in the Pac 12. The Trojans are airing it out for 317 yards per game and an average of 30 points. It’s what the team does best, with the rushing attack still sporadic in its search to find consistency. The bye was met with Lane Kiffin contemplating a George Farmer experiment, which would strip the freshman receiver of his redshirt and insert him in the backfield. That still remains to be seen, but the thought alone emphasizes the staff’s focus on powering the running game to present a more balanced attack.
Defense: It’s no secret by now that the Trojans struggle defensively, and allowing 40+ point performances to the last two opponents didn’t help. USC ranks 98th in the country defending the pass (267.20 ypg), 63rd in scoring defense (26.4 ppg), and 90th in pass efficiency defense (137.60). It also ranks worst in conference and 113th in the nation when the opponent is in the red zone. Yet, somehow the Trojans are 4-1, managing to make the big defensive play to preserve victories. Some of those big plays may be necessary on Thursday night, to hold off a Bears team consisting of strengths that play into Southern California’s obvious weaknesses.
Analysis: As USC prepares to put in football work on a baseball field, it will find itself facing another opponent hungry for a win. This will be the third consecutive opponent to face the Trojans after losing the prior week’s game. It will also be Cal’s second appearance in as many weeks on Thursday night, after getting embarrassed by the Ducks a week ago. Lane Kiffin also had the luxury of the bye, allowing his staff nearly two weeks of preparation for the reeling Bears.
X-Factor, Pass Protection: The USC offensive line has allowed only four sacks for 25 yards. Cal has allowed twice as many, which plays into the completion percentage of Maynard. Collapsing pockets have contributed to the Bear’s inaccuracy, and a continuation of the trend works heavily in the Trojans favor. But USC may also see the best pass rush to date, which may drive its quarterback from his comfort zone and create smaller windows of opportunity for a team that aggressively attacks defensive backfields.
All-Time Series: USC leads 62-25-4
Streak: USC has won 7
Last Meeting: USC 48, Cal 14 (Los Angeles)
- Cal averages just 1.63 yards per punt return, which ranks 115th in the FBS.
- At an average of 7.8 per game, Cal’s defense leads the Pac 12 in tackles for loss.
- Lane Kiffin is 0-2 as a head coach in games played after the bye week.
- Of the two post-bye week games, one loss was to eventual 2009 national champion Alabama, and the other to Oregon, who went on to play in the National Championship game.
- Cal has surrendered more than 30 points in each game versus a conference member.