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October 14, 2010

California Preview

Game 7: There's Nothing to Lose, It's a Heartbreak, The Deck's Stacked

The Trojans' mantra this week: Don't look back. But can the Trojans bounce back against up-and-down California?

The USC Trojans (4-2, 1-2 Pac-10) return home on Saturday, October 16 to face the California Golden Bears (3-2, 1-1) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox Sports Net cable television audience. It is the 98th meeting between the two schools (USC's most games against any opponent, with the series uninterrupted since 1926), with Troy holding a 62-30-5 edge. The Trojans have won the past six meetings, including a 30-3 rout in Berkeley a season ago and a 17-3 victory in the last Los Angeles meeting in 2008. In fact, since Cal's last victory over the Trojans (a 34-31, triple-OT thriller in Berkeley in 2003), the Bears are averaging fewer than 10 points per game against USC.


A week ago, the Trojans suffered their second consecutive final-play field goal defeat, this one by Stanford's Nate Whitaker, as the 16th-ranked Cardinal held off USC, 37-35, in Palo Alto. Another abysmal performance by the Trojan defense wasted freshman receiver Robert Woods' 12-catch, 224-yard, three-TD performance, as the USC allowed the Cardinal to march 62 yards in 1:08 after taking a brief 35-34 lead. Stanford's 478 total yards, led by a stellar performance from sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, leaves USC ranked No. 100 among all Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools in total defense. Meanwhile, California bolted to a 28-0 halftime lead before coasting to a 35-7 Homecoming victory over UCLA in Berkeley. Junior tailback Shane Vereen rushed for 151 yards and two scores, while the Cal defense limited UCLA to just 144 total yards.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (11-8 career collegiate head coaching record; 4-2 at USC) is in his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. California headman Jeff Tedford is in his ninth season in Berkeley (70-37, 42-28 in Pac-10 games) has become the program's third-winningest coach - and is likely to be its winnningest by season's end. Under Tedford, the Bears have been in the upper half of the Pac-10 every season, a huge step for a program that was rather moribund during most of the quarter-century before his arrival.

California Offense
For a guy with a great history of coaching quality quarterbacks, Tedford sure has overseen a run of inconsistency at that position in recent years. However, the Bears, under second year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, have been able to work around those issues so far in 2010, averaging nearly 36 points per game. Still, with senior quarterback Kevin Riley still at the helm, Cal's passing attack has remained inconsistent (ninth in the Pac-10 with just 192 yards per game), forcing the Bears to lean heavily on Vereen and the running game. The Bears average more than 212 yards per game rushing.

Riley's inconsistencies over the years have been well documented. As up and down as he's been, he's really struggled against the Trojans in his career, completing just 33.9 percent of his passes, with no TDs and two interceptions in his two games vs. USC. He's been a little bit better overall in 2010 than in years past, completing better than 60 percent of his throws, with just four picks against his nine TD tosses. Still, his inconsistency must infuriate Cal fans, and he must play much better than he has against USC for the Bears to compete on Saturday.

Riley's been aided greatly by a solid receiving duo of junior Marvin Jones and speedy true freshman Keenan Allen. Jones has been at or near the top of the Pac-10 receiving charts all season, and his 26 grabs for 378 yards place him squarely in the top five. He has two TD grabs, while the lanky Allen leads the Bears with three scores among his 14 catches. Senior Jeremy Ross provides Cal with a solid third outside option, while Vereen, sophomore fullback Eric Stevens and junior tight end Anthony Miller are all reliable pass catchers.

Vereen is among the conference's leaders in a number of categories. He's carried for 577 yards (115.4 per game, second in the Pac-10, No. 13 nationally), and is a conference co-leader in scoring with 10 TDs (eight rushing/two receiving). The thick-but-quick junior has come into his own this season, and has something to prove against the Trojans (he has 10 yards on eight career carries). Pint-sized sophomore Isi Sofele will spell Vereen for between 5-10 carries. Stevens is another in a long line of solid blocking fullbacks at Cal.

Once again, the Cal front five has been solid, opening holes for Vereen and Co., and allowing just eight sacks in five games. The experience of the corps is in junior left tackle Mitchell Schwartz (31 consecutive starts), junior right guard Justin Cheadle (18 consecutive starts) and senior center Chris Guarnero (17 consecutive starts until sitting out the UCLA game with a sprained ankle). He was replaced effectively by sophomore utilityman Dominic Galas, and the duo is likely to split time this week. Sophomore left guard Brian Schwenke and senior right tackle Donovan Edwards round out the group.

California Defense
After nearly two decades in the NFL - the past six years as a defensive coordinator (including with the Arizona Cardinals' 2008 Super Bowl team) - Clancy Pendergast took on the role of DC for the Golden Bears this spring. To the Bears' 3-4 set, he brought a reputation of running defenses big on creating turnovers - and he hasn't disappointed in Berkeley, as the Bears have forced 11 turnovers in five games and are ranked No. 10 nationally in turnover margin (+1.0). But that's not all - Cal is in the national top 10 in four other defensive categories: pass efficiency defense (No. 4), pass defense (No. 6, 148.8 yards per game), total defense (No. 8, 254.8 yards per game) and sacks (No. 9, 3.2 per game). And outside of high-flying Nevada's 52-point outburst on Sept. 17, the Bears have allowed 27 points in their other four games.

Up front, the Bears have a solid six-man rotation, featuring starters Cameron Jordan, a senior, and Ernest Owusu, a junior, at the ends and senior Derrick Hill at nose guard. Jordan is the group's leader and has 21 stops and three sacks. The second string plays early and often, with junior Trevor Guyton and redshirt freshman Deandre Coleman at ends and sophomore Kendrick Payne at NG. Guyton has two sacks while Payne has three tackles for loss.

As is the norm in a 3-4 set, the California linebackers remain the defense's top playmakers. Though hampered by a sprained toe that forced him to miss the Bears' loss to Nevada, senior inside linebacker Mike Mohamed is Cal's leader on defense. His 28 tackles are second on the team, and he's capable both against the run and in pass coverage. Fellow insider D.J. Holt, a junior, leads the Bears with 35 stops. Another junior, outside backer Mychal Kendricks, has become a big-time playmaker, leading Cal with 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss. On the other side, senior Keith Browner has been solid, though not posting huge numbers. Senior Jarred Price and sophomore Robert Mullins provide some depth.

The Bears' secondary has been solid so far, with a nice mix of experience and young talent. At corner, sophomore Marc Anthony has 26 tackles and four pass break-ups, while senior Darian Hagan adds two sacks, an interception and three PBUs to his 20 stops. Senior Bryant Nnabuife plays often in nickel formations. At safety, senior Chris Conte is the big hitter (23 stops, an interception and two fumble recoveries), while sophomore free safety Josh Hill has played well. Juniors D.J. Campbell and Sean Cattouse provide solid depth.


California Special Teams
Junior placekicker Giorgio Tavecchio has vastly improved on kickoffs and was looking solid on field goals until missing three of his last four attempts. Still, he's six-of-nine (but just two-of-five from beyond 30 yards). Junior punter Bryan Anger is having a huge 2010, averaging 46.5 yards and dropping eight of his 19 punts inside the 20-yard line. Ross handles the punt and kick return duties, and is especially dangerous on punt returns, where he's averaging 12.2 yards per attempt.

USC Offensive Gameplan
The USC offense had perhaps its most consistent and effective performance of the 2010 season last weekend at Stanford. Though the Trojans struggled rushing the ball as Stanford loaded the box (as predicted) to stop it, USC's coaching staff stuck with the run just enough to make the passing game extremely effective. Matt Barkley's 390 passing yards showcased the sophomore's improvements from 2009. Woods' coming-out party was supplemented by solid play from the receiving corps and good pass protection from the offensive line.

Can USC maintain that level of performance against a highly-rated Cal defense? Well, remember, the Bears rolled up the bulk of their numbers against highly questionable offenses from UC Davis, Colorado and UCLA. Nevada destroyed them with their pistol offense. However, Cal was solid against a very good Arizona offense that features an excellent quarterback, good receivers and solid running backs. The Nevada tape likely tells Lane Kiffin and his offensive staff very little, as USC's offensive style hardly resembles the Wolfpack's.

So, what to expect? Though the Bears have been effective against the pass, USC will likely come out throwing the football to test Cal's secondary. The Bears have run up huge pass defense statistics against a schedule that features just one team capable of throwing the football effectively - Arizona. And the Wildcats threw for 212 yards, but were hampered by a couple key turnovers. Expect Woods, Ronald Johnson and other USC receivers to get an early workout in an effort to loosen up the pressure-happy Cal front seven. If the USC offensive line can protect Barkley and the Trojans avoid costly turnovers, it will be interesting to see how the Bears' defense holds up.

USC Defensive Gameplan
For a second consecutive week, the USC defense couldn't make one stop in the final minutes that would have allowed a Trojan victory. USC's tackling woes continued against Stanford, though there were a couple highlights - the play of Chris Galippo (prior to a crucial - and borderline - personal foul call on the final drive) and Shane Horton at linebacker. Horton, filling in for the injured Malcolm Smith, had 10 tackles and seemed like the first USC linebacker in 2010 to read plays and make stops of running backs behind the line of scrimmage. However, the play of Michael Morgan at the other linebacker spot remains a huge issue, as does Jawanza Starling's performance at strong safety.

Is this the worst defense in USC football history? Through six games, the numbers would tell us "Yes." At the same time, the fact that the Trojans are seriously considering using their freshman receiving phenom, Woods, as a defensive back is another sign of how desperate things have become. However, there is still a half-season left to play (is that really a good thing?), and the group still has time to right the ship. Still, injuries are becoming a factor now, making things even tougher for Monte Kiffin and his staff. Can USC get this thing turned around in time to salvage a solid season?

We'll know more this Saturday. The Trojans must focus on Vereen and, once again, force Riley to beat them. Really, ever since Aaron Rodgers left Berkeley, it's been the same story through a slew of up-and-down Cal signal callers. Vereen will likely get his yards, but the Trojans have to make him earn them, and put Riley in third-down situations. Sure, the Trojan defense has been brutal on third down so far in 2010, but Riley's been so inconsistent over the years that it's the only real hope for USC this week. If Riley torches the Trojans, the season will be in utter freefall.

The Pick
A fast start seems crucial for the Trojans this Saturday - for a couple of reasons. First, USC's team confidence has to be shaken by such a pair of difficult losses, so getting out to an early edge will likely help the Trojans in that area. Second, putting the Bears down by 10-14 points early would force Cal into catch-up mode, putting more on Riley's shoulders. He's not responded well to pressure most of his career. And, once again in 2010, Riley has struggled big time in Cal's losses.

But to get that early lead, USC must make at least a couple stops on defense. Is it possible? If the Trojans control Vereen and play a little more physical in the secondary - Riley likes to get on track early with a lot of quick-hitting, three-step drop patterns, so USC would be well served to employ some more press coverage on the outside receivers early on - the Bears' offense can be slowed.

USC's track record against Tedford's Cal offenses points to a much better defensive effort than Trojan fans have seen in recent weeks. Riley is the most inconsistent quarterback the Trojans have seen since Virginia's Marc Verica, and his history against USC is very poor. On the other side, this is the best offense Cal has seen (statistically) since Nevada. The Trojans should be able to get their skill players in space early on, take advantage of the edges against the Bears' 3-4 set and stay away from any chance of a last-second field goal leading to another heartbreaking loss.

USC 28, California 17

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 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 thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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