Football Fast Forward Bonus: California

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For a USC writer's perspective on this game, check out Football Fast Forward: USC

By Scott Chong, California Golden Blogs

Amidst a schedule littered with litmus tests and statement games, there is arguably no more daunting a challenge for the Cal Bears in 2012 than the prospect of facing the resurgent USC Trojans in the LA Coliseum.  I suppose the Ohio State Buckeyes might have something to say about this, but no worries--Cal will have visited the Horseshoe for a friendly visit the week prior.

With four-year starter and Heisman hopeful Matt Barkley at QB, perhaps the nation's top WR tandem in Robert Woods/Marquis Lee and a roster still stacked with blue-chip talent despite recent sanctions, the Trojans are a likely top-five team.  Not only is their bowl ban over, but legitimate national title aspirations give them all the motivation they need to show up for this one.

It's been an 0-8 drought for Cal after the thrilling triple-OT upset in 2003.  In fact, Cal's last visit to the Coliseum in 2010 has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst halves of football played during the Tedford era en route to a 42-0 halftime deficit.

Most recently in 2011, the Cal defense showed up to defend Memorial Stadium, but was undone by five turnovers and a complete lack of offensive production.

The Big Questions:

1)  Can the Cal defense muster up another gem to slow down the potent Trojan offense?

Cal has to replace six starters from last year's defense, including both defensive ends, both inside linebackers and both safeties.  Pac-12 Defensive POY Mychal Kendricks (LB) is one loss that won't be easily replaced.  Although there is plenty of young talent waiting in the wings, it's unknown whether their athleticism can overcome their relative lack of experience. 

The Bears do have veterans with plenty of starting experience in the secondary with safety Josh Hill (Sr.), and cornerbacks Marc Anthony (Sr.) and Steve Williams (Jr.). 

It'll be interesting to see how coordinator Clancy Pendergast plays this one.  Elite quarterbacks often like to be blitzed in order to take advantage of mismatches.  On the other hand, Barkley has the arm and the weapons to pick apart a more conservative scheme. 

The bet here is that Coach Pendergast will mix it up, try to confuse Barkley by disguising coverages and take his chances.

2)  Will the Cal offense make the trip to LA?

The Bears have proven tailbacks in Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson as well as an All-American candidate of their own in wide receiver Keenan Allen.  What's unknown is whether we'll see senior quarterback Zach Maynard build off of last year's late-season improvement.  At his best, he uses his mobility to extend passing plays and to keep defenses off-balance running the zone-read.  Last year, he struggled mightily against Monte Kiffin's defense.  Poor decision-making and misreading coverages led to four interceptions, including three to safety T.J. McDonald.

Coach Tedford can make things a lot easier on his signal-caller if he can devise a game plan that gets Maynard into rhythm early and prevents him from trying to do too much.  Easier said than done.  The Trojans have too much speed for Cal to lean on their screen game, and Maynard's off/on accuracy isn't ideally suited towards slowly chipping away at a Tampa 2.

I'd expect to see a heavy dose of zone-read early to stop the USC pass rush from simply charging up field.  If Cal can get the Trojan defenders thinking about the run, it sets up the play-action rollout where Maynard is most effective.

3)  Can the Bears avoid shooting themselves in the foot? And the arm? And the head?

It seems like the different phases of the game take turns making mind-boggling errors at the worst time.  For whatever reason, it almost seems like the Cal players have previously been intimidated by the Trojan mystique.  For the past two years, special teams has been particularly prone towards the inopportune macabre.

Field position, penalties and turnovers will all be critical.

4)  So, how does Cal pull the upset?

It's somewhat clichéd, but the Bears need to win the battle of the trenches on both sides of the ball.

USC loves pounding the ball behind its massive O-line and then using play-action to set up big plays.  Although the Bears will have their focus on Woods and Lee, stopping the Trojan tight ends and running attack might be just as important.  Fortunately, Cal's D-line might very well be the strength of the defense with a deep and talented rotation at each position.

Keeping a clean pocket around Zach Maynard will go a long way towards making this one a contest. If this is a repeat of last year's Holiday Bowl where the Texas D-line extinguished the Cal rushing offense and teed off on Maynard all game, you might be tempted to hit Disneyland at halftime. 

The last big key comes down to player leadership.  Of course, good fortune and limiting mistakes are essential.  But, the real difference between 0-9 and an unlikely upset comes from Cal players winning their one-on-one match-ups against more highly regarded athletes. The best game plans in the world matter for nothing without execution.  With Jeff Tedford and his coaching staff being more comfortable as strategists rather than fire-eaters, it falls to the players themselves to keep themselves focused, amped, and wanting this one.

The odds are long.  But a Cal victory wouldn't just be a season highlight; it could be a potential program-changer with significant morale, fan base and recruiting implications.

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