Cal - USC Preview

<p class=txt> Much is made of the intense Cal-USC rivalry and its bones of contention extend more deeply than football. The two universities are chasms apart on many levels, sharing little in common philosophically. It's safe to say their member representatives--fans, alumni, players, coaches--will not be enjoying communal swordfish-kabobs over the Hibachis in the near future.

If you borrow the signature Clint Eastwood flick title: "The Good (Cal), The Bad (USC or UCLA) and The Ugly (guess who ‘furdies?), you have Cal's perspective in a nutshell. (That's a T-shirt idea for a young entrepreneur, so donate 10% to CyberBears). Though some compare the 2002 Cal unit to the 10 win-2 loss 1991 team led by QB Mike Pawlawski, that's a generous assessment in some respects. They are more like 1993's up-and-down, Keith Gilbertson-coached 9-4 squad with a little more charisma. The difference is, the 1993 team was headed into the slag heap for nearly a decade while this team is on the rise, perhaps for good.

Is it too early to suggest Cal's football team is back? Not really. Last weekend's resounding, long overdue victory ended the Washington Huskies opprobrious 19-game winning streak dating to 1976. The momentous win is already cited as one of new Cal football coach's Jeff Tedford's mushrooming accoutrement of high-water marks. Basking in the past may have cost Cal vs. Air Force, so they'll be called upon to summon a total tea effort vs. a talented USC outfit after their big UW win. Cal's crucial match-up with USC pits the Trojans offense vs. Cal's pass defense. The quarterback position is laden with similarity and both teams feature viable offensive lines. USC's QB Carson Palmer and Cal's QB Kyle Boller are tremendous athletic talents. Both are feel-good stories finally fulfilling their potential late in their collegiate careers, cementing their legacies and punching their tickets to the NFL draft next April. Boller has come through in clutch situations this campaign and though Palmer has put up some gaudier numbers, I'd take Boller ahead of Palmer in a mock NFL draft. He showed tremendous poise in the most adverse conditions. Trying to come back against a wily Air force defense, Boller responded by converting numerous late game, third- and fourth-down tries against the Falcons, despite 10 dropped balls by his normally erstwhile receivers. He could have blown his stack, but kept his cool even in the aftermath of what was classified as a bitter loss.

It bears little repeating if Cal's receiving unit is as accommodating as they were against AFA the Golden Bears can mail this one in as a blowout. USC is better than Air Force and Cal is playing this arch-rival in the LA Coliseum. Still, don't look for Cal to be daunted by a SoCal road game, after manhandling Michigan State in East Lansing and dismantling the Washington Huskies last week in Seattle. With many Cal players and alums from that neck of the woods, some degree of familiarity exists and Cal's confidence should not be shaken by the partisan crowd. USC's Palmer is a true signal-calling talent in the mold of former Washington Redskin Doug Williams, a tall, agile QB who will target his lightning-fast, tall wide-outs on a regular basis. Note that USC's WRs are taller than Cal's secondary. Message to Cal: Remember Washington State. USC has a similar caliber passing offense when clicking. Just ask Colorado and their solid defense, which was torched for 40 points last month in Boulder. So in other words: ‘You can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them!' Look well to the Kansas State-USC game film for answers. USC is not infallible. Palmer served up an interception vs. Washington State in a bitter OT loss in the Pac-10s black hole of Pullman. And Kansas State bullied USC and its high-flying offense into a loss, playing in a similarly rough vein that Cal's secondary displayed in beating UW. Still, Cal's pass rush must be effective. A composed Palmer will scorch Cal's secondary.

At home, Palmer might be less flustered, but based on the season so far, Cal will need to gamble on defense for turnovers. Palmer has shown a tendency to rush his passes when he is harried, similar to Boller last year. If Cal hopes to stay with taller, faster receivers man-to-man it could be a long afternoon at the Coliseum. If the Cal lineman shake up Palmer, the Cal ends jostle the USC receivers during their routes, and Cal's solid secondary doles out some jarring, early-game hits and gambles for some picks, they may get some interceptions and force fumbles, enough to swing the game in Cal's favor. Look for some Cal zone defenses to stymie the Trojans. Nmandi Asomugha's name came up huge on D late in the game in my crystal ball. Cal can dial in on the tendency that Palmer's propensity is to throw first and hand the ball off second, having completed 32 of 50 passes vs. the WSU Cougars last week for 381 yards. USC's rushing game netted a mediocre 72 yards on 32 carries. Cal's run defense is on par with the Cougars so USC can be stuffed in the middle. Another stat to watch is the red zone. USC scored four touchdowns in its 27-point effort vs. WSU, while Cal held UW to 16 points, though they drove inside the Cal 34 yard-line five times. Also note that USC opts for the short- to medium-range passing game, so they will generate their share of sustained drives if left to their own devices. So again look for bump-and-run coverage by Cal.

Cal can utilize its balanced offense to beat USC and they can't go vanilla like they did in a late two-point conversion effort to which failed to tie the game vs. Air Force if the game is close. Like Cal, the Trojans' defense is not the Steel Curtain revisited, giving up generous yardage to WSU (315 on 23 of 44 passing and 29 carries for 201 yards). It will be on Cal's Joe Igber's and Terrell Williams's shoulders to keep the USC secondary honest, sufficiently softening the coverage so Cal and Boller can go to work with his wide receivers. Note: John Makonnen is an all-conference caliber player. Hope his hamstring is healthy. If so, he might have a Bobby Shaw-type day in him on Saturday. Going with a gut feeling here based on several factors: Cal's regained momentum from beating Washington last week; Cal has also experienced the humbling effect of the disappointing losses to Air Force and Washington State; USC is an arrogant outfit and their arrogance tends to be their downfall--they still thinks they ‘own' Cal and don't innately respect Cal enough to a) realize that we can compete with them physically and b) they'll need to beat us with something else besides mano-a-mano play. Hope that Cal has outgrown its disturbing Jekyll and Hyde image, a puzzling first-half good, second-half bad archetype linked to their two losses. They need to come out of the locker room at halftime en fuego.

If a Trojan opponent plays sloppily and gets down early, USC is capable of making any team in the country look bad. If Cal gets an early lead, sags late in the game and lets the Trojans creep back in, to Cal's dismay the home crowd will drag a rejuvenated USC team to victory. So if Cal gets ahead, they need to ratchet it up a notch and sustain that killer instinct for the rest of the Pac-10 season. Cal might well taste defeat, but not due to its own lapses with Jeff Tedford at the helm. It's a tall order, but at a solid 4-2 these Golden Bears walk tall: If Cal strings together four fundamentally sound quarters of football against a very good USC team in a hostile environment, we win a bitterly contested showdown 38-34 in a wild and woolly game that will dominate ESPN's College Game Day highlights.


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