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November 7, 2013

Game Preview: USC vs. California




Game 10: 'Out on the Weekend, Trying to Make It Pay'

It's Weekender time - the Trojans and their fans head up Highway 101 for game no. 101 against the Golden Bears.

The USC Trojans (6-3, 3-2 Pac-12 South) close out a two-game road trip when they visit the California Golden Bears (1-8, 0-6 Pac-12 North) on Saturday, November 9, at noon PST in Berkeley's Memorial Stadium and in front of a national FOX broadcast television audience. It's the 101st meeting between the schools (USC's most against any opponent, in a series that is uninterrupted since 1926) with the Trojans dominating the rivalry, 65-30-5. USC has won nine consecutive games against the Golden Bears since Cal's 2003 triple-OT upset victory in Strawberry Canyon. During that nine-game streak, the Trojans' average margin of victory is more than 18 points, while Cal has failed to reach double-digit points in five of the nine contests.

A week ago, the Trojans played their most complete game of the season, stunning Oregon State, 31-14, in Corvallis. While still battling major injuries across the board, the Trojans welcomed Marqise Lee back to the lineup with a 71-yard TD pass on their first offensive play. After taking a 14-0 edge, USC could have been shaken when the Beavers knotted the game early in the second quarter, but the powerful running of Silas Redd (140 yards) and Javorious "Buck" Allen (133 yards, three TDs) and an opportunistic defense turned the game into a statement road win. Meanwhile, if you believe in baby steps, the Bears took quite a few in a 33-28 home defeat to Arizona. Cal allowed its fewest points and scored its most in Pac-12 play so far this season, and the five-point loss was by far its closest conference game (previously, a 22-point defeat to Washington State on Oct. 5).

Ed Orgeron, who was in his 11th season as a USC assistant (1998-2004; 2010-13), spent three years as a head coach at Mississippi (2005-07), notching a 10-25 mark. He's 3-1 so far (3-0 in Pac-12 games) in the interim role at USC. In Berkeley, California headman Sonny Dykes (23-22 in his fourth season as a head coach overall) is in first campaign leading the Bears after putting up massive offensive numbers in three years as head coach at Louisiana Tech. His pass-first, pass-last attack was dubbed the "Bear Raid" upon arrival, but Dykes knew he had one heck of a rebuilding process facing him. Still, injuries, inexperience and mismatched personnel - as well as a bare Bears defensive cupboard - has made this season hellish by recent Cal standards.

California Offense
Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who worked with Dykes at Louisiana Tech, has brought his brainchild passing attack to Berkeley with mixed results. Yes, the Bears rank No. 8 nationally in passing offense (351.1 yards per game), but the Cal rushing attack - so formidable during the Jeff Tedford Era - has fallen off the map, ranking No. 110 nationally (111.8 yards per game). Then there's the Golden Bears' youth: 18 of the 22 spots on this week's Cal two-deep offense are either freshmen or sophomores. That, plus an astounding 25 turnovers (the Bears' turnover margin ranks last in the conference and No. 122 nationally), has left Cal dead last in the Pac-12 in scoring (23.4 points per game). The decision to go with true freshman quarterback Jared Goff has led to some growing pains, but Franklin and Dykes have to be hoping it pays off down the line. Goff has completed just more than 60 percent of his throws for 2,881 yards, 14 TDs and nine interceptions. He's sizeable and has a great arm, but makes freshman decisions from time to time, especially given that he's often under pressure (the Bears have allowed 26 sacks). Redshirt freshman Zach Kline has appeared in three games as the backup, throwing three TDs and three INTs.

Goff does have some talented receivers to throw it to, including fleet sophomores Chris Harper (62 catches, 13.2 yards per catch, five TDs) and Bryce Treggs (61 catches, 10.5 ypc, one score). Tight-end-sized junior Richard Rogers is averaging 14 yards on 33 grabs, while classmate Brendan Bigelow shifted from running back to slot receiver before last week's game against Arizona. Bigelow was averaging just 3.7 yards on 75 carries and suffered fumbling issues, but his 26 catches rank fourth on the team - and the Bears are looking to get his shifty moves into space. Sophomore Darius Powe (19 catches) will also see slot time, while redshirt freshman Kenny Lawler enjoyed a coming-out party against Arizona, grabbing three TDs (including an incredibly acrobatic one) to challenge Harper and Treggs for a starting spot.

With Bigelow leaving the backfield, the Bears are mixing and matching young talent, but lack a short-yardage punch. Sophomore Darren Ervin (109 yards on 29 carries) tops the depth chart this week, but classmate Daniel Lasco (284 yards, 4.9 average, two TDs; 11 catches) and freshman scatback Khalfani Muhammad (261 yards, 5.3 average, 2 TDs) will also see opportunities.

California's offensive line is also rather young - and has been hit by a couple of key injuries. A knee injury to junior center Chris Adcock during the Oregon game was probably the Bears' toughest loss. This week's starting five should include redshirt freshman Christian Okafor making his third start at LT, along with true freshman Chris Borrayo at left guard. Sophomore Jordan Rigsbee switched from that spot to center when Adcock went down. On the right side, junior guard Alejandro Crosthwaite replaced redshirt freshman Matt Cochran after he went down with an injury in the season's third game, and redshirt freshman tackle Steven Moore will make his ninth start.

California Defense
Much like Cal's offense, defensive coordinator Andy Buh is overseeing a green unit that has been hit hard by injuries. Thirteen of those listed on the two-deep this week are either freshmen or sophomores, and the losses of defensive end Chris McCain (dismissed), safety Avery Sebastian (Achilles) cornerback Stefan McClure (knee) have made things even more difficult. The Bears are one of two FCS teams (Hawaii) that's allowed at least 30 points in each game this season - Cal gives up 42.8 points per game - and the only major defensive category in which they don't rank last in the conference is rush defense (Cal allows 189 yards rushing per game, ranking 11th). Cal has allowed more first downs than any team in the conference, doesn't force turnovers (11 in nine games) and is No. 10 in the Pac-12 in red zone defense. Simply put, the Bears have been a sieve.

Cal operates out of a 4-3 set. Seniors Dan Camporeale at end and Deandre Coleman at nose tackle lead the defensive front. Camporeale, though, has just one sack among his 20 tackles (the Bears have just 15 sacks overall), while Coleman counts eight tackles for loss (2.5 sacks) among his 33 stops. Junior tackle Viliami Moala has 28 tackles and has started eight of the Bears' nine games. Replacing McCain at the other end has been a two-man job shared by junior Kyle Kragen (22 tackles, a team-leading three sacks) and sophomore Puka Lopa (13 tackles, two sacks).

Junior weakside linebacker Khairi Fortt is the Bears' physical and emotional leader on defense. He's Cal's rock, inasmuch as they have one, with a team-leading 64 tackles. Redshirt freshman Michael Barton (32 tackles, four for loss) spells him from time to time. Sophomore Jalen Jefferson is athletic, but raw, at the strongside spot. Redshirt freshman - and Cal legacy - Hardy Nickerson ranks second on the team with 60 tackles at MLB. He's likely to be a good one before all is said and done.

The Bears' secondary has suffered the most. Sebastian had 11 tackles in less than one half of Cal's season opener before tearing his Achilles. McClure's knee injury a few weeks later left the Bears without their most experienced leaders. Junior cornerback Kameron Jackson and junior free safety Michael Lowe are the only remaining starters who opened the season. Jackson (22 tackles, one INT) has struggled, while Lowe (41 tackles, one INT) missed two games himself. Cal's remaining corners have seen plenty of action - juniors Adrian Lee (15 tackles) and Isaac Lapite (11 stops), and sophomore Joel Willis (18 tackles) - but their struggles have put redshirt freshman Cedric Dozier atop the depth chart this week across the field from Jackson. True freshman Cameron Walker has grown into the strong safety spot (53 tackles), while redshirt freshman Demariay Drew (43 tackles) can (and will) play at either safety spot.

California Special Teams
A bright spot for the Bears: the kicking game. Senior Vincenzo D'Amato has been solid, making 23-of-24 PATs and 14-of-17 field goals - including converting all 10 attempts shorter than 40 yards. Sophomore Cole Leininger has been outstanding, averaging 42.8 yards per punt, forcing 19 fair catches and dropping 11 inside the 20. Treggs handles punt returns but has struggled mightily, averaging just 1.9 yards on 14 tries, while Muhammad has been elusive on kickoff returns, averaging 24.3 yards on 31 opportunities.

USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojans enjoyed their most consistent and balanced offensive performance of 2013 last Friday night - and the key, as predicted, was creating and sustaining a power running attack. Now, certainly, the game-opening and second-half-opening deep balls from Cody Kessler to Lee and Nelson Agholor helped that rushing attack, keyed by Redd and Allen (after losing Tre Madden, who aggravated a hamstring injury that will keep him on the shelf in Berkeley). But, truly, it was USC's offensive line that deserves the bulk of the credit. In a game I believed would be decided by line play, I didn't trust the Trojan OL - but, boy, did they prove me wrong. With Kevin Graf likely able to return from injury this week, it will be interesting to see how the Trojans split time with a group that gelled in Corvallis.

Let's be honest - if there's a time to tinker with OL rotations at this point in the schedule, Saturday is it. USC's offense - as long as it doesn't continue to lose players to injury - should be able to push the Bears around at the point of attack and use its athleticism against a questionable secondary. With Stanford looming, the key to Saturday's game is to continue to build on the good feelings - and personality - USC established against Oregon State.

This is not to say that USC can overlook Cal. No, a team that fired its coach less than six weeks ago should never be caught in the trap of overlooking - but the Trojans hold a massive talent edge on the Bears. USC must remain focused and continue to mix power running and play-action passing, while expanding the roles of the tight ends and running backs in the passing attack. It feels like it's been a while since we've seen a USC tailback attack a screen pass opportunity the way Allen does - and with big pass rushing teams like Stanford and UCLA coming up, it would behoove the Trojan coaching staff to maximize that threat.

USC Defensive Gameplan
The recovery of this Trojan defense from the debacle at Arizona State and the late-game stumbles against Arizona has been spectacular. USC has allowed 31 points in the past three games (two on the road) - and ZERO second-half points. At Oregon State, USC held the Beavers' vaunted passing attack to more than 140 yards below their average - and held a team averaging 40 points per game to a single offensive TD. The Trojans did this with almost no depth, playing just 14-15 players through most of the past three games while rotating inexperienced players in to take over for injured leaders like Morgan Breslin, Lamar Dawson and freshman safety Su'a Cravens. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast deserves a lot of credit - but the guts, athleticism and commitment of the players deserve even more.

The leadership of Devon Kennard, Dion Bailey and Josh Shaw cannot be understated. To see Bailey and Shaw get rewarded with key interceptions - and Kennard with a pair of sacks - in Corvallis was fantastic. That's if you can call making plays a "reward." And facing Oregon State as a lead-up to Cal is about as good as it gets - the Beavers are a more talented and more diversified version of the Bears.

Look for Leonard Williams (if a shoulder injury doesn't keep him on the bench) and George Uko to get a big push against the Bears' front five. USC should spend much of Saturday afternoon in Goff's kitchen, and with similar coverage schemes to those used against the Beavers, USC should be able to handle Cal's receivers - the Bears simply don't have anyone like Brandin Cooks on the roster, nor do they have the tight end threat that has made Oregon State so dangerous over the years. It comes down to this: the Trojans need to hit the quarterback early and often and force Cal into the kind of crippling turnovers that have been a hallmark of their season.

The Pick
If you'd told me on the morning of Sept. 29 that USC was a win over Cal away from moving to 7-3 and 4-2 in the Pac-12, I'd have laughed you out of the room. Sure, firing Lane Kiffin was the right move, but even in the best of circumstances - and, honestly, those were nowhere to be found that day - no one could have imagined these emotionally and physically bruised Trojans becoming a late-season factor in the Pac-12 race.

Yet, here we are. Orgeron has struck just the right tone with these players, the coaching staff has put them in better position to make plays than they've been in years - and the kids have responded with pride and effort, even in the face of debilitating injuries. This team is truly living up to - and has a chance in the next four weeks to go above and beyond - the school's motto: Fight On.

The final stretch starts Saturday afternoon in Berkeley, where a good 10,000 USC fans will likely be on hand celebrating one of the university community's finest traditions - the Bay Area Weekender. Combining the Trojan team's rising belief in itself with Pendergast's likely motivation to upend his prior employers and USC's talent edge when they hold the football, those traveling north are likely to enjoy great celebratory meals back across the bridge on Saturday night.

USC 42, California 17

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 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 thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)

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