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September 21, 2012Game 4: 'Shuffle It All, Keep Movin' Along '
With their undefeated dreams crushed on the Farm, the Trojans look to pick up the pieces at home against another Bay Area rival.
The USC Trojans (2-1, 0-1 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 12 by the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 13 by the Associated Press, kick off the home portion of their Pac-12 schedule against the California Golden Bears (1-2) at 3 p.m. (PDT) on Saturday, Sept. 22 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Pac-12 Network cable television audience. It is the 100th meeting between the two schools (USC's most against any opponent, with the series uninterrupted since 1926), with Troy holding a 64-30-5 edge. The Trojans have won the past eight meetings, including a 30-9 whipping in San Francisco a season ago (as Cal's Memorial Stadium was under renovation) and a 48-14 runaway in the last Los Angeles meeting in 2010.
A week ago, the Trojans' dreams of an undefeated season were snuffed out in a plodding 21-14 loss at Stanford. The Cardinal front seven overwhelmed a USC offensive line missing its emotional and technical leader, senior center Khaled Holmes, holding USC scoreless in the second half, while Stanford's offense notched two late touchdowns to earn the stunning victory. Meanwhile, Cal running back Brendan Bigelow, listed third on the depth chart, stunned Ohio State with two long TD runs, but the Bears' upset bid fell just short in Columbus, as the then-12th-ranked Buckeyes held on for a 35-28 victory.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (27-14 career collegiate head coaching record; 20-8 at USC) is in his third season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, California headman Jeff Tedford (80-50) is in his 11th season in Strawberry Canyon. The Bears have appeared in eight bowls during Tedford's 10 seasons, an unprecedented run for the school. However, he is facing growing heat from Berkeley alums after struggling to a 12-13 record during the past two seasons and opening the new Memorial Stadium with an embarrassing loss to Nevada on Sept. 1. Still, the Bears see USC as a big rival and - with some firepower on both sides of the ball - could present a challenge to a reeling Trojan team.
Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Jim Michalczik rejoined the Cal staff last year to take the reins of the Bears' offense. During his first year in the role, Cal improved from its dreadful ratings in 2010, but remained very inconsistent. Tedford's reputation as a quarterback guru has finally begun to take the hit it's deserved for years. After all, Cal hasn't had a consistent performer under center since Aaron Rodgers - that's a better part of a decade without a single decent NFL QB prospect passing through Berkeley. Senior quarterback Zach Maynard has been trying to change that. After struggling through much of 2011, Maynard played well in the Bears' final four games of the season and has picked up where he left off. The lefty has completed 60-of-90 passes in three games, for 754 yards and four TDs, with just two interceptions. He leads a Cal offense that's averaging nearly 465 yards per game through three weeks. He was suspended for the first quarter of the Bears' opening loss to Nevada for a missed tutoring session during the summer (his teammates weren't told of the suspension by coaches until the night before the game, bafflingly). That did give some time to junior backup Allan Bridgford, who struggled.
Senior running back Isi Sofele is a small, quick and powerful runner who does well getting lost behind his offensive linemen. He was a force for Cal last season and leads the Bears with 212 yards (a 4.7 ypc average) thus far in 2012. Classmate C.J. Anderson sees the second-most carries (23 in 2012, for 125 yards and 2 TDs) and is also a threat as a pass catcher. Bigelow, who stunned Ohio State with TD runs of 81 and 59 yards on his four carries, had only two total carries coming into the game and usually is seen as more of a threat as a kick returner. Senior fullback Eric Stevens is out of the Cal mold of solid lead blockers who might catch a pass or two.
Maynard's half-brother, speedy junior Keenan Allen has been living up to the hype following a stellar 2011. He leads the Bears with 20 catches for 216 yards (one TD) and has extended his Pac-12 leading consecutive games with a catch streak to 27. Behind him, the Bears are young at wideout - young, but very talented. Freshmen Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs have been impressive, combining for 24 catches and three TDs so far.
The Cal front five took some hits from graduation, as well as an early season knee injury to its starting right tackle, seniorMatt Summers-Gavin, who remains questionable for Saturday. That left senior center Brian Schwenke as the lone Bear lineman with extensive starting experience prior to 2012. That lack of experience hasn't shown in a running attack averaging 208 yards, but it has hampered the passing game by allowing nine sacks in three games. Summers-Gavin has been replaced by junior Bill Tyndall, while sophomore Chris Adcock has gotten the nod thus far at right guard. On the left side, senior tackle Tyler Rigsbee has started the first three games alongside his brother, redshirt freshman guard Jordan Rigsbee.
Clancy Pendergast is in his third year as defensive coordinator under Tedford and appears to face his toughest rebuilding job yet in 2012. The Bears lost a number of key forces on recently solid defenses to graduation, especially at the key linebacker spots in Cal's 3-4 set. Whereas Stanford attacked USC straight up out of its 3-4 a week ago, the Bears have always been a blitz-heavy group. Cal does have six sacks through three games (though five were against FCS foe Southern Utah), but the usually opportunistic Bear defense has forced just four turnovers so far, while allowing 411 yards per game.
Cal continues to rotate six players regularly along its defensive front. The starters at end are Aaron Tipoti, a senior who was a reserve nose guard for much of 2011, and junior Deandre Coleman, who has been a big time playmaker so far, with 17 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Senior Kendrick Payne starts at nose guard for a second straight year, but sophomore Viliami Moala has rotated in. Junior Keni Kaufusi and redshirt freshman Todd Barr also rotate at end. Barr is tied for the team lead with three tackles for loss.
Cal lost two crucial cogs with the graduation of inside linebackers Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt. The Bears remain slightly unsettled here as the four players on the two deep at these spots have split starts. Sophomore Nick Forbes (15 tackles) and athletic redshirt freshman Jalen Jefferson (12 stops) are listed as starters this week. But don't be surprised to see plenty of seniors Robert Mullins, Cal's second-leading tackler with 23, and J.P. Hurrell, who leads the Bears with 2.5 sacks. Outside, there is much less of a rotation with sophomore Chris McCain (17 tackles, 2.5 for loss) having supplanted junior Dan Camporeale on one side, and classmate Brennan Scarlett (21 tackles) starting across the way.
Cal's secondary has plenty of experience but has struggled. At corner, senior Marc Anthony has been the Bears' best cover man. He has 11 tackles and returned his only pick of the season 61 yards for a TD against Southern Utah. That's meant that junior Steve Williams has been picked on a bit. He leads Cal with 24 tackles and also has an interception. Sophomore Kameron Jacksonhas been a key performer for Cal in nickel situations (nine tackles). Senior Josh Hill (23 tackles) starts at one safety spot after holding down the nickel in 2011, while junior Alex Logan (15 stops) is a new starter next to him.
California Special Teams
Junior placekicker Vincenzo D'Amato has been shaky so far in 2012. (Wow, what a relief for any fans out there that were going to miss Giorgio Tavecchio as the Bears' kicker. Are Mario and Luigi next in Tedford's Italo-kicker pipeline?) He's got plenty of range, as witnessed by a 47-yarder against Southern Utah, but his three misses in the Horseshoe last week cost Cal dearly and dropped him to just 4-of-8 in 2012. He also handles kickoffs. Freshman punter Cole Leininger took on the unenviable task of replacing one of Cal's best ever, Bryan Anger. He's averaging just 38.7 yards per boot. Bigelow is a threat on kick returns, averaging 26.7 yards, while Allen is one of the nation's top punt returners, averaging 17.7 yards, including a 69-yard score against Southern Utah.
USC Offensive Gameplan
The USC offense fell into disarray for the last 40 minutes of last weekend's game on the Farm. Not only was the Trojan front five wholly unable to protect Matt Barkley or help USC mount any kind of running game, but the offensive brain trust made no discernible adjustments to get Barkley more time to throw. Many wanted to see a screen pass or two, or better utilization of the short middle of the field. However, Stanford's constant presence in the USC backfield was not the result of crazy blitz packages that would have left the Cardinal vulnerable to a screen. And, when the Trojans did try the short middle a number of times in the second half, Barkley's (fully explicable) happy feet after facing the Stanford rush forced many of his passes off target. With Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal both playing injured, the Trojans simply couldn't find room to run and take any heat off Barkley.
Redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi struggled mightily in his first start in place of Holmes, and with Abe Markowitz still not fully ready at center, Hobbi was an easy mark for Stanford. At the same time, the USC coaching staff was so distressed with the play of sophomore left tackle Aundrey Walker, it opened the competition at the spot this week to freshman Max Tuerk. Who will take the field with the starting offense on Saturday is anyone's guess at this point. But if Holmes doesn't return, USC is going to need a marked improvement from Hobbi, or a more prepared Markowitz, to make an improvement this week.
Still, Cal's defense has not been overly impressive - and the Bear linebackers are a far cry from Stanford's disruptive group. The Bears have allowed 97 points in three games and the only squad Cal held to less than 400 yards was Southern Utah (which gained 292). Cal appears especially susceptible to the run game, but will a USC offense that's been pass happy throughout 2012 be prepared to take advantage? At this point, and with the questions up front, is it the worst idea to take some of the heat off Barkley and see what kind of load McNeal and Redd are capable of carrying? If USC can establish the run, it doesn't take much to imagine that a Cal pass rush that's mustered just a single sack against FBS competition would struggle to get to Barkley when he decides to air it out.
USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense was not the problem against Stanford. While the Cardinal ended up with 417 total yards (including 202 rushing, with a stellar performance from underrated running back Stepfan Taylor), USC's defensive unit was almost solely responsible for the fact that the Trojans continued to lead the game late into the third quarter. Lamar Dawson, in his first extended action of the season, led the team with 10 tackles, while Dion Bailey had nine stops and another interception. USC's late struggles to stop the Cardinal could definitely be attributed to the wear and tear caused by the Trojan offense's non-support.
Still, USC has some concerns that it needs to face against an improved Maynard and his athletic receiving crew. Stanford's Josh Nunes looked rather unpolished at times, missing some key receivers on what could have been big gainers. The Trojan secondary will need to continue to step up its game this Saturday, as Cal will likely challenge the unit time and again.
However, against a questionable Cal front five, expect USC's defensive front to return to its form of the first two games and get after Maynard in the backfield. When pressured, Maynard is still susceptible to bad decisions down the field. At the same time, USC's young and impressive linebacker corps must keep a steady eye on Sofele and Bigelow. When the Bears have given USC the toughest times in the Tedford era, it's been when Cal has run the ball effectively. Sofele ran for just 44 yards in San Francisco a season ago. It's very important that the Trojan front seven doesn't allow him to get going on Saturday.
There are three key questions heading into Saturday's tilt: How will a Trojan team that wanted perfection - and was saddled with expectations thereof by media and fans alike - react to such a painful early loss? Who will start at center? And can USC continue its dominance of Tedford and the Bears?
The answer to the first question lies within each member of the team. With the leadership USC has on both sides of the ball and the commitment this team showed in 2011 with nothing at all to play for but pride, I'd be stunned if the Trojan team that takes the field Saturday isn't an inspired and physical group.
The answer to the second? To quote Kiffin during a rather short press conference this week, "I don't know." Truth is, Kiffin and the staff do know. Whomever it is, expect that player to be better prepared and more capable than a week ago. The answer to the third: yes. USC will win its ninth in a row against the Bears, though it might be a little more uncomfortable than any of us expected before the season.
USC 37, California 21
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)