Cal and USC, which hosts the Golden Bears on Sept. 22, both lost by seven points on Sept. 15, but the results were really very different.
Cal played by far its best game of the season in a 35-28 loss to then-No. 12 Ohio State, nearly pulling off a major upset on the road. Certainly, the inability to finish off an opponent it outplayed left some scars, but the Bears must now feel they are capable of beating the Trojans, even on the road, especially after seeing that the Trojans are vulnerable.
Cal quarterback Zach Maynard played the best game of his career against the Buckeyes, and although he has yet to prove he can consistently play at a high level, he certainly demonstrated he is capable of it.
The emergence of Cal tailback Brendan Bigelow as a big-play threat adds a dimension to the Golden Bears’ offense.
Meanwhile, USC will be trying to regroup emotionally after a terribly disappointing 21-14 loss to Stanford that severely damaged USC’s hopes of playing for the national championship.
A chance at a national title was one of the chief reasons Matt Barkley returned to USC rather than enter the NFL Draft. And while Maynard is coming off an encouraging performance, Barkley had perhaps his worst game since his freshman season, completing fewer than half his passes and throwing two interceptions without a touchdown pass.
Stanford showed that it’s possible to apply pressure to Barkley, who showed he is less effective when he’s hurried. Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is pretty good at figuring out ways to apply a pass rush.
USC will still be favored to beat Cal, but a game that seemed like a mismatch just a week earlier now may seem like a game in which Cal could at least be competitive.
However, it is possible that too much importance is being placed on the teams’ most recent outings.
USC has dominated Cal each of the past three seasons, and Barkley had big games in all three. USC played far better than Cal in the teams’ first two games this season, too.
Stanford has shown that it is a quality team, especially at home, so losing to the Cardinal by a touchdown on the road is not an indication that the Trojans are lousy. And playing USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum is never an easy task.
It’s also unclear whether Ohio State is as good as its ranking suggests, so Cal’s performance in that game could be misleading.
–Vincenzo D’Amato will continue to be the Cal placekicker despite the fact that misses on all three of his field-goal attempts against Ohio State may have cost the Bears the game. Cal has two other placekickers on the roster eligible to kick, but the Bears probably wish they had James Langford, who was impressive in the spring. He transferred from Cal Poly, and Cal tried to get a waiver for him to be eligible to play this season. That was denied, and Langford must sit out the 2012 season as a transfer.
–With Brendan Bigelow’s emergence at tailback, Jeff Tedford and running backs coach Ron Gould face a challenge in terms of playing time for their backs. Starter Isi Sofele and his backup, C.J. Anderson, have done nothing to warrant a reduction in playing time, but the Bears have to get Bigelow on the field after he had touchdown runs of 81 and 49 yards against the Buckeyes. He provides the big-play threat Jahvid Best gave the Bears’ offense a few years ago.
–Health may have a lot to do with Cal’s efficiency on offense. Cal is hoping both TE Richard Rodgers (foot) and OT Matt Summers-Gavin (knee) are ready to play this week. Their presence gives the Bears more options in the running and passing game.
SERIES HISTORY: USC leads 64-30-5 (last meeting 2011, USC 30-9).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Bears had by far their best offensive game of the season against Ohio State, rolling up 512 yards while committing just one turnover — an interception on the final possession when the Bears had to take chances. QB Zach Maynard had the best game of his career, completing 26-of-37 passes for 280 yards, and the freshman wide receiving tandem of Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper have been better than expected as a complement to standout WR Keenan Allen. Brendan Bigelow provided a big-play threat in the Ohio State game that Cal didn’t know it had. There are two questions, however: Maynard has not yet shown he can play at a high level on a consistent basis, and Cal did not pass protect well, yielding six sacks and allowing Maynard to be hurried on several other occasions.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Cal’s defense continues to be a puzzle. It plays great some weeks, and poorly on others. It played poorly in the first two games this season, but played well against Ohio State, especially in the second half when it controlled Buckeyes QB Braxton Miller. The Cal secondary, its presumed weakness, played well against the Buckeyes, except for that one major breakdown that resulted in the game-winning touchdown pass. Both Cal cornerbacks, Steve Williams and Marc Anthony, have played well. The Bears have a number of talented linebackers, although defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is still sorting out the playing rotation at that position and would like a big-play defender to emerge from that group.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “Coach (Ron) Gould does a nice job of handling that. He kind of rotates them as he sees fit. One of the goals has been to get (Brendan) Bigelow the ball more, but getting all three in is a little difficult.” — Cal coach Jeff Tedord, on getting his three talented running backs playing time, a responsibility left primarily to running backs coach Ron Gould.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK’S GAME: Cal at USC Sept. 22 — Cal has lost eight straight to the Trojans, and the past three have not been close. The Bears last beat the Trojans in 2003, 34-31 in three overtimes, and USC went on to earn a share of the national championship that season. Cal last beat USC in Los Angeles in 2000. Cal (1-2) is coming off a 35-28 loss to Ohio State, and USC (2-1) lost to Stanford 21-14.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cal QB Zach Maynard must be as efficient as he was against Ohio State. USC has been vulnerable against the pass, and Cal’s receivers could have big games if Maynard is given time to throw. Cal needs a few big plays, which is where Keenan Allen and Brendan Bigelow come into play. Defensively, Cal must apply pressure to Matt Barkley, something Stanford did effectively in the Cardinal’s 21-14 victory. If the Bears cannot hurry Barkley, he will slice apart the Cal secondary the way he has the three previous seasons. USC WRs Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are too explosive to allow them to get the ball in the open field.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Keenan Allen — Always QB Zach Maynard’s No. 1 target, Allen is capable of producing a big play as a pass receiver, runner or punt returner. He has yet to have a game of more than 80 receiving yards this season.
TB Brendan Bigelow — He had 160 rushing yards on four rushes against Ohio State, with most of it coming on touchdown runs of 81 and 49 yards. He’s a big-play threat, but it’s difficult to determine yet whether the Ohio State game was just a two-play fluke or an indication of things to come.
LB J.P. Hurrell — Hurrell was not a starter at the beginning of the season, but he has emerged as a possible big-play defender. He leads the team in sacks with three.
CBs Steve Williams/Marc Anthony — They played well against Ohio State, but defending against USC’s Robert Woods and Marqise Lee — the best wide receiver tandem in the country — is a bigger challenge, especially with Matt Barkley throwing the ball.
QB Zach Maynard — The Bears need him to be the player he was against Ohio State, when he went 26-for-37 with his only interception coming in a desperation situation in the closing minutes. He has completed better than 64 percent of his passes, and although he is still a better passer while on the move, he showed against Ohio State that he is improving as a pocket passer.
–OT Matt Summers-Gavin is questionable for the USC game with a knee injury.
–TE Richard Rodgers is questionable for the USC game with an ankle injury.
–G Dominic Galas is not expected to play for at least the first half of the season because of a pectoral injury, and he could be out for the entire season.
–LB Khairi Fortt is not expected to play as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery.
–LB David Wilkerson is questionable with a foot injury.
–TE Spencer Hagan is out with a knee injury.