Cal preparing to give USC its Best shot

Two weeks ago, Jahvid Best was the hottest name in college football. Fresh off a five-touchdown performance in a national spotlight game against Minnesota, the junior running back was on every Heisman short list.

Then came the embarrassment last Saturday against Oregon. The Ducks loaded the box against California and dared junior quarterback Kevin Riley to beat them. He didn’t. Oregon’s swarming defense stifled the Golden Bears offense and held Best to just 55 yards on 16 carries, a far cry from the gaudy statistics he put up in his first three games.

Best foot forward · USC’s defense will have to keep an eye on explosive Cal running back Jahvid Best, who has rushed for 467 yards and eight touchdowns in four games. - Photo courtesy of Nick Fradkin / The Daily Californian

Best foot forward · USC’s defense will have to keep an eye on explosive Cal running back Jahvid Best, who has rushed for 467 yards and eight touchdowns in four games. - Photo courtesy of Nick Fradkin / The Daily Californian

A lot has changed for Cal and Best in the last week. The team has fallen in the rankings and Best is no longer considered a favorite to win the Heisman trophy. Despite all the upheaval, however, one thing remains the same.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound running back is still the biggest home run threat in the country and a head-splitting migraine for opposing teams to contain.

Just don’t expect him to tell you that.

“He doesn’t have a big head,” Riley said. “He’s a team-first guy and he’ll always be that way. He just cares about winning.”

Humility is nice, but it isn’t why Best has drawn the admiration of opposing coaches. That would be the 1,580 yards and 15 touchdowns he compiled last season on only 194 carries. Stopping him is the first thing on every coach’s mind, although the answer to that problem isn’t always obvious.

When a reporter asked USC coach Pete Carroll at his weekly press conference how he planned to contain Best, the coach provided a brief moment of levity.

“You got anything in mind for me? I could use a little help,” Carroll quipped.

All joking aside, the Oregon defense provided a blueprint last Saturday for other teams to follow. Set out to stop the run and hope Riley has a bad day. The Ducks had as many as 10 defenders crowd the line of scrimmage and forced the California offense to throw the ball.

“Oregon did a good job,” Riley said. “It was the first thing that worked against us this year so [USC] will probably try that. Hopefully we’ll hurt them.”

Neither Riley nor Best seemed particularly concerned at the prospect of the Trojans mimicking Oregon’s game plan. In fact, Best saw it as an opportunity for his teammates to shine.

“When teams do that we should be able to take advantage of it,” he said.

Regardless of whether Carroll decides to stack the box against Best this weekend, he said his defenders need to focus on their assignments.

“Whenever you have a breakaway guy like that, you have to be really disciplined,” he said. “Regardless of how you deploy your guys … you have to be in the right spots. You make a mistake and it just blasts down the line of scrimmage and he’s gone.”

Lots of football players are fast, but Best brings uncommon speed to the running back position. He ran a 10.3 100-meter dash in high school. For a little perspective on just how fast that is, USC junior Ahmad Rashad placed second last year at the NCAA championships with a time of 10.1 seconds.

Lots of sprinters have transitioned over to the gridiron with some success, but Best is unique. He is not a sprinter in football pads but a football player who possesses world-class speed.

“That’s the thing about Jahvid,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said, “He can run inside and [he] has great lateral movement to make people miss and then his speed is exceptional when he gets in the open field, so he’s a real versatile back.”

That kind of speed and elusiveness has prompted comparisons of Best to a certain USC running back that tore up Pac-10 defenses several years ago.

Carroll said that while nobody has quite compared to Reggie Bush in terms of sheer playmaking ability, Best is the closest. And he might be faster.

“There was something about Reggie that he could make things happen in an extraordinary fashion,” Carroll said. “I think [Best] is a more consistent guy out of the backfield as a receiver. And he’s got the magic because he’s got that great speed, and he’s a very consistent player, too.”

Best said a lack of execution hurt the team last week as guys took turns messing up, but expected his team to rebound in a big way this week despite the speed and skill of the USC defense.

“We feel like if we execute it doesn’t matter what they’re doing,” he said. “We should get what we want from the plays.”

If Best gets what he wants this Saturday, USC is in for a long trip home from Berkeley.