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November 6, 2008

Game 9: A Thorn in Their Paw?


Once again, the Cal Bears travel south for a late-season showdown with the Trojans with a possible Rose Bowl bid in the balance.

The USC Trojans (7-1, 5-1 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 6 in the USA Today coaches' poll, and No. 7 in the BCS rankings and by the Associated Press (AP), make the final turn into the last third of their schedule Saturday, November 8, when they face the AP-No. 21 and USA Today-No. 22 California Golden Bears (6-2, 4-1) at 5 p.m. (PDT) at the sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a regional ABC-TV audience. This is the 96h meeting between USC and California (the Trojans' most against any opponent), with Troy holding a 60-30-5 edge. A season ago, the Trojans outlasted the Bears, 24-17, in rainy Berkeley, notching their fourth consecutive victory over Cal. In the previous meeting at the Coliseum, in 2006, USC dropped the Bears, 23-9, in a November battle with the Pac-10 crown hanging in the balance.

A week ago, the Trojan defense notched its third shutout of 2008 in a 56-0 drubbing of woeful Washington. The Trojans improved on their nation-leading total yards (211.6) and scoring (7.1 points per game) defensive averages, while Mark Sanchez had a very efficient outing, and USC's rushing attack had its way with the Husky defense. Meanwhile, the Golden Bears survived a heavy rainstorm (and some truly hideous uniforms) to defeat Oregon, 26-16, in Berkeley. In a game that essentially served as a Rose Bowl elimination showdown, The Bears capitalized on Oregon mistakes, converting two of the Ducks' three turnovers into touchdowns, and held the high-flying Duck offense to 290 total yards.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season at USC (83-15, 54-10 in the Pac-10) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, California headman Jeff Tedford (56-28, 34-21 Pac-10) is in his seventh season in Strawberry Canyon. Though the Bears are just a half-game behind USC in the conference race, Cal has had an up-and-down season that's included a surprising pounding by Maryland and a second-half collapse at Arizona. Surprisingly, it's been the Cal defense that's carried much of the load for Tedford, as he has bounced back and forth between two largely ineffective quarterbacks in senior Nate Longshore and junior Kevin Riley.

California Offense
Frank Cignetti, Cal's new offensive coordinator, has overseen an up-and-down offense that's punctuated long stretches of frustration and inefficiency with a series of game-turning big plays. Still, California is in the national top 20 in scoring offense, averaging, more than 36 points per game, and also boasts a rushing attack that is compiling more than 171 yards per contest and more than five yards per carry. While the Bears have a number of playmakers - most notably sophomore tailback Jahvid Best - California has struggled to find consistency from its quarterbacks. Riley has started six of eight contests, but is only completing 53.7 percent of his passes. He does have 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions, but left the Oregon game last weekend with a concussion in the first quarter. Longshore - not a fan favorite in the Bay Area - has played in all eight games, completing nearly 57 percent of his throws. However, his decision-making skills are still questionable, as he's thrown four picks - that's one more than Riley in 44 fewer attempts (162 to 118).

Part of the Bears' consistency issues in the passing attack can be attributed to the fact that Cal had to replace three star receivers from its 2007 roster with a green group in 2008. Recently, junior Verran Tucker has stepped up, catching 11 balls in the past three weeks (including six for 83 yards a week ago) after notching just two grabs in the first five games. He's taken over one starting spot from senior Sean Young, a possession receiver who has 16 catches. Junior Nyan Boateng has become the favored outside target for the Bears' quarterbacks. He has 19 catches and four TDs, and he's California's best deep threat. Senior LaReyelle Cunningham is another contributor outside, with 16 grabs. At tight end, junior Cameron Morrah is becoming a star. He is the Bears' co-leader with 21 catches, and also leads Cal in TD grabs with six.

Who does Morrah share the reception lead with? The answer comes from the Bear backfield, where both Best and freshman Shane Vereen have 21 catches. As usual, the Bears love getting their running backs the ball in space with the passing attack. However, both backs are capable taking a handoff as well. The fast and shifty Best has overcome a dislocated elbow to rank second in the Pac-10 in rushing, averaging more than 105 yards per game. Vereen, meanwhile, is built similarly to Best, but doesn't quite have the burst or moves of his sophomore teammate. Still, he's been a great complement, averaging 5.5 yards on 101 carries. The duo has combined for three 80-plus yard touchdown runs this season. Senior Will Ta'ufo'ou is a solid blocker when the Bears employ a fullback.

Cal has also tested its depth on the offensive line, where senior center Alex Mack is the clear leader. The all-conference performer is having another great year. The Bears' rushing attack has been solid, though Cal has allowed 13 sacks this season - a bit of a higher rate than in recent years. The tackle spots have been held much of the season by redshirt freshman Mitchell Schwartz on the left side and junior Chet Teofilo on the right. An injury to Teofilo pushed sophomore Donovan Edwards into his first career start a week ago, and he's slated to start again this week, though Teofilo is expected to be ready if needed. At right guard, redshirt freshman Justin Cheadle also made his first career start vs. Oregon, replacing injured senior Noris Malele. He too remains atop the depth chart as Malele's return for Saturday is uncertain. Sophomore Mark Boskovich has started the past five at left guard.

California Defense
California's defense remains under the tutelage of long-time coordinator Bob Gregory. However, after the Bears suffered some losses from a defense that was pretty porous a year ago (Cal allowed nearly 380 yards per game in 2007, and kept only one opponent under 300 yards), Gregory decided to shift from a 4-3 set into a 3-4 alignment to take advantage of a surplus of playmakers at linebacker. The results have, on the whole, been excellent. Cal has held five of its opponents under 300 yards, ranks 23rd nationally in total defense, 14th nationally in turnover margin and third in the country in pass efficiency defense - thanks to a nation-leading 17 interceptions.

Up front, junior defensive end Tyson Alualu and sophomore end Cameron Jordan have played well. Alualu has four sacks among his 32 stops, while Jordan has three among his 30 tackles. Jordan took over his spot from the injured Rulon Davis in early October. Sophomore Keith Browner also sees time. Inside, senior Mika Kane and sophomore Derrick Hill are now splitting time after Hill started the first seven games.

The big numbers for the Bears, though, really come at linebacker. While the quartet of outside backers Zack Follett and Eddie Young and inside backers Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder started the first seven games, it's rangy sophomore Mike Mohamed - who replaced Young in the opening lineup last week - who's made the biggest splash, leading Cal in tackles with 59. He also has a sack and an interception. Follett, a senior, leads the Bears in tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (five), as expected. Inside, Williams and Felder (both seniors) have combined for 93 stops. This is an active and athletic group that attempts to get in the quarterback's face, as well as flood passing lanes, to force bad decisions and turnovers.

Junior cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson has turned into one of the Pac-10's best all-around defensive backs. He has 44 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions and 11 passes broken up (PBU). Sophomore Darian Hagan has been targeted because of Thompson's effectiveness, but has performed well, with 37 stops and 12 PBU. Classmate Chris Conte has also performed well in spot and nickel duty, with 14 tackles. At strong safety, junior Brett Johnson has filled in well for senior Bernard Hicks, starting the past six games. He has two interceptions. Junior Marcus Ezeff also has two picks from his free safety spot, to go along with 35 tackles.

California Special Teams
The Bears have been solid on the kicking teams, as well. Diminutive freshman Giorgio Tavecchio has filled in admirably for classmate David Seawright since an injury at Arizona. The duo is perfect on PATs, and each kicker is five-of-seven on field goals, with Tavecchio nailing three-of-four outside 40 yards. Redshirt freshman punter Bryan Anger averages nearly 44 yards per boot, third in the conference. Thompson is an excellent punt returner, averaging more than 11 yards per chance and scoring once from 73 yards away. Sophomore receiver Jeremy Ross is the lead kick returner (Best also sees some time), and averages about 22 yards per chance. The Bears have also blocked two punts and a field goal that turned into TD returns.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Another Washington school meant another bounce-back performance from the USC offense. After struggling at Arizona two weeks ago, the Trojans rolled over the outmanned Husky defense to the tune of 485 yards and 56 unanswered points. Sanchez's efficient, interception-free performance was a blueprint for what the Trojans need this weekend against the ball-hawking California defense. C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and Marc Tyler all ran the ball well in what should be another confidence-building performance for a USC offense that will be counted upon more and more during the final four weeks of the 2008 regular season.

Still, the Trojans' penalty problems persisted (10 more flags against USC) and while offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's effort was solid against an outmatched Washington team, those mistakes would prove costly in a tighter match-up - the ones where Sarkisian's sometimes-inconsistent play calling most often seems to rear its head. This weekend, it will be especially important for Sarkisian and Sanchez to be in sync against Cal's 3-4 look that really disguises its scheme well. The Bears love to blitz from just about anywhere on the field, but - at the same time - have been very successful dropping eight players into coverage. That's part of the reason Cal has 17 interceptions and is one of the top red-zone and third-down defensive teams in the conference.

However, Cal's defense is not impenetrable. While the Bears have feasted on one-dimensional and turnover-prone offenses (see Washington State, UCLA and even Oregon, which has almost completely lost any semblance of an effective passing game), more balanced attacks have had success. Maryland rushed for 141 yards and converted 50 percent of third downs by remaining patient with their rushing attack and taking advantage of the middle of the field through the air when the Bears committed to stopping the run. Arizona ratcheted up more than 400 total yards and 42 points with a balanced attack. For USC, patience with the running game, including effective use of Johnson - and, if he's available, Joe McKnight - and a passing attack that hits at the middle of Cal's secondary (and, perhaps, underneath its middle linebackers) appears to be the best plan of attack.

USC Defensive Gameplan
It seems that each week, the Trojan defense sets a new standard for itself. Now with three shutouts in 2008, USC's defensive unit is giving opposing offenses almost no weaknesses to attack. The Trojans held Washington to 35 yards and two first downs in the first half of last week's game before integrating the full shelf of reserves into the game in the second half. And, even then, Washington managed just 150 yards and was held scoreless.

This weekend, the Trojans will face a much stiffer test. With Best and Vereen, the Bears offer a very strong one-two punch on the ground. With Riley questionable and Longshore's history of problems against USC, the Bears will likely lean on the two backs even more. Still, while Tedford has been lauded for years as a coach that has given Carroll's defense a tough time, the reality is that since one flukey afternoon in 2003, USC has held Tedford-coached offenses to an average of 13 points by containing Cal's always-underrated rushing attack and forcing Bears' quarterbacks to be nearly perfect to have a chance at victory (only Aaron Rodgers in 2004 came close to that perfection).

Expect USC to focus heavily on the Bears' backs, as well as tight end Morrah. The Cal wide receivers present nothing special that the Trojan secondary hasn't seen. While the loss of safety Kevin Ellison didn't hurt much against Washington, his replacement, Will Harris, will have the spotlight on him this week. Ellison has been stellar in run support all season, and then he basically deleted then-red-hot Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski from the Wildcats' gameplan two weeks ago. Harris needs to bring an effort - and success - similar to his outing against UW (six tackles, 2.5 for loss) for the Trojan defense to slow Best and Vereen. That would put the game on the shoulders of the Bear quarterbacks.

The Pick
Once again, the Bears make a November visit to the Coliseum with their own Rose Bowl destiny in their hands. California has won four of its past five games, including a couple of big home wins over UCLA and Oregon the past two weeks. The talented Best appears to be as healthy as he's been since early in the season, and the Bear defense is vastly improved from last season's troubled unit. Could this be the year that Cal finally ends its 50-year Rose Bowl drought?

Well, sure, it could be. That's why they play the games (right, Oregon State?). But, with the Riley-Longshore tandem at quarterback facing off against a USC defense that has allowed 10 points in its past four games (and the TD "drive" allowed was 15 yards), I would say that Cal's chances of visiting Pasadena on Jan. 1, 2009 are limited at best. That supposition could change very rapidly if Sanchez repeats his performance in the second half of the Arizona State game on Oct. 11 (one fumble lost, three interceptions).

The Bears have capitalized all season on long-distance, game-changing plays by their offense, defense and special teams. While USC's defense is designed to limit big plays, that still leaves opportunities for California to force mistakes by the USC offense and kicking game. However, after getting ahead of himself in the Arizona game a couple weeks ago, expect Sanchez to avoid those mistakes. Though the USC offense's performance in that game still troubles, Sanchez claims to have seen the light when it comes to mixing some patience into his gunslinger's mentality. This weekend will allow him to prove it, as patience and good decisions should wear down a Bear defense that will likely be able to sue its offense for non-support.

USC 31, California 10

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight 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@alumni.usc.edu.


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