With thousands of USC fans making the dedicated pilgrimage to San Francisco today to watch the Trojans take on the California Golden Bears, everyone’s hoping the team doesn’t put up a stinker.
In fact, this one’s a must-win for USC to salvage some pride, exert dominance and satisfy hordes of fans who accompany the team upstate.
Why is this one so important?
Well, it’s USC’s first rivalry game as a member of the Pac-12. It’s the Weekender. And USC hasn’t lost to Cal since 2003, when it took the Bears three overtimes to down the Trojans 34-31.
It’s also one of the two teams of merit that USC has handled in the Matt Barkley era — along with UCLA.
Many were upset the game is on a Thursday, when it’s inconvenient for a lot of students and alumni to make the trek. But the game will get a lot more attention this way.
It won’t be buried on a Saturday afternoon between Verne Lundquist slobbering over some SEC team and a blowout Big XII game. It’ll be primetime tonight on ESPN; the only other notable game scheduled is a showdown between San Diego State and Air Force.
On national television, it’ll be a great opportunity for USC to put on a jaw-dropping spectacle.
Cal is not a very good football team. It won its first three games against sub-.500 teams this season before dropping its first two conference games (the game against Colorado didn’t count against the conference record) to Washington and Oregon, which it tried to defend with the same strategy that nearly took down the Ducks last year.
The Golden Bears played man coverage with a quarterback spy on every play for the second straight year. The issue with that this year is simple: Darron Thomas doesn’t run the ball anymore.
So the Bears wasted a man in run and pass coverage focused on a quarterback who barely left the pocket.
This is why USC has to win. It’s playing a not-so-good team on a big stage with the toughest tests of the season yet to come.
Losing on the road at Cal would drain all momentum from this young team and spell certain doom against the likes of Stanford and Oregon — if it’s not certain already.
The loss would also deal a serious blow to USC’s street cred in the Northern California-Southern California showdown. Pat Haden and others went to great lengths to make sure USC’s rivalry games were preserved in the reorganization of the conference. But the Trojans have lost their last two games to Stanford. If they drop the Weekender to Cal this year, there will be an awful lot of egg on some important peoples’ faces.
Just as boxers hate to lose fights they lobbied for, you never want to lose a game you fought hard to make happen.
Sure, USC will eventually lose to Stanford or Cal. But to lose in the first year of the Pac-12 Weekender in enemy territory? That would be bad.
But just how easy will it be for USC?
That remains to be seen. Cal’s weak point on defense seems to be its run containment after it surrendered 365 rush yards to Oregon (although Oregon torches basically everyone on the ground).
USC’s run game has been mediocre. Figure Cal will expect Barkley to throw 40 to 50 passes and do its best to neutralize sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, a charge easier planned than executed.
Nevertheless, someone will need to have an effect on the ground or Cal will capitalize on the one-dimensional offense. Whether it’s senior tailback Marc Tyler, junior Curtis McNeal or redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan, someone’s going to have to step up and turn carries into yards.
And don’t think USC will hold Cal to 15 points this game. Quarterback Zach Maynard is no Nick Foles, but USC’s inability to cover underneath routes and its tendency to miss key tackles will give Cal a chance on offense it doesn’t really deserve.
And no coach has seen USC more than California coach Jeff Tedford, who has run the Golden Bears’ football program since 2002 — that makes him the longest-tenured coach in the conference.
USC should hope the special teams remain as solid as they have been up to this point to give some leeway for the offense and defense to screw up once or twice.
There’s a reason USC is only favored by three points in this game, and it’s not because USC can’t execute. It’s because USC is terribly inconsistent and largely unable to put together strong offensive and defensive showings within the same game.
The last time USC went into AT&T Park was to play its 2009 Emerald Bowl game against Boston College; it came away with an easy victory.
USC needs to win against Cal — or else it’s going to be a long ride home and a long rest of the season.
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