Throughout fall camp and into the season, Cal players have engaged in the chant “Pac-10 champs, that’s us!”
But if the Golden Bears are going to make their mantra come true, they will have to get past a team that they hasn’t beaten in six years.
During its run of seven straight Pac-10 championships, USC has seen many contenders to its conference supremacy. Cal has been one of its primary threats, but the Golden Bears have yet to break through to the Pac-10’s top spot.
But No. 24 Cal will be trying to reverse that trend when it hosts No. 7 USC at Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 5 p.m.
The conference clash was once thought to be a meeting of the Pac-10’s two decidedly best teams, with both USC and Cal ranked in the top 10 two weeks ago.
But some of the game’s luster has worn off after both teams lost their conference openers on the road. USC was stunned by Washington two weeks ago and Cal ran into a buzz saw when it faced Oregon last week and lost, 42-3.
For either team, a loss would severely damage any hopes of an outright conference title and shot at playing in the Rose Bowl at the season’s end.
“I’ve always said it about the Pac-10, you have to bring your A-game each and every week to be successful and I don’t see it any different this year,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said.
The Trojans’ preparation this week was put on the back burner when Stafon Johnson’s weightlifting accident Monday left a dark cloud over the program throughout the week.
USC coach Pete Carroll said the team was keeping the senior in mind while not letting it become a distraction for the week’s game.
“The concern about the effect of this and having the effect on the game is not even an issue for us at all,” Carroll said. “I think our concern for now is Stafon and his family and everybody handling what’s going on.”
Despite losing handily to the Ducks last week, the Golden Bears are expected to pose numerous problems for the Trojans.
Cal leads the Pac-10 in scoring offense with an average of 37.2 points per game. The team’s attack is highlighted by junior running back Jahvid Best, a Heisman Trophy candidate who leads the conference in rushing touchdowns.
Last week against Oregon, Best was held to a season-low 55 yards on 16 carries. In last year’s game against the Trojans, the junior was bottled up for 30 yards on 13 carries in USC’s 17-3 win at the Coliseum.
But the Trojans are expecting to have their hands full with the star ball-carrier on Saturday.
“They know how to move him all around,” Carroll said. “They’re doing what we would think would be exactly the right stuff which makes it really hard to center in and focus on him.”
True freshman quarterback Matt Barkley has drawn equal amounts of praise throughout the week from Tedford. Although he is still on the mend, USC’s signal-caller could see plenty of opportunities against a suddenly vulnerable Cal secondary.
The Golden Bears allowed Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli to throw for 253 yards and three touchdowns, all of which went to tight end Ed Dickson, on 21-of-25 passing. The previous week against Minnesota, Cal’s secondary allowed Eric Decker to haul in eight passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
“I think sometimes the veteran guys, they try to do too much and then take their eyes where they’re not supposed to be,” Tedford said. “That happened a couple times last week.”
Despite being ranked 67th in the country in passing, USC is optimistic about its chances in the passing game with Barkley, even though an injury to the quarterback’s throwing shoulder is keeping him from feeling 100 percent.
“He’s capable of throwing and has been introduced to everything that we’ve ever had,” Carroll said. “We need to do things he can do really well.”