Since Jeff Tedford took over as head coach for the Cal Bears they have been nothing short of an irritant to the USC Trojans. The nation has translated one Over-Time victory versus two National Championships and as many Heisman Trophies into Cal having the Trojans' number. That's some strange logic but it is that sort of thinking that has Cal, and everyone else convinced they actually have a chance.
Last week USC played the Oregon Ducks and in studying match-ups I truly was concerned how the Trojans would secure the win. I felt a scrambling quarterback, an excellent running back along with a solid wide receiver unit could prove too much for the Pac Ten's youngest defense. Instead of struggling against the league's most prolific offense the USC defense came of age holding the ducks to no touchdowns, save the one the officials awarded them in one of the longest fifteen minutes of my life.
Three real points is all the best offense in the Pac Ten could muster.
Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, who lost to both teams, on the Cal-USC game. ``USC's defense is the best we've played all year."
USC is the best defense Cal has played all year too. Not Tennessee or Arizona who they lost to, not Washington who took them to Over-Time or Oregon, who turned the ball over five times but was still stiff competition despite the score… none has a defense as good as USC's.
Defense wins championships. Cal's about to learn that lesson - again. In the 2006 season Cal has faced three good defenses and lost…two of those matches. If the adage about defense is true, then Cal's winning percentage after this Saturday is about to get worse.
Of all their prior opponents USC is the best defense Cal has faced, by far, but the same cannot be said for the Trojans against the Cal offense. Don't get me wrong, they're very good, leading the league in scoring – all of two points more than the Trojans.
They have arguably the best running back in Marshawn Lynch but Arkansas, Oregon and ASU as teams all rush for more yards than Cal. All those teams were shut down by USC.
Their passing game is outstanding, again league leading in efficiency but the Trojans' John David Booty out performs Cal's Longshore in total offense. So if the Trojans are just a heartbeat behind Cal in the offensive areas where Cal is league leading and USC's defense is so far superior the Bears what makes Cal so dangerous? Answer number one: turnover margin.
The Bears are plus eight in the turnover margin. In their victories over ASU, Oregon and Washington Cal forced fourteen turnovers. And in this new version of college football where the clock is constantly ticking and offensive possessions are reduced by lifetimes, this sort of turnover advantage makes a very good team look almost great. Cal is very good. They are not great.
For the Bears to gain that sort of advantage against the Trojans they are going to have to force their Cardinal and Gold opponent into falling prey to the turnover bug but that is something well coached teams just don't do. USC is a well coached team.
So without the turnover advantage how else is Cal so deadly? Answer number two: Special Teams.
Again, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti: "Cal has some intangibles on special teams…that USC will have to deal with."
Thanks to the outstanding play of sophomore sensation DeSean Jackson as a punt returner Cal has managed to score a touchdown with their Special Teams in nearly every game this year. And now, because of injury, Jackson will also be returning kick offs - very dangerous indeed.
SC's kicking game has been superb this season. Troy Van Blarcom has placed more balls in the endzone since I can remember and newcomer Greg Woideneck has only miss-hit one ball all year. Unfortunately for USC that kick, traveling ten yards further than planned, cost the Trojans a touchdown during their only loss of the season. Expensive, but lesson learned.
Coach Carroll has gotten about as specific about developing his kicking game as he has about his defense. On punts he wants 40 yards with a 4.5 second hang time. That distance and hang time allows his gunners, the fastest he has had since his arrival at USC, to attack the opponents returner as soon as the ball is in his hands.
On kick offs he likes them as deep into the endzone as his kicker can oblige. Putting the ball in the endzone neutralizes any sort of momentum a big return might give a team like Cal. It will be key to forcing them in to earning every yard through their offense, something Cal has not been as good at as people might think. So without turnovers and big plays from their Special Teams how can Cal beat the Trojans. Final answer: They can't.
With that knowledge I'm "All In." Put all my chips on Red, Cardinal Red and let Pete Carroll take control. Like playing the odds in Vegas where everything is a gamble this is a game where it's all or nothing for the Trojans and they know it. Luckily luck has nothing to do with the outcome – experience does and the Trojans have it in spades versus their Northern California counterpart the Cal Bears.
The only position where Cal might be better than USC is at tailback but that won't be enough to defeat the Trojans come Saturday.
As to Cal's defense, they've created opportunities all year long and will hope to continue that streak against USC. It's up to the Trojans to keep those opportunities to an absolute minimum. And while Cal had a nice run in the turnover department they've also given up a ton of yards to nearly every opponent they've played this year.
Hughes, considered by many to be the best shut-down corner in the nation will be put up against either Smith or Jarrett and asked to continue his brilliant ways. The problem, he can only cover one of them at a time, hence the Bears' 112th pass defense ranking.
Their linebackers, like USC's are fast and swarm to the ball but their defensive line is no match in the trenches against the Trojans. This will be the ultimate and last edge "on the field" for the Trojans.
Off the field, that is, in the stands is the final advantage for the USC Trojans.
A few years back Tedford started a chant "92,000 disappointed fans" to describe the mood to sweep over the Gray Lady after his Bears stole the game from the home team. Unfortunately for Cal that victory never came about. Unfortunately, again for Cal, that game has never left their minds. It was prevalent enough last week to cost them an easy win against Arizona and it will rear its ugly head again the moment they set foot on the Coliseum floor.
With everything on the line it might seem like a huge gamble but the Trojans have no choice but to go "All In" in this next stage of a playoff gauntlet if they want the big jackpot of their choice of a National Championship or Rosebowl game.
It's my belief the odds are in their favor.
Final Score: USC 37 Cal 24