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October 15, 2010

Who has the edge?

BearTerritory publisher Ryan Gorcey and USCFootball.com beat writer Dan Weber break down Saturday's match-up, unit-by-unit.

The secondary will have its hands full with USC's stable of playmaking receivers, but cornerback Darian Hagan has really come into his own during his senior season and could be used to blitz off the edge and rattle QB Matt Barkley before he even gets a pass off. USC's passing attack is as potent as any in the Pac-10. Matt Barkley threw for 390 yards and three TDs last week at Stanford, and freshman WR Robert Woods had a career-high 12 catches for 224 yards. He joins senior WR Ronald Johnson and FB Stanley Havili as top receiving threats.
This is a veteran linebacking group that's played in the Coliseum before, so the environment won't come as a shock, and neither will the USC running game. D.J. Holt leads the team with 35 tackles, has two TFLs, three pass breakups, one QB hurry and a forced fumble. If USC had a healthy freshman Wildcat-all-purpose back Dillon Baxter here, to go with big backs Allen Bradford and Marc Tyler, this would be a different story, but Baxter's sprained big toe after scoring the first TD at Stanford changes that. USC can run the ball anyway as Bradford's 223 yards against Washington proved.
The defensive line is deep, fast and hits hard. That depth allows for continuous substitution without much drop-off, talent-wise, and that could be the difference given USC's lack of depth on the OL. Cameron Jordan is the tip of the sword, recording 21 tackles and three sacks. They're big, athletic and decently experienced, and have held up pretty well health-wise since the Trojans have very little depth here. They can block the run and the pass, but three of the five starters were limited Tuesday in practice after a bruising Stanford game.
After a dismal 83-yard performance against UCLA, this has to be Cal's biggest question mark. Senior QB Kevin Riley has been very inconsistent, and the Bears may have to find other ways to get the ball into the hands of true freshman playmaker Keenan Allen. Some might say this is weakness vs. weakness, but there's weakness-as in a Cal pass offense that's ninth in the Pac-10-and real weakness, as in a USC pass defense that's 116th (out of 120) in the nation-287.5 yards a game-and dead-last in the Pac-10.
Shane Vereen is the second-most prolific back in the conference, and really took off last week thanks to an OL keyed by center Dominic Galas and RT Matt Summers-Gavin. If Galas is back at center and MSG sees significant snaps, Vereen will be that much more dangerous. USC's linebackers just haven't seemed to grasp the intricacies of Monte Kiffin's defense. They've not tackled well in space, nor fit well in their pursuit lanes much of the time. This has to be a major area of concern for the Trojans who will start Chris Galippo for an injured Malcolm Smith on the weak side Saturday.
Like I said before, if Dominic Galas and MSG are in there, it's a different game. Guard play has improved, but it's still a bit on the weak side. Run blocking has gotten better and better every week, but pass-blocking is still a bit iffy. Not sure anyone in the Pac-10 has been playing better here than USC's Jurrell Casey and against the run, DT DaJohn Harris and big DEs Armond Armstead and Nick Perry can be decently effective. It's the run-pass threats like Jake Locker and Andrew Luck who give them more trouble.
Jeremy Ross had some trouble last week in the punt return game, so that's a bit of a concern, especially with dynamic playmakers like Allen and Coleman Edmond on the roster. KR and No. 2 RB Isi Sofele is quick and elusive and always a big-play threat. USC would seem to have the better of it here in the return game on both punts and kickoffs, but the Trojans fall behind in punting and field goals and it looks even in kickoff coverage and extra point conversions. No edge here although Woods is a threat any time he touches the ball.
Cal's loaded D and questionalbe passing game should ensure that this one is going to be pretty close. If Vereen can get loose and Allen can get the ball in space, things could get interesting, but I still think that the Trojans come away with this one: USC 21, Cal 17. Our standing score prediction for the rest of the season has been 42-35 with the winner a flip-of-a-coin pick. But since this game is at the Coliseum, and considering USC's maturing offense, a Trojan defense that can hardly get worse and Cal's strong defense, downgrade those numbers to 35-28, USC.

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