Cal's game against USC on Thursday, Oct. 13, is much like its previous Thursday game against Oregon a week earlier -- except in reverse.
Last season, Cal's defense, which typically has been outstanding at home, was able to shut down the powerful Oregon offense in on its home field, something it was unable to do on the road this season in the second half of the 43-15 loss to the Ducks.
The Golden Bears' defense had another rocky road outing last season against USC, getting sliced up in every way imaginable by QB Matt Barkley in the Trojans' 48-14 victory that was really more lopsided than the score suggests.
Barkley was 25-of-37 for 352 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions, and was replaced midway through the third quarter. The Trojans scored touchdowns on six of their seven first-half possessions, and led 42-0 at halftime.
But -- and here's the big but -- that game was in Los Angeles, and the Cal defense has played poorly in nearly every road game since Clancy Pendergast became defensive coordinator prior to last season. However, that same defense has played well in nearly every home game under Pendergast, so if form holds, the Bears should come up with a much better defensive effort on its own turf.
Whether Cal will have the same home-field advantage at its 2011 home, AT&T Park in San Francisco, is the issue. This will be Cal's first competitive game at its new home venue, its only previous game at AT&T Park this season coming against FCS team Presbyterian. The Golden Bears' defense man-handled the Blue Hose, but it's safe to say USC will offer a more strenuous test than Presbyterian, especially through the air.
Cal's pass defense has been its biggest weakness, and after controlling Oregon's Darron Thomas in the first half, the Ducks quarterback did what he wanted in the second half.
This will be the third straight game in which the Bears' pass defense will be tested by an opponent with a strong aerial game, and the Bears did not fare well in the first two, losing 31-23 to Washington and QB Keith Price and then against Oregon and Thomas.
The chore will be even more difficult if Cal CB Marc Anthony (shoulder) is unable to play, which would force freshman Stefan McClure to make his first college start with the prospect of having to cover USC WR Robert Woods on occasion. Woods had a big game against Cal last season, and this season he leads the nation in receptions per game and in second in receiving yards per game.
Cal QB Zach Maynard must play better than he did against Oregon, when a number of his passes were well off target and he seemed to be off-balance on a lot of his throws. He is the key player for the Bears, because USC's defense has been vulnerable to the pass.
Cal has a chance against USC, which is not nearly as good as Oregon and, despite its 4-1 record, has been far from dominant, especially on defense. The Bears should be able to move the ball and score points.
--Cal is 0-2 in the Pac-12, and if it loses to USC, it will be the Golden Bears' first 0-3 conference start since Jeff Tedford became head coach prior to the 2002 season. The last time Cal lost its first three conference games was in Tom Holmoe's final season as head coach in 2001, when the Bears finished 0-8 in the Pac-10 and Holmoe was fired.
--USC coach Lane Kiffin was a quarterback at Fresno State for three years at Fresno State (1994-96) when Cal coach Jeff Tedford was the offensive coordinator at Fresno State and tutored the quarterbacks. Kiffin was never close to being a starter, however. Kiffin was also a student assistant coach at Fresno state in 1997 and 1998, and in the first of those seasons, Tedford was still the Bulldogs' offensive coordinator.
--USC is coming off a bye, and has not played since its 48-41 victory over Arizona on Oct. 1. The Trojans have yielded more than 40 points in each of their last two games -- against Arizona an Arizona State.
--The USC game will be Cal's first against a team from the South Division of the Pac-12. Although Cal is in the North Division and will play only four of the six South Division teams each year, it will play USC and UCLA every year based on an agreement made when the Pac-12 was formed.
SERIES HISTORY: USC leads 63-30-5, although USC's 2005 victory was vacated by an NCAA penalty. Last meeting 2010 (48-14 USC).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: TB Isi Sofele continues to show he can be a sold Pac-12 runner, gaining a career-high 119 yards against Oregon and rushing for 98 yards or more in each of the past three games. However, QB Zach Maynard had his worst game, completing 20-of-41 pass attempts and being well off the mark on a number of his passes. He has one of the best wide receiver duos in the country at his disposal in Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen. Allen has had more than 100 receiving yards in all but one game, and he's had 19 catches for 367 receiving yards in Cal's two Pac-12 games. The offensive line has been more than adequate. The Bears have not figured out their red-zone identity, however, and their inability to score touchdowns after getting inside the opponent's 20-yard line has contributed significantly to their two conference losses. QB Zach Maynard did not throw an interception in Cal's past two games, but he is completing just 51.4 percent of his passes for the year, which simply is not good enough to have a productive offense.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Bears' defense had been awfully good against the run until Oregon's LaMichael James sliced through it for 239 rushing yards on Oct. 6. The Ducks rushed for 365 yards, more than three times the previous season high against Cal. The Bears' run defense was particularly vulnerable on the perimeter, as Cal simply could not handle the Ducks' speed, although USC may not be able to exploit the flanks as effectively as Oregon did. The Bears' pass defense has been its biggest weakness, getting carved up by every good quarterback it has faced -- Colorado's Tyler Hansen, Washington's Keith Price and Oregon's Darron Thomas. But all three were on the road, and Cal's pass defense has been much better at home since Clancy Pendergast became defensive coordinator prior to last season. Offensively, when Cal must convert its red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, something it has been unable to do in conference play.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was out there playing like I had no arms. I have to make sure I use my arms and my footwork. It all goes back to technique at the line of scrimmage. When you're playing man coverage, it's won at the line of scrimmage. I just have to work on that -- make sure I use my hands." -- Cal freshman CB Stefan McClure, to the Oakland Tribune, regarding his first extensive playing time, which came in the Oct. 6 loss to Oregon.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL THIS WEEK'S GAME: USC at Cal, Oct. 13 -- Cal is 3-2 after a 48-15 loss to Oregon, and USC is 4-1 after a 48-41 victory over Arizona on Oct. 1. USC has won seven straight against Cal, although the Trojans' 2005 victory was vacated by NCAA penalty. Cal has lost its last two games against USC by a combined margin of 61 points. USC has played Cal 98 times, more than it has played any other school.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cal's defense must apply pressure to USC QB Matt Barkley, something it could not do last season against the Trojans, when the Bears recorded only one sack. The Bears have a decent pass rush, having recorded 14 sacks, and they must force Barkley into some mistakes, or at least prevent him from getting into a rhythm. Barkley is a classic drop-back passer who sits in the pocket -- unlike Washington's Keith Price and Oregon's Darron Thomas, who effectively moved around to buy time and find receivers. Although Barkley is not known as a scrambler, USC has yielded just four sacks this season, and if Barkley is allowed to get comfortable, he will eat up the Bears' secondary. Cal has no one in its secondary who can handle USC WR Robert Woods, so the Bears will have to provide help to keep him under control, making the pass rush even more important to cover the defensive holes that will leave.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Keenan Allen -- He had nine catches for 170 yards against Oregon after catching 10 passes for 197 yard against Washington. He ranks sixth nationally in receiving yards per game (133.6), and QB Zach Maynard, Allen's half-brother, looks for Allen in critical situations.
CB Stefan McClure -- If Marc Anthony cannot play, McClure, a true freshman, is expected to get his first collegiate start, and how he plays could determine the outcome. Oregon picked on McClure after Anthony left the game, and the Trojans are apt to do the same if Anthony is unavailable. Coach Jeff Tedford compared McClure's game against Oregon to the debut of Syd'Quan Thompson, who was thrust into a starting role as a redshirt freshman against Tennessee in 2006 because of injuries and was eaten alive by the Vols. Thompson eventually became a star and is now in the NFL (on injured reserve for the Denver Broncos).
DE Ernest Owusu -- Owusu made a number of big plays against Oregon, including a sack and a batted-down fourth-down pass that helped Cal stay in the game for a half. He needs to apply pressure to Barkley.
TB Isi Sofele -- Sofele had a career-high 119 yards against Oregon, and he has shown an ability to break long runs. He's averaging 99.8 rushing yards per game, and he needs to collect a few big-gainers against USC.
--CB Marc Anthony sustained a dislocated left shoulder in the Oct. 6 loss to Oregon and is questionable for the game against USC. He has not practiced in the days leading up to the game. If he cannot play, Stefan McClure is expected to start in his place.
--DE Trevor Guyton did not practice on Sunday, Oct. 9, because of an undisclosed injury. It's unclear whether he'll play against USC, but he is one of the Bears' best pass rushers and would be missed.
--QB Zach Maynard was knocked out of the Oregon game after taking a hard hit after releasing a pass. However, he is fine, and has practiced with no ill effects.