USC Trojans vs. Cal Bears: A Closer Look


The Keys to the Game:

Although they won’t make any tackles or take any snaps or throw any passes, the key to this clash of Northern California versus Southern California rivals are the two coaching staffs.

Of course, when a team wins, the coach always gives credit to his players, and, when his team loses, the coach usually takes the blame. But this game is truly on the coaches whether it’s a win or a loss.

First of all, Jeff Tedford and his staff at Cal have the monumental task of motivating a team that was absolutely humiliated last Saturday in Oregon by the Ducks, 42-3. The Bears couldn’t tackle, they couldn’t run, they couldn’t pass. In short, they couldn’t do anything right.

Tedford shouldn’t have much difficulty getting the Bears to improve, simply because they couldn’t possibly play any worse. But can he get them to improve enough to beat the visitors from Southern California?

Pete Carroll has the unenviable task of re-programming a Trojan team that peaked just in time to play San Jose State. It’s been all downhill from there as far as his anemic offense is concerned.

The offense had just enough left in the tank to put together a final scoring drive that beat Ohio State by three points. Then the next week, without their true freshman quarterback, Matt Barkley, they fumbled away opportunity after opportunity until their defense finally caved in and allowed the Washington Huskies to upset them 16-13.

Those same Washington Huskies were soundly trounced last Saturday by Stanford 34-14. That caused one writer to comment that Stanford had given USC an early Christmas present by handing the Huskies their first Pac-10 loss. Right! As if the Huskies were about to run the table in the Pac-10. Give me a break!

Also this past Saturday, if you were called away on an emergency after the first quarter of the USC-Washington State game, you didn’t miss much. Actually, you did, but what you missed was pretty ugly.

After the Trojans scored 20 points on Washington State in the first quarter, it seemed as though Hollywood had taken over the Coliseum for a live-action version of Zombieland. Really. The USC Zombies –er – Trojans were just a bunch of bodies running around without any brains.

You could tell by the way Pete Carroll was wincing throughout the final three quarters that he isn’t a big fan of zombie movies – especially zombies on scholarship.

So, that is his task this week – to reprogram the mindset of a team that has lost all semblance of teamwork. And also to re-evaluate and fill in the holes of a team that has lost key members due to both on and off-the-field injuries.

As is usually the case, the game will hinge around the play of the quarterbacks.

Cal’s Kevin Riley had his quarterback rating drop all the way from 212.44 in the Bears opener against Maryland to 72.04 against the Ducks last week. His completion percentage went from 65.4% to 38.7%

Tedford’s main task: pump up the confidence of a quarterback who has thrown only one TD pass since throwing four TDs in the opener against Maryland. One place where Tedford can start is with the fact that Riley has completed 155 consecutive passes without an interception.

Riley will take off if pressured in the pocket. However, USC has defended against the likes of Terrelle Pryor and Jake Locker who are much better runners than Riley. So, I don’t expect Riley’s legs to be any kind of a threat.

Matt Barkley had a career night against Washington State before giving way to Aaron Corp in the fourth quarter. He was 13-of-22 for 247 yards and two TDs with no interceptions. And that was with a shoulder injury that was still limiting his throwing.

At least it was his shoulder that was limiting him and not USC’s play-calling. Quarterback coach and play-caller, Jeremy Bates, finally moved onto the next chapter in the USC play book, the one entitled: “Go Long!”

That should give Tedford and his defensive staff much cause for concern, considering that Oregon’s Jeremiah Masoli put up 253 yards against Cal in a 21-of-25 performance and 3 TDs. Masoli’s only touchdown passes of the season.

Masoli isn’t considered to have as powerful an arm as Matt Barkley, even with Barkley sore shoulder. If that shoulder is anywhere near 100 percent on Saturday, the Cal defensive backs had better be at their best.

Syd’Quan Thompson is the leader of that secondary and leads the team in tackles, interceptions, and pass breakups. So, guess who will be covering Damian Williams?

It is very possible that a talented corner like Thompson, although at 5-9 much shorter than Williams at 6-1, could still pretty much limit Williams’ productivity on Saturday.

That leaves the other corner, Josh Hill, and Cal’s two safeties, Marcus Ezeff and Brett Johnson, to cover the rest of USC’s receivers. Last week Oregon burned them for 288 passing yards total, and the week before Minnesota hung 233 passing yards on the Cal defensive backs.

More than likely that is how Jeremy Bates is planning to strike. He will have Barkley take to the air, early and often. But if Thompson is covering Williams, look for Barkley’s main target to be one of the tight ends, Anthony McCoy, Blake Ayles or Rhett Ellison.

Fullback Stanley Havili caught three passes last week from Barkley. Tailback Joe McKnight grabbed two completions while red-shirt freshman, Brice Butler, hauled in a 29-yard TD pass with a positively awesome grab.

While David Ausberry is still the No. 2 wide receiver, Butler is certain to get a lot more looks from Barkley as he develops. Look for Butler to have a breakout game one of these days, and it just might be this Saturday.

Both teams have been noted for their running game: USC for having a stable of fine tailbacks; and Cal for having the best running back in college football, Jahvid Best.

But both running games suffered big losses this past week. Jahvid Best may no longer be considered the best rusher in Division 1. After only managing 55 yards on 16 carries against the Ducks, Best fell to the No. 8 position nationally with 467 total yards on 69 carries. However, his 6.8 yards per rush ties him with the No. 1 rusher, Fresno State’s Ryan Matthews.

Best’s backup, Shane Vereen, picked up 28 yards on 6 carries against the Ducks. Look for both Best and Vereen to be playing with chips on their shoulders this Saturday. Best, especially, feels that he has something to prove.

They will try to put Bears running game back on the map behind an offensive line led by tackles Mitchell Schwartz, a second-team Freshman All-America selection last year, and sixth-year senior Mike Tepper.

But the Trojan defensive front has been up to the task this season even though the bulk of their starters from last year are playing in the NFL. The Trojans have been pressuring opposing quarterbacks and just piling up impressive numbers.

They lead the nation with 18 sacks and 119 yards lost.

The Bears offense will try to take advantage of the Trojans aggressive front with screens, play-action and mis-direction. Although the Trojans lost huge defensive tackle Hebron Fangupo for the season, Nick Perry, who leads the team in sacks and is tied for third in the nation with six, will return to the lineup Saturday.

The younger Trojan linebackers may need to step up if Malcolm Smith isn’t able to return on Saturday. His backup, Jordan Campbell, is also out with a sprained ankle.

If the Bears cannot make headway on the ground, they will have to do it through the air and without injured receiver, Nyan Boateng. Marvin Jones (eight catches for 118 yards and one TD), Verran Tucker (nine catches for 199 yards) and Jeremy Ross (seven catches for 105 yards) along with tight end, Anthony Miller (six catches for 83 yards) will put the USC secondary to the test.

But that secondary is one of the best in the nation. Led by All-American safety Taylor Mays, the Trojan secondary is known for bending but not breaking. They may let opponents have a first-down or two before shutting them down.

But they will have their work cut out for them on Saturday. Not only do they have to defend against the pass, but cornerbacks Josh Pinkard and Kevin Thomas will need to come up and stop the run if Best or Vereen break through the Trojans front seven.

Like the Cal tailbacks, the Trojan running backs have an emotional issue of their own. By now most college football fans know of the tragic mishap the other day at Heritage Hall. Senior tailback Stafon Johnson, who leads the team in TDs with five, dropped a weight bar on his throat while doing a bench-press. Johnson was in emergency surgery to repair his vocal chords for almost eight hours.

Today Stafon tweeted from his hospital bed “feelin better and better by the hour.” Nevertheless, everyone knows the camaraderie between this corps of tailbacks. And you can be sure the other guys are going to want this one for Stafon.

The other emotional factor surrounding this contest hinges on the fact that it is an elimination game. Just two short weeks ago, both of these teams were in the Top Ten: USC at No. Three and Cal and No. Six. Now suddenly, they are fighting for their Pac-10 lives. Whichever team loses has practically no chance of winning the Pac-10 title outright.

So, the cold hard fact is that both coaching staffs not only have to game plan, but they must also deal with their team’s emotionality. Uncontrolled emotion on the field can lead to dumb mistakes that cause a team to lose. Both staffs need to channel the emotionality so that it works for them rather than against them.

If there is one instance where Pete Carroll has an edge over Jeff Tedford, it is his ability to channel players’ emotions. That was Carroll’s major task last year with Mark Sanchez, and we know how that eventually turned out.

I expect Coach Carroll to once again get a handle on the emotional factor with the Stafon Johnson issue and the fact that the Trojans are facing elimination.

Prediction: The edge goes to Pete Carroll and the Trojans, 24-21.


  • Linebacker Shane Horton is on track to start at the weakside spot. However Malcolm Smith and Luthur Brown will be available to play.
  • Defensive end Nick Perry will play on Saturday, even though he remains “gimpy,” according to Carroll.
  • Aaron Corp has remained in the backup quarterback position, although Mitch Mustain has taken snaps this week as the backup.
  • Jake Harfman had a 46.3 punting average vs. WSU and will continue to punt along with his kickoff duties.
  • With the injury to Stafon Johnson look for Allan Bradford and Curtis McNeal to get more touches.