A season ago, USC’s defensive unit lined up opposite Zach Maynard and intercepted the California quarterback three times.
Completing less than 58 percent of his passes, Maynard was chased, hurried and rattled by the Trojans’ front seven. In total, they forced five turnovers against the Golden Bears en route to a 30-9 win at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Fast forward 11 months later and the Trojans insist they’re facing a different Maynard — a Maynard who is more polished, more collected, and, perhaps most importantly, more careful.
Cal (1-2) travels south to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday to face No. 13 USC (2-1, 0-1) in the 100th meeting between the two schools.
“[Maynard’s] decision making has improved,” said sophomore linebacker Dion Bailey, who intercepted the signal caller twice during last season’s meeting. “He’s a little more accurate than he was last year. We expect him to bring his ‘A’ game.”
In Maynard’s last outing, a seven-point loss at No. 16 Ohio State, the left-handed senior completed 26 of 37 passes, with just one interception. Through three games this season, his completion percentage stands at 67 percent — a far cry from the 57 percent mark in 2011.
“He’s really grown,” said Cal coach Jeff Tedford during the weekly Pac-12 conference call Tuesday. “Last year, early in the year, he struggled just managing the game and turning the ball over and the speed of the game.”
Maynard’s improvement, as Tedford points out, started in the month of November. Cal finished with a 3-1 mark in the month, and Maynard posted a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 5:1 while passing for 736 yards, taking the leap many had expected.
And that — at least thus far — has carried over to 2012. Part of that is talent, as Cal boasts a returning 1,000-yard rusher in senior Isi Sofele and 1,000-yard receiver in junior Keenan Allen. But Maynard has also matured.
“He’s just grown each week and is comfortable with the offense, the speed of the game and protecting the football,” Tedford said.
Tedford’s counterpart, USC coach Lane Kiffin, hasn’t hesitated from offering a similar assessment.
“[Maynard] played his best game I’ve seen on film last Saturday,” Kiffin said. “He played really well in a tough game, on the road, early kickoff, packed house, good defense. You can tell he’s improved.”
In the wake of the Trojans’ first loss of the season, they’re looking for improvement as well.
Against Stanford, the offensive line allowed four sacks, exactly half the number it gave up in 2011, which tied for the fewest in the country.
Since then, Kiffin gave freshman Max Tuerk the chance to compete for the starting left tackle spot against sophomore Aundrey Walker over the course of three days of practice from Tuesday through Thursday. No final decision has been made, though.
“You’re going to make mistakes,” Kiffin said, “but we won’t tolerate a lack of great effort. Not when you put on these jerseys all these great players have worn before.”
Looking for marked improvement, Kiffin and the Trojans are also hoping to see senior center Khaled Holmes, who was sidelined for the team’s Pac-12 opener against the Cardinal, return to the lineup. The 6-foot-4 Rimington Award candidate as the nation’s top center sustained a leg injury during the Trojans’ Sept. 8 game against Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J. and was carted off the field. Neither specifics nor a timetable for a return are known due to USC’s policy of not disclosing injury information.
Holmes, though, was listed as USC’s starter on the depth chart released Sunday.
Either junior Abe Markowitz or redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi will replace Holmesat center should he be unable to play.
As evidenced by their recent performance, USC’s offense would be aided by a healthy offensive line. Against the Cardinal, the unit looked stagnant and was held scoreless over the final 40 minutes. The offense also committed three turnovers, two of them interceptions from senior quarterback Matt Barkley, prompting Kiffin to call them “two of the worst decisions” he has made in a game since the two reunited in 2010.
“Yeah, I made some poor decisions,” Barkley said. “But that’s why you watch film and learn from it.”
And so the Trojans, after dropping more than 10 spots in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches’ polls and seemingly falling out of the BCS national title race for the time being, will look to learn and avoid a similar letdown against Cal, a team they have had succes against as of late. USC has held Cal to an average of 10 points in their last three meetings.
“They just came out and won,” said sophomore defensive tackle George Uko, referring to last Saturday’s loss to Stanford. “We lost. There’s nothing more than that. We move on from there and keep on going.”
Kickoff on Saturday is scheduled for 3 p.m. and will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.