Podcast: Sports editors James Bianchi and Kenny Legan preview the upcoming game versus the Golden Bears.
After spending three of its last four weeks on the road, USC returns to the Coliseum Saturday looking to avoid its first three-game losing streak since 2001.
The Trojans will face the California Golden Bears and their Pac-10-leading defense. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m.
The unranked Trojans (4-2) could easily be undefeated if not for two consecutive last-second field goals against both Washington and Stanford. USC looks to bounce back from those two emotional losses against a Golden Bears (3-2) squad coming off a dominating 35-7 win against UCLA.
This game will likely be decided when USC has the ball. Cal boasts the best defense in the conference, allowing only 106 rushing yards per game and ranks in the top-25 nationally in every major defensive category. Meanwhile, the Trojans have the second-best offense in the Pac-10, averaging 476 yards per game.
USC has settled into a nice offensive rhythm in its last two games, but it faces perhaps the biggest test of the season this week.
“Cal’s probably the best defense we’ve faced thus far,” sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley said.
The Bears’ defense has been stellar, save for giving up 52 points to Nevada’s pistol offense in its second game. But in every other game, Cal hasn’t given up more than 10 points.
The Bears are among the best in the conference at breaking down the offensive line. Their 3-4 defense has sacked opponents 16 times in five games.
The Trojans, however, should be used to the 3-4 by now; Stanford ran the same scheme and the Trojans were able to put up five touchdowns.
“It’s an easy transition from last week,” Barkley said. “Structurally, on defense they’re really similar to Stanford.”
Freshman wide receiver Robert Woods caught three of USC’s touchdowns last week. If the true freshman wasn’t a secret before the Stanford game, his breakout performance took care of that.
With Woods emerging as a legitimate offensive option, Cal can’t afford to focus all of its attention on senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson.
“You have to be aware of all our threats, so you can’t really double-team one guy any more,” Barkley said.
In addition to his offensive workload, Woods also received serious reps at defensive back this week in practice. The former Gardena Serra High School standout intercepted 23 passes in high school and played on both sides of the ball.
Kiffin said he is looking to develop two-way players in anticipation of having a smaller squad when the sanctions go into full effect.
Although USC’s passing game produced 390 yards last week, the running attack had an off week. Senior tailback Allen Bradford rushed for only 33 yards while redshirt junior tailback Marc Tyler had just 12.
“I’ve got to be a little more patient on some runs and explode on others,” Bradford said Wednesday.
Freshman tailback Dillon Baxter has been held out of practice with a foot injury, so senior C.J. Gable will be the third running back to see the field for the Trojans.
It won’t matter if USC continues its defensive woes, as long as the Trojans can put up points on Cal’s defense. Cal is not an offensive juggernaut, ranking sixth in the Pac-10, but neither was Washington. The Trojans gave up 536 yards to the Huskies.
The Trojans expect to see a lot of Cal running back Shane Vereen, who leads the Bears with 593 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Defensively, run [defense] is the issue for us this week,” Kiffin said. “This is about running the ball. [Cal quarterback Kevin] Riley can throw the ball but I think he’s going to turn around and hand it off 50 times, so we’re going to have to be ready.”
The Trojans have won their last six meetings with Cal, including eight of their last nine.