-Cal USC 2009
[I am forgoing my usual keys to the game, and replacing it with more or less my thought process this week regarding the absolute significance of this week’s game against USC. Feel free to leave your thoughts. My usual prediction is still included in the conclusion.]
A blowout loss like the Autzen Atrocity (copyright BearswithFangs) can do funny things to a Cal fan. More or less, it leaves one and their flimsy understanding of their team’s quality shaken and even broken.
So it was with great mystification that I tried to make sense of last weekend’s debacle. It wasn’t so much why we lost, which has been discussed and rehashed to no end, but rather what the loss means for our team.
We know that it certainly puts a huge dent in our conference title aspirations and places any small notions of a possible national championship run on life support. That we know.
Yet, what does such a blowout loss mean for a team expected by many to seriously challenge for the conference crown and establish themselves as BCS contenders? After much head scratching, it really boils down to two different questions: Have the Bears been exposed as overrated pretenders, or are they indeed an elite team who just happened to have a complete freak mishap of a game?
The truth might be “a little of both” or quite possibly “neither.”
I raise these questions simply to provide the context under which my absolute uncertainty heading into this game resides. I have never felt, with the exception of 2005, that any of our games against USC were ever really out of grasp. Despite their typical advantage in talent, we have matched up pretty well against the Trojans, and have played them pretty tough. However, being able to beat USC and actually beating them are two different stories, as the latter requires near perfect execution on all fronts. This has unfortunately rarely been the case, as the Trojans have notched Ws over the Bears in all but one instance during the Jeff Tedford era.
This year can be different though, for slightly different reasons. Much has been made of this being a battle of desperation, and despite my attempts to refute such extreme notions after just the opening conference game, I can’t find any way to do so. I have come to face the facts.
Saturday’s game is an absolute must win for the Bears.
Of course we can argue the definition of “must win,” as the term is thrown around loosely in all sports. But if we are to accept anything less than a conference championship as being a disappointment, which is a fair assessment of the team’s and fans’ goals, then there are very few ways to convince me that a loss on Saturday doesn’t all but knock the Bears out of the Rose Bowl picture.
A loss would mean a 0-2 conference start and a likely insurmountable deficit in the Pac-10 standings. Oregon would essentially have a 3 game lead (two + the tie breaker) while USC would have 2 (again 1 + the tie breaker). While I fully expect the eventual Pac-10 champion to have at least one loss, possibly two, the Bears are unlikely to be in that conversation with their two losses coming to two of the strongest contenders for that crown.
And even beyond just the standings and conference goals, the Bears must take advantage of their best opportunity to beat the Trojans since 2004 (possibly 2006, although even I had strong questions about the talented 06 squad beating USC at the Coliseum). We’ve heard, “If not now, then when?” And while I don’t buy into the overdramatic tone, these types of wins over favored conference champions can be ones that not only change a season, but a program. Make no mistake about it: a lot is riding on this win both in terms of this season’s goals, but future ones as well.
Do not get me wrong. A loss on Saturday would not be the end of the world. All hope would not be lost, and I would be no less deterred in my utmost belief that it is only a matter of time that Cal wins the conference outright. And while this season could quite possibly be shot with a loss, the program would for the most part, be fine.
Yet, while I know I enter this discussion with an incredibly hyperventilating tone, I can’t help but reiterate the significance of this win. A win may not guarantee success this season, but it sure would do a lot in ensuring that the team’s goals are even a realistic possibility, with more than half the season left to go.
And because all these reasons are incredibly obvious, we can always fall back on the fact that it’s USC game week. Any self-respecting Cal fan implicitly understands the significance.
So your prediction?
I do have the pesky matter of having to make a prediction. Really, from as objective of a standpoint as I can possibly have, I believe the Trojans are about touchdown favorites for good reason.
Their defense is still one of the nation’s elite, ranking 5th and 6th in the country in scoring defense and total defense respectively. They still continue to repudiate opponents’ attempts to score on them in bunches. Opponents average just 1.7 ypc against the Trojans run defense. USC leads the nation with 18 total sacks.
Also, offensively dormant or not, USC still has a plethora of future NFL players lining up on that side of the ball. They feature arguably one of the most physically dominant and experienced offensive lines in all of the country which has helped the Trojans carve up over 216 yards per game on the ground. They’ve also given up just 5 sacks on the year. Cal’s offensive line gave up that many last week to Oregon alone. And freshman QB or not, Matt Barkley has shown that he refuses to be rattled by big game atmospheres (see Ohio State game) Oh, and they’re still coached by Pete Carroll.
Frankly put: the Trojans statistically dominate the Bears in nearly every category.
Still, I am somehow confident that the Bears can absolutely win this game. USC looks the most vulnerable it has in years, and despite its history of dropping an early conference loss or struggling in the conference in September or October, there is something about the Trojans this year that make me believe they really could see 3-4 losses. They just don’t look all that impressive.
And perhaps my own maddening longing for a win has seeped into my ability to look at this game from a pragmatic perspective. Yet I still think the Bears can, and…dammit, will win this game.
In all honesty, I can’t justify how I got this score, but I swear I had a dream this past week that the final score read: Cal 26 USC 21. Yes, that’s right, either we’ll somehow get a safety or D’Amato will go crazy with 4 field goals. It’s not practical, I know.
However, if the final score is anywhere near that (in favor of the Bears of course), I will continue to dangerously believe that this season might still be special for the Bears. If Cal gets blown out though, then hell, I’ll just have to remind myself from now on not to eat gummi bears before I sleep.
Cal: 26 USC 21.