Trust me when I say that I would like nothing more than to beat USC. Personally, beating USC has always been that white whale. In the years when Cal dominated Stanford in the Big Game, (winning five straight, and seven of eight under Tedford) I think it's fair to say that I craved a win over USC moreso than against any other team.
You don't need me to remind you as to how elusive this feat has been for the Bears. Some of Cal's best teams ('04 and '06) have had the misfortune of going against some of the Trojans' best squads and have fallen short. Even in years when the Trojans seemed vulnerable, the Bears' self-inflicted wounds stopped them from seizing the opportunity ('08,'11).
And then there were the flat out smack downs ('05, '09, '10). The ones where you drink more so than usual, but one of the depressing "not sure if I have to even urinate anymore, I'm so drunk" kind of binge sessions.
But regardless of how they hurt, the losses always sting. As you try to tune out USC's stupid fight song playing on, you can't help but wonder just how it could have fallen apart so brutally.
Forgive me for being a bit overdramatic, but hopefully you can empathize with me on this one. The Balls have fallen short against the Trojans time and time again, seemingly more so than any other team in the conference.
Saturday has all the makings of the most painful kind of loss, the ones where it looks like the Bears really do have a chance, only to see it collapse into a pile of rubble.
Cal did the worst possible thing to me last Saturday: they gave me hope. They showed me they can be a disciplined, well balanced team on offense, stifle offenses for stretches, and an ability to keep composure in hostile environments.
And did USC do anything to dash my hope? Nooooo, they had to go and get physically dominated by Stanford! Dah. Injuries and questions on depth? Arghh. A painful expose of team vulnerabilities? Why, why must they do this to me?
The Bears can win this game. But they're going to have to play as well as, if not better than they did against Ohio State, and oh yeah, overcome the whole "USC has our number" mentality.
Let's get into a few keys to the game.
Vary the Defensive Pressure
I know a lot of people watched USC's offensive line get manhandled by Stanford last week and thought, "Oh, it's simple, you just need to blitz Matt Barkley a lot! That'll do it!"
Unfortunately it's not that simple. You can't just send the house every single time, or else the Trojans are going to take advantage of one-one-matchups with their speedy wide receivers or getting their athletic TEs and RBs into space on screens.
First and foremost, the Bears are going to have to win their battles up front. Stanford was so successful in disrupting USC's offense because their front four or five did such a solid job winning their one-on-one battles in the trenches. This allowed their defenders to play physical man coverage on USC's receivers knowing that Barkley wouldn't have time to find his receivers on their breaks. It also frees up the linebackers to drop back and provide support in coverage.
I'm not quite sure what to Make of Cal's defensive line just yet. They haven't been as disruptive as most would like, but part of that was by design given their defense of mobile QBs where it's more about contain than penetration. This is going to be a real man-up test for Cal's defensive line. They have to take advantage of their individual matchups and especially need to get penetration on USC's interior. It's mostly technique, but they'll also have to play with a bit of "it's now or never" mentality.
Secondly, the Bears have to be diverse in their defensive looks. The Bears can apply pressure without simply sending the house each time. For a USC offensive line that's scrambling right now to get right again, the Bears can throw them off with slants, stunts, zone blitzes, delayed blitzes, anything to mess up their timing or assignments. If you have an offensive line and QB that are pressing to get their rhythm down, it's imperative to get different sources and timings of defensive pressure.
And let's be clear, I don't think the Bears need to blitz every play, but I do think they need to err on the side of more pressure than less. Beating the Trojans won't be as simple as rattling Barkley, but it'll be a huge part of it.
But make no mistake about it, the Bears have no shot if they let Matt Barkley sit back in the pocket all day waiting for his receivers get open. No shot at all. A new one will be torn, I can promise you that.
Offense Has to Step Up
Perhaps the aspect of USC's ownage of Cal the past few years that hasn't received much attention is how poorly Cal's offense has played against USC during the stretch. Cal's best offensive output against the Trojans since 2003? 17 points. And that was once with Aaron Rodgers as your QB and another with Justin Forsett nearly running for 200 yards against the Trojans.
Consider this, the Bears have failed to score even double digit points in five of their last 7 meetings ('05, '06, '08, '09, '11).
It's been a combination of turnovers, poor execution, and times when the Bears looked flat out intimidated by the Trojans defense.
I'm not going to attempt to provide any thoughts schematically as to what the Bears need to do. They pretty much need to do the opposite of what they've done in the past.
With that said, here are some things I'd like to see on Saturday. First off, off keep it simple for Maynard. Maynard's best throws come off of play action or when he's hitting his receivers are short hitches, slants and screens. he doesn't need to get all of his yardage at once and his biggest mistakes against USC last season came when he kept trying to force the issue on the middle of the field.
Next, with depth at tight end an issue right now for the Bears, the Bears need to find ways to get their emerging receivers the ball more often. Ditto can be said for Isi Sofele and CJ Anderson who have shown to be effective weapons in the passing game as well.
Finally, and this is the most obvious, Brendan Bigelow needs to be a bigger part of your offensive gameplan. He doesn't even need to get the ball every time he gets on the field, even using him as a threat will open up things for the Bears. With that said, you need to get him the freaking every time he gets on the field. Contradictory statements? I don't care, get it done.
I want to believe we can win. I really do. But unfortunately, it's one of those "I'll believe it when I see it," moments. And given the Bears' incompetence against the Trojans over the course of the past decade, forgive me for not hopping aboard the hope float.
But the opportunity is there. The Bears are hungry, motivated, and they've shown the ability not to get rattled on the road. We've seen flashes of offensive firepower, and this defense can get back to solid ways if they can cut down on their big plays. But they're going to face a USC team that's full of pissed off 5-star players at home. Get it done Bears. Prove you're a different squad. It's time to beat the Trojans.
(still my) Prediction Cal 17 USC 31