USC has quickly developed into a dominant defensive football team, currently ranked #4 nationally in total defense. Prior to last week's shootout with Washington State, the Trojans were the top defense in the nation in yardage allowed per game. In Pac 10 total defense, USC is the best (267 ypg) and Cal is the worst (403 ypg). In total points scored, more of the same pattern is evident. The Trojans are the conference's stingiest group, yielding just 15.4 ppg. On the other side of the coin, Cal's defense is ninth in the Pac 10 in scoring defense, giving up 25.8 ppg.
Cal as a team has adopted a persona from its new head coach. Cal leads the Pac 10 in scoring with an average of 40.5 ppg after six games. The Bears have been opportunistic and lead the Pac 10 in turnover margin with a +13 for half of a season or +2.17 per game. Not only do the hungry Bears create the turnovers but, more importantly, Tedford's troops lead the Pac 10 in converting them into points. In red zone offense, Cal leads the Pac 10, scoring on an almost unbelievable 24 out of 25 (96%) opportunities inside the opponent's 20 yard line. The only failure was not due to the offense per se, but rather a blocked field goal by Air Force that cemented a 24-22 loss. USC has a respectable +7 turnover margin, but stands only seventh in the conference in red zone offense. In Pac 10 total offense, Cal stands seventh (390 ypg) and USC ranks last (374 ypg).
So let's see. Which factor will prove most critical in the end: an inpenetrable defense or a high octane, high scoring offense fueled by turnovers? Does good pitching always beat good hitting? On paper the stats point to a USC win. However, this is why the game MUST be played. Last week, the computer calculated that Washington was a almost a "lock" (75% probability) to defeat California. The funny thing is that somebody forgot to tell Tedford and his Cal players that AND THE BEARS UPSET THE HUSKIES. Ironically, the oddsmaker's point spread for the USC-Cal game is identical: Cal, once again, is a 12 1/2 point underdog.
These two brilliant strategists, Carroll and Tedford, met last season when USC traveled to Oregon. The Ducks won 24-22. USC's defense controlled Oregon's offense (303 total yards) but registered only two sacks. Both teams stopped the other's running games. It would not be surprising to see a similar result this Saturday.
USC usually plays in close games but seldom gets blown out. The Trojans do overwhelm the opposition, however. Under Pete Carroll, SC has only a 1-6 record in games decided by 5 points or less. A poor kicking game, faulty offensive strategy and a lack of clutch performances by QB Carson Palmer are some of the possible reasons for this adverse result. It would be to Cal's advantage to keep this game tight into the fourth quarter. USC just suffered a heartbreaking loss, 30-27 to Washington State last week in overtime. Cal has performed well against both USC and UCLA in recent seasons. As a matter of fact, Cal has only won 5 Pac 10 road games in the last six seasons with 4 of those victories coming at the expense of Cal's neighbors down south. The Bears have won the last three meetings in the LA Coliseum and 4 of the last 6 games overall against the USC Trojans. Some attribute these suprising results to the fact that approximately half of Cal's team generally hails from the Southern California area. The Bear army has already marched upon Sparta and conquered the Spartans (of Michigan State) so maybe the USS Tedford will visit the land of Troy, bearing "gifts" as foretold in ancient Greek lore...
Cal's Offense vs USC's Defense
USC has confronted traditional offenses this season and manhandled them. They crushed Colorado, 40-3, and shut out Oregon State, 22-0. The Trojans held the Buffs to something like 61 total yards and clamped down on the Beavers, limiting them to 8 first downs and 141 yards total. These are unheard of numbers in college football today - the USC defense can be scary.
On the other hand, USC lost to two games to unconventional offensive teams. Kansas State executed the option with success while Washington State spread the field and passed quickly out of a shotgun formation. The former - almost exclusively a running offense - did not allow SC's pass rush to be a factor in the game, and the other did not allow the mighty SC pass rush to get to the quarterback. Cal has also lost to BOTH types of offenses this season: Air Force (the triple option) and the Washington State 4 to 5 wide receiver aerial assault. Washington State totalled 516 yards total offense against USC - a game film that can be viewed by Cal as a blueprint on how to beat the Trojan defensive scheme. (It didn't hurt WSU that SC's AA (all-american) safety, Troy Polamalu, suffered a high ankle sprain and missed over half of the game).
**Offensive Line vs Defensive Line**
USC has one of the best defensive front fours in the nation - 3 sophs and a junior. Last season, these youngsters racked up 7 sacks against Cal in Berkeley. In the Pac 10 in 2001, the Trojans finished second in sacks (37) to Washington State's 40. This season SC is in a six team battle of Pac 10 defenses targeting an average of three sacks per game or more. ASU leads with 4 per game while WSU and Oregon average 3.5 per contest. Cal (17) and USC (14) are one sack shy of a three sack average.
Cal's offensive line has been the barometer of the offense's success this season. The Bear OL has yielded only 7 sacks in six games to lead the conference in pass protection. Washington State is the only opponent to tally two sacks in a single game. Can the blocking schemes inserted by the new coaching staff (such as the moving pocket) keep USC under control? That's a critical question deserving close examination.
Cal's weakside tackle, Mark Wilson, will likely face ex-Oakland prep star, Omar Nazel (2 sacks). Nazel has been held out of practice this week with a sore shoulder so he may have to share duty with ex-juco, Van Brown. The most improved player up front for the Trojans is Mike Patterson (8.5 TFLs including 5.5 sacks), nicknamed "baby Sapp" after Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp. He did not start last season but beat out senior returnee, Bernard Riley, for the weakside tackle spot. Scott Tercero will match up with this super-strong underclassman. The strongside tackle is a beast, Shaun Cody, rated the top prep DL in the nation in the class of 2001 over prospects like Lorenzo Alexander. Cody notched 5 sacks as a true freshman as compared to 'Zo's 1.5 last season. This year - he's a marked man, seeing constant double-teams, and has no sacks yet. He'll line up against either Jon Giesel or David Hays. Giesel, the regular starter at strong side guard, missed the Washington game with a sprained knee. He has practiced this week and is expected to be ready on Saturday. Most likely, center Ryan Jones will have blitz pickup duties plus will double down on Cody most of the time. Cal's strongside tackle, Chris Murphy, draws the assignment of Kenechi Udeze (8 TFLs inclusive of 3.5 sacks). The Trojan DL accounts for 11 of the 14 sacks in 5 games with linebackers (2) and safety Polamalu (1) registering the others. This defensive line possesses great pass rush instincts and is probably the most physical front that Cal has faced this season. The DL is inconsistent against the run, however. If a team tries to pound the ball directly at them like Colorado did, the run is usually stuffed. However, they are susceptible to misdirection plays and draws like Washington State demonstrated with more than 200 yards rushing last week. Cal's offense offers a similar menu. SC also was weak on the edge versus the option. Don' be suprised if Reggie Robertson plays a series or two, running some option plays. These 3 sophs missed Joe Igber last season because Iggy was out with a broken collarbone. Ziggy Iggy will also face these linebackers for the first time so he might create some havoc. Igber is due to break a long run this week. If he can combine for 150 yards running and receiving, Cal should win the ballgame. He's been averaging 120 yards total offense this season.
**Running Backs vs Linebackers**
USC's linebacker corps is undersized (215 pound average) but can tackle. Coach Tedford observed that they are the cleanest tacklers that he's witnessed on film. The two leading tacklers on the team are weakside backer, Melvin ("Champ") Simmons, and strongside LB Matt Grootegoed, both collecting approximately 6 tackles per game. Mike Pollard mans the middle. This group is hard to sweep on or screen successfully because of their speed. One tactic is to run counter plays or misdirection action at these guys to catch them in over-pursuit. Boller will need to keep a watchfull eye on ex-safety Grootegoed because he has the spped to pick off a lazy pass to a back or the tight end for a quick six. This season, this linebacker trio along with the front four have cut the opponent's average run to 3.4 ypc from 3.9 ypc in 2001. The Trojans zone blitz on occasion especially if their front four can not generate satisfactory pressure. Cal's backs, RB Igber and FB Manderino, will have to help out here, too, when needed.
**Wide Receivers/Tight Ends vs Secondary**
This is Cal's most improved unit on the team and major reason for Boller's turnaround season. Two of the receivers have nagging hamstring problems but are expected to play. Possession receiver Geoff McArthur (30 receptions) sat out the Washington game due to tightness. He'll match up against sprint star Darryl Rideaux (5' 8" 170). McArthur needs to use his body to dominate this opponent. Slotback Jonathan Makonnen (26 recs for 407 yards and 4 TDs) left the UW game for several series because he aggravated his hamstring - but returned later in th egame. He'll face Marcell Allmond, another track star. Allmond was converted during fall camp from wide receiver to cornerback, so he's learning on-the-job. Speed WR LaShaun Ward (5 TDs and 17.3 ypc), has averaged nearly a touchdown a game since he converted to wide receiver midway through 2001. He'll line up across from redshirt freshman William Buchanan, Jr. Buchanan (6'4" 175) is also a converted WR. Cal recruited all three of those Trojan corners intensely. Reserve slot receiver Vincent Strang, caught two passes against UW in his debut (including a 55-yard scoring strike) and should see further action this week. Cal's TE Tom Swoboda, is being utilized more every game. He caught 20 yard TD passes against both Washington State and Washington. If Polamalu is out, Boller might try to exploit the middle of the Trojan defense like he did versus Washington. Soph Jason Leach replaced the first team all-american against WSU and grabbed an interception. Although he's talented, Tedford most likely would choose to test an inexperienced player. USC's secondary leads the Pac 10 in pass defense allowing only a completion percentage of 43.2 for an average gain of 5.4 ypc. Their two starting cornerbacks are out, Ronnie Nunn and Kevin Arbet, so Willie Buchanan Jr, Marcell Allmond and Darryl Rideaux are the three primary cover guys. All but Rideaux are rookies at the position so Cal will target them like previous opponents. DeShaun Hill is a very active free safety and hits hard - but he's also very banged up. The key to this game might be the availability of superstar Trojan safety, Troy Polamalu. Cal is tied for 4th in the Pac 10 in passing offense so they have an opportunity to exploit if he's absent. Even if he does play, there's no way that he can be 100%. Cal should test him deep early if he plays, forcing him to run...
Advantage: USC (if Polamalu plays)
Cal will have to run the football for 120 yards or more to keep USC's front four honest. Misdirection plays, shuffle passes, screens and draws are staples of Cal's new offense. I personally hope that the Bears will not run Igber so often on first down against these monsters. If the run is stuffed early, Cal might even be forced to pass short to set up the run like they did against Clemson in the 1991 Citrus Bowl, remember? If the Bears are healthy at wide receiver, Tedford might experiment with some four WR sets like WSU employed last week. We can speculate that Boller may even line up in the shotgun? The Trojans are short of experienced corners (like Cal)... Trick plays off reverses or play-action should work against these inexperienced defensive backs for the Trojans. So let's dial up two gadget plays for the Trojans, one pehaps to set the tone and silence the crowd in each half. If that sentence sounds a bit familiar it's because I predicted the early gadget play off of a play action fake in my game analysis last week. Cal may not complete a high percentage of its passes against the league's top secondary but we can hope that the Bears click on some big plays. Cal and USC run similar West coast-style offenses, so the defenses should be used to practicing against similar plays. This could lead to some interceptions on both sides in this game if either quarterback gets sloppy...
Cal's Defense vs USC's Offense
**Defensive Line vs Offensive Line**
For the past decade, the Trojan Achilles Heel (is that so 'Greek', or what?) has always been its offensive line. Nothing has changed this season. USC averaged only 2.6 ypc last season though some said it was because they lost their top tailbacks to injury. This year with the return of Sultan McCullough and Malaefou MacKenzie along with the addition of Justin Fargas (son of "HuggyBear" for Starsky and Hutch fans), the running game was supposed to flourish. Well, through five games, the USC average rush per carry has improved to 2.8 yards. The Trojans are ranked #8 in the Pac 10 in rushing offense averaging 105 ypg.
The pass protection has substantially improved in 2002, giving up only two sacks per contest versus more than 3 sacks per game last season. In Cal's last three victories over SC, the Bear's "D" overmatched USC up front, ringing up 22 sacks (6 in 1998, 9 in 1999 and 7 in 2000). Cal defensive line has accounted for ALL seventeen sacks this season. The deep DL needs to assert itself and get into the head of SC quarterback, Carson Palmer. When Palmer rushed himself, he has always made poor judgements and mistakes. USC fans probably feel the same way about Kyle Boller. Both quarterbacks received tremendous national acclaim as preps but have yet to fulfill their promise, entering their senior campaigns. Palmer has a bit of an advantage over Boller in that this is his second year in Norm Chow's offensive system. Chow is partially responsible for fewer sacks by installing a West Coast offense predicated on short, precision timing patterns. To illustrate, USC is last in total offense in the Pac 10 (374 ypg) and ninth in scoring offense(26.6 ppg). Their average gain per play (4.8) is the worst in the conference by a half yard per play. Cal is seventh in total offense but averages a respectable 5.8 ypp.
USC's weakside tackle, Jacob Rogers, will draw the assigment of Cal sack-master, Tully Banta-Cain (11.5 TFLs including 7 sacks). Monte Parson (1 sack) will see some PT as his backup. The weak side guard, Lenny Vandermade, will take on Cal weak side DT Josh Beckham(2 sacks) . The strong side guard is their best offensive lineman, Zach Wilson, a third year starter. He'll face Bear run-stopper, NT Daniel Nwangwu (14 tackles in 5 games). Backing up both tackles will be Cal's Lorenzo Alexander. His performance level is improving each game so don't be suprised if he "breaks through" this week with a quarterback sack... On passing downs, Cal has been removing a tackle and employing three defensive ends in its front four for extra push. Tom Canada (2 sacks in 2 games), an ex-juco NT, "blew up" last week with two sacks of UW's Cody Pickett during the fourth quarter. Huge. He missed the initial four games of the season for personal reasons but looks to be getting his timing back. Strong tackle will be true freshman, Winston Justice (6'6" 305), matching wits against Cal's senior duo of Josh Gustaveson (1.5 sacks + 2 tipped passes) and Jamaal Cherry (2.5 sacks)... This physical specimen is the ex-prep DreamTeamer from Long Beach Poly that jokingly was once quoted as saying that "Poly could beat Cal." Hopefully, he will be learning a valuable lesson from his Bear counterparts this Saturday on the gridiron. All of Cal's seventeen (17) sacks are accounted for by its deepest unit-the defensive line... The DL seemed to find itself against Washington, taking over the game in the four quarter with four sacks (five for the game).
**Linebackers vs Running Backs**
Eventhough USC has not demonstrated a strong rushing attack, Sultan McCullough is an excellent running back who is due to break one. When Cal last faced McCullough in LA during the 2000 season, he had an excellent game. He continually got outside of Cal's linebackers(Fujita, Klotsche and Nixon) and turned the corner almost breaking a couple for the distance. This season he is averaging 4.5 ypc so he is not averaging 2.8ypc. MacKenzie is their designated third down back that functions primarily as a pass receiver(3 receptions per game for an average of 14.3 ypc). Sometimes OC Chow has him split out like a wide receiver. Fargas has averaged 2.8 ypc but does have speed..USC also throws to its fullback at least twice per game so Cal linebackers need to stay cognizant of this fact.
Cal's new Oregon-style defensive scheme seems to enable its linebackers to play back off the line of scrimmage, flowing to the ball to make the tackle. MLB Marcus Daniels has stepped up in replacement of last season's leading tackler" King Kong" Klotsche(knee surgery) , to lead the team with 40 stops (probably over 7 tpg because he has started only four games). He has also defensed 3 passes. Weakside linebacker Matt Nixon missed the Washington State game with a sprained knee but participated last week. He's averaging 6 tackles per game. His replacement, soph Wendell Hunter, is coming on the last two games. He averages 4 tpg for the season but in the two games that he started Hunter probably notched 7-8 per game. He had two incredible hits in the UW game last week. The combination of Paul Ugenti and Calvin Hosey at strongside backer has averaged nearly 6 tpg, too. To summarize, Cal is not getting destroyed on passes over the middle to running backs and tight ends like in 2001 because of improved linebacker play. Newcomers, Marcus Daniels and Wendell Hunter, have added much needed speed to this much maligned unit.
**Secondary vs Wide Receivers/Tight Ends**
Cal's secondary is mixing defenses up between zone and man as well as implementing personnel shifts. Last week, the defensive coordinator, Bob Gregory, assigned rover back Nmamdi Asomugha(6'2" 210) to cornerback to defend AA WR Reggie Williams (6'4' 220) of Washington. They filled the rover spot with hyper-active freshman cornerback, Donnie McCleskey. It looked like a match made in heaven. This week who knows? USC has imported an outstanding freshman WR, Mike Williams(6'5"), from Florida who leads the team in touchdown receptions and reception yardage per game. He will likely face Mr Asomugha. Some Trojan fans predict that this young man could be the next Keyshawn Johnson. Kareem Kelly, the former state high school sprint champ, will face his old nemisis, Jemeel Powell. The new "go-to" possession receiver this season is Keary Colbert(27 recs in 5 games) who will draw Cal corner James Bethea. Donnie McCleskey will play rover (strong safety) when Asomugha is playing cornerback. Otherwise, McCleskey will be the nickle back or #3 cornerback to defend the slot receiver. The enforcer is FS, Bert Watts(6'1" 205), who is second on the team in tackles with 32(5.3 tpg). Cal's strategy is not to give up the quick strike, confuse the quarterback with different coverage schemes, and be aggressive, causing turnovers. The Bears are rated last in pass defense in the Pac 10(274 ypg) versus USC's sixth rated passing offense(269 ypg). Cal's secondary is also permitting a 58% completion ratio which is terrible(ninth in Pac 10). The Trojans, however, average the least yards per reception(6.7) in the league as well as the fewest TDs(7).
One of the biggest reasons for Cal's turnaround is the superlative play of their special teams. LaShaun Ward leads the conference in kickoff returns (27.1 ypr) and Jemeel Powell is fifth in punt returns (12.2 ypr). USC is ranked #7 and #9 in those two return disciplines, respectively. Cal is #3 in kickoff coverage while SC languishes in seventh place. The Bears have been softening in punt coverage recently and need to tighten that one phase of special teams. As a result, USC wins the net punting category over Cal by 5 ypp. Cal's Mark Jensen is second in the Pac 10 in field goal accuracy (11-14 or 79%) vs USC's ninth place standing (44%). Cal also has caused several turnovers on special teams.
IN SUMMARY, this game could have a number of possible outcomes:
#1-If USC's defensive line puts constant pressure on Cal QB Kyle Boller, Cal loses in a blowout.
#2-SC is number one in the Pac 10 in ball controll with an average time of possession of 34 minutes per game. If USC's OL has a strong game and the Trojans can continue its short passing game and/or actually run the football, this could result in a 10-14 point victory as predicted by the oddsmakers.
#3-However, I'm guessing that this game will fit Cal's success formula and the game will be close.
(a) Cal will take the lead in the first half (the Bears have outscored their six opponents by a score of 142-38).
(b) Cal will remain undefeated in the turnover battle. Cal's defensive line will win the war of the trenches and sack Carson Palmer multiple times. This will result in turnovers. USC is also consistently net-positive under Pete Carroll in turnovers both last season and this season so this prediction is not a sure thing. Cal has won this category in 5 out of its 6 games and tied Air Force (3 TOs apiece) in the other. Cal lost to Air Force. however, so basically the Bears NEED to continue the trend of a positive turnover margin to win
(c) Cal will continue to score with short fields efficiently. This matchup is like last week where Cal was tops in red zone offense and Washington was tops in redzone defense - but no longer. Cal won that battle handily. USC now inherits the #1 rating in redzone defense (they allow only a 56% success rate) to try to thwart Cal's uncanny efficiency of 96% inside the twenty... This is going to be a hard fought grudge match because whichever team loses will have two Pac 10 losses early, eliminating that team (in all probability) from winning the conference title. USC is also tired of hearing about how Cal "owns" them in their house. Cal will be pumped because half of the team's families will be in attendance and the same players that suffered through a 1-10 season in 2001 are finally experiencing success simply by following the instructions of Jeff Tedford and his new coaching staff.
(d) Cal will dominate special teams which can cause a touchdown swing in the final score. This game may well be won by Cal's field goal kicker.
(e) Under Pete Carroll, USC has not learned to win the close games. To date, in games decided by 5 points or less, the Trojans are an embarassing 1-6.
MY PREDICTION: California 27, USC 24.