USC Football: Cal Game Preview and Analysis
The Trojans (4-1), rested and ready after their bye week, travel to the Bay Area to take on Cal (3-2) for a Thursday night showdown in AT&T Park. It is the first of two consecutive road games for USC, their longest trip away from the Coliseum this season.
USC most recently survived a shootout with Arizona at home on Oct. 1, holding off the Wildcats 48-41 after leading by as many as 22 points.
The Golden Bears carried a one-point lead into the halftime locker room against high-octane Oregon, but were shut out in the second half and fell to the Ducks 43-15.
What to Watch For:
You may have noticed the game isn’t being played in Strawberry Canyon, but across the bay in San Francisco. Since Memorial Stadium in Berkeley is under construction this season, the Bears have been temporarily displaced.
Cal last beat USC in 2003, the only blemish in an otherwise dominant season. Since then, the Trojans have largely run roughshod over the Bears. Cal would love to steal one from their longtime rival, while the Trojans have played their most complete games against Cal in recent years.
With UCLA seemingly unable to use the sanctions against USC to their advantage in the recruiting game, Cal has become the Trojans' biggest competition for talent in the state, including top safety Shaquille Thompson. Though a heavy Cal lean at this point, USC can leave a lasting impression on the standout defensive back with a strong performance in the Bay.
It goes without saying that Monte Kiffin is under a lot of fire at this juncture in the season. The defensive improvement he touted in the spring simply hasn’t been apparent yet, with USC’s last two opponents each putting over 40 points on the board. Kiffin can quiet his critics with a strong showing against quarterback guru Jeff Tedford.
When USC is on Offense:
Barkley (left) will have to be a bit more cautious when throwing the ball into the Bears’ secondary. Safety Sean Cattouse has a ton of experience as the last line of defense, and the 6’3”, 215 lb. senior is adept at making plays on the ball despite his size, with two picks so far.
However, starting cornerback Marc Anthony is likely out for the Bears, meaning freshman Stefan McClure will likely be filling in. Expect Barkley to go after him often.
USC’s receiving tandem of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee is looking better and better with each passing week, and will be the focal point of the offense again Thursday.
Both eclipsed the 100 yard mark against Arizona, with Woods’ 255 yards just five short of the school record. The week off was especially important for Woods, who has been dealing with an ankle injury for months. It’s scary to think this may be the healthiest he has been since the start of the season.
USC’s line has done an effective job of keeping Barkley off the turf, with only four sacks allowed through five games. Sophomore Kevin Graf in particular bounced back from a subpar performance against ASU with a great game against Arizona.
But USC’s offensive front is going to have its hands full with the Cal defenders. The Bears deploy an attacking 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who sends rushers from all angles of the field. USC has yet to face a 3-4 front this season, so the line will have to make some adjustments.
Replacing first-round defensive end Cam Jordan hasn’t been easy, but senior Ernest Owusu has done a pretty good job filling his shoes, with 2.5 sacks on the season.
The inside linebackers in the 3-4 have a ton of responsibility, and the Bears have a terrific tandem in seniors Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt. Kendricks is more of a playmaker, while Holt is a steady run-stuffer.
When Cal is on Offense:
USC’s main advantage against the Cal offense is that the Bears run a pro-style offense, which the Trojans have been pretty consistent in defending because they see it every day in practice. It’s a needed break from the spread offenses that have been shredding them in recent weeks.
Cal has had problems at quarterback since Aaron Rodgers left after the 2004 season. While Zach Maynard hasn’t reminded anyone of Mr. Super Bowl MVP just yet, he’s definitely an improvement over the likes of Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley.
The Buffalo transfer isn’t the most accurate passer, but he tends to take care of the football, and adds a running threat that the Bears haven’t had recently. And it’s no secret that the Trojans have had their fair share of trouble against scrambling quarterbacks.
Maynard was sidelined with a thigh bruise in the second half against the Ducks, but should be ready to go. If not, sophomore Allan Bridgford will get the call.
The job of containing Maynard largely falls on USC’s front seven. After starting the season strong, the group has been a bit disappointing recently, posting only one sack in each of the last two games. DE Nick Perry has continued to play well, but counterparts Devon Kennard and Wes Horton need to pick it up from here on out.
Cal's offenisve line is big and experienced, with four starters returning from last year. Left tackle Mitchell Schwartz is one of the best in the Pac-12.
It’s been well documented that MLB Chris Galippo performs better throughout the game when he gets a breather every once and a while. Even if freshman Lamar Dawson isn’t available to spell Galippo (left, No. 54), USC’s coaches have vowed to find someone to limit the amount of snaps the injury-riddled senior plays.
The Bears have a great 1-2 punch at receiver in sophomore Keenan Allen and senior Marvin Jones. Allen in particular has made impressive strides since last season, and is challenging Woods and WSU’s Marquess Wilson as the best sophomore receiver in the nation, averaging 133.6 yards per game.
T.J. McDonald finally provided the big-play ability that most fans had expected of him from the start of the season, intercepting Nick Foles twice in the first quarter.
But the pass defense was virtually non-existent in the second half against Arizona. The possible return of Torin Harris from a shoulder injury would be a big boost to the corners, who will be tested by Maynard.
In many ways, last week’s Cal-Oregon game helped more with this prediction than USC’s entire season so far. If Cal played strong last week, they probably would’ve gotten my nod over the Trojans. But they wilted under the pressure big time, which said a lot about the kind of team they are.
USC comes out on top this week, beating Cal 34-23. The Trojans’ offense is clicking right now, and is simply too good to be stopped on a consistent basis by the Bears. While the USC defense will give up a few points, it will bounce back from last game’s dismal performance and hold the Cal offense in check.
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