Cal's game at USC on Oct. 16 comes at the perfect time as far as the Bears are concerned.
Preseason polls would suggest USC should win, because the Trojans were picked to finish second in the Pac-10 and the Bears tabbed for seventh, plus the game is at USC, where the Bears have not won in 10 years.
However, Cal is feeling pretty good about itself after its 35-7 victory over UCLA on Oct. 9. That blowout and the 10-9 road loss to Arizona in their previous game gives the Bears the feeling they can compete with anyone in the Pac-10. A lot of goals are still within reach for Cal.
Meanwhile, USC is coming off consecutive losses in which the opposing team scored on the final play of the game after a last-minute drive. Add the fact that the Trojans are ineligible for postseason play, and it may be difficult for coach Lane Kiffin to get his team excited about playing the Bears.
The first few minutes could be critical in determining which way this game goes. The play of USC quarterback Matt Barkley has been impressive through six games as he matures into a topflight quarterback. USC freshman wide receiver Robert Woods provides a big-play threat that should concern the Bears. Cal has done a pretty good job of limiting big plays this season, but it has not faced a receiver as explosive as Woods.
The passing game is the area in which USC has the biggest advantage, because Cal quarterback Kevin Riley has not had a great season and is coming off his worst performance of the season. Typically, quarterback play determines the winner in Pac-10 games, and the Bears may have to overcome that tradition to beat the Trojans.
USC should make it easier for Riley to succeed. The Trojans' secondary is young and has been ineffective, and opponents have gained yardage almost at will through the air against USC. It's a much different group from the one that limited Riley to 15 completions in 40 pass attempts last season in the Trojans' 30-3 blowout victory.
It remains to be seen how Jeff Tedford will attack the Trojans, because the Bears have been far more successful with their running game, led by tailback Shane Vereen, who is averaging 115.4 yards a game. The Trojans are more effective stopping the run, however.
--Cal (3-2) has the same record it did last season after five games. But the Bears lost their first two Pac-10 games last season, putting them out of the title race almost before it started. The Bears are 1-1 in the Pac-10 this season, and only two teams are unbeaten in Pac-10 play.
--The USC game typically is the biggest drawing card for Cal home games, other than the Stanford game, and the Bears are scheduled to host the Trojans in 2011. However, depending how the schools are aligned in the two six-team divisions in the Pac-12 next season, it's possible the Bears will not play USC next season. Cal has played USC every year since 1928.
--Cal is 3-0 at home and 0-2 in road games this season.
--Cal ranks fourth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and sixth in the country in passing yardage allowed after ranking 91st and 111th in those two categories last season.
SERIES HISTORY: USC leads Cal 62-30-5 (last meeting 2009, 30-3 USC).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cal has run the ball well in recent games, but its passing game has been poor. TB Shane Vereen may be the best all-around back in a conference filled with topflight versatile backs. He has rushed for 451 yards over his past three games, and he continues to be an effective receiver as well. Second-string TB Isi Sofele rushed for 80 yards against UCLA and his playing time has increased as the season goes on. The passing game is another issue. QB Kevin Riley continues to make questionable decisions, and he was not productive in the Oct. 9 game against UCLA. He was just 9-for-15 for 83 yards, plus he was sacked four times. On some of those sacks he was not given enough time by his line, but on others he should have thrown the ball sooner or run.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Cal's defense has been much better than expected, and it seems to be getting better as the season goes on under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Except for the game against Nevada, when the Bears yielded 52 points and got torn apart by the Wolf Pack's pistol offense, the Bears have handled every offense thrown at them. In the past two games -- against Arizona and UCLA -- Cal has yielded just 17 total points against offenses that had been productive. Cal ranks first in the Pac-10 and eighth nationally in total defense heading into the Oct. 16 game against USC. The key has been the effective pass rush supplied by Pendergast's scheme, the play of OLB Mychal Kendricks and the improvement of cornerbacks Darian Hagan and Marc Anthony. The secondary will be tested against USC, though, because the Trojans have two explosive receivers -- Ronald Johnson and Robert Woods -- and an effective quarterback (Matt Barkley).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "With guys having career games two games in a row, obviously a lot of the blame falls on the secondary." -- USC coach Lane Kiffin, regarding his team's problems on pass defense against Washington's Jake Locker and Stanford's Andrew Luck.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cal at USC, Oct. 16 -- The Trojans have won six straight games against Cal and have not lost at home to the Bears since 2000. Last year, USC clobbered Cal 30-3 in Berkeley. However, USC is coming off two straight disheartening losses this season, while the Bears are buoyed by their 35-7 victory over UCLA. USC has a much better passing offense than Cal, which has done little through the air its past two games. However, the Bears have a much better passing defense than USC, which ranks 116th of 120 FBS teams in passing yardage yielded.
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Kevin Riley to the key to every game for Cal, but never more so than against USC. The Trojans' pass defense is lousy, and Riley must take advantage of that for the Bears to score. Riley must play better than he has the past few games. That means he must avoid turnovers and sacks and complete a good percentage. He also must run when the opportunity presents itself. The first few minutes of the game could be critical. If Cal can jump on top, it may take some of the heart out of USC, which has lost two straight and does not have much to play for anymore. The key defensively is preventing USC's wide receivers from making big plays. Robert Woods and Ronald Johnson are going to make some catches, but the Bears must prevent them from making plays of 50 or 60 yards, which they are very capable of doing. Woods and Johnson have combined for 57 catches and nine touchdowns.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: OLB Mychal Kendricks -- Kendricks has become the Bears' big-play defender. He may not make a lot of tackles, but he leads the team in tackles for a loss with 8.0 and seems to make game-changing plays, whether it be a sack or a fumble recovery or a big hit to cause a fumble. If he can apply pressure to USC QB Matt Barkley, it may help slow down the Trojans' passing attack.
TB Shane Vereen -- He is averaging 115.4 yards a game and has been outstanding the past three games. He is a weapon as both a runner and a receiver, and is capable of breaking a long run as well. If he can be a threat on the ground against USC, it will make Kevin Riley's job a lot easier.
CBs Marc Anthony and Darian Hagan -- They have played well this season. Neither one has allowed an opposing wide receiver to have a great game, which contrasts with last season when wide receivers went wild against the Bears. USC will be their toughest challenge, however, because Trojans WR Ronald Johnson and Robert Woods are touchdown makers.
ROSTER REPORT: --C Chris Guarnero missed the UCLA game with a sprained ankle, but he is expected to play in the Oct. 16 game at USC.
--TB Shane Vereen has caught at least one pass in all 31 games in which he played as a collegian. That is the longest such streak among active running backs.
--P Bryan Anger and CB Darian Hagan were named Pac-10 special teams and defensive players of the week, respectively, for their performances in the Oct. 9 game against UCLA. Anger averaged 50.4 yards on five punts, and Hagan had the first two sacks of his career and also intercepted a pass against the Bruins.