Thursday Night Bites: West coast airshow
Your weeknight Week 7 appetizers, in chronological order:
• Texas Southern @ Alabama A&M, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: The weeknight FCS series continues in Huntsville, where the Bulldogs are in third place in the East at 4-2 with one conference loss. The defending conference champion Tigers' three losses have them in fourth in the West. Look for a low-scoring game from two squads who put a premium on defense.
• San Diego State @ Air Force, 8:00 p.m. ET, CBS Sports: Who likes their Mountain West football close and runny? Tonight's second game features two of the nation's worst ground defenses and two solid tailbacks clashing in Colorado Springs. Both the Aztecs and Falcons will also come in a little sullen after being ground out by TCU and blown out at Notre Dame, respectively, and on short rest. There's a lot to play for here, conference-wise: Two overall losses and zero conference wins have SDSU and the USAFA down at the bottom of the MWC standings with New Mexico. No self-respecting team belongs anywhere near New Mexico, you guys. It's not a good look.
We predicted in the preseason that San Diego would upset either TCU or Boise, but the Aztecs have come out flat for most of this year. Ronnie Hillman isn't putting up Ronnie Hillman numbers, and for whatever reason, Ryan Lindley and his receivers are out of sync more than they're in tune. Hillman should see his numbers tick up against a wretched Falcons ground defense that's allowing well over 200 rushing yards per game. Keep a close eye, too, on his backup Walter Kazee, who's been relatively quiet so far this season but is a viable second option.
The story at Air Force has been one of injury-related attrition, with player losses an already underwhelming defense can little afford. The good news for the Falcons is that the Aztecs are nearly as dismal against the run, and should be cut to ribbons by Air Force's triple-option dashers, namely Asher Clark and Mike DeWitt.
SDSU eked out the W last year, 27-25. Expect this contest to be as close, but higher-scoring.
• USC @ Cal, 9:00 p.m., ESPN: How is Cal even a 3-2 team? You, too, could put together a 3-2 Pac-12 outfit from those burly types in Accounts Receivable if you started off your season with Fresno State, Colorado and Presbyterian. The Actual Football part of the Bears' schedule has done them no favors, and tonight's tilt looks on paper like an unhappy night for the home team in AT&T Park. Will the Berkeley boys' bizarro home-road mojo be enough to save them? Probably not, no.
You might recall, the last time these two teams met, that Cal lost 48-14 and USC threatened school records on offense. I don't think this year's meeting will be quite so disheartening, but the Bears' only wins are against demonstrably bad teams, and they were thoroughly dismantled in the second half by Oregon last week. There would have been no time to look ahead whilst prepping for the Ducks, and USC is fresh off a bye. Two QB-receiver triumvirates will make the difference in tonight's outcome: Matt Barkley-Robert Woods-Marqise Lee and Zach Maynard-Keenan Allen-Marvin Jones. Don't look for any great shakes out of the run game: George Farmer may burn his redshirt for the Trojans tonight and take snaps at tailback, but he's an unknown quantity, and while Isi Sofele has been producing nicely for the Bears, USC's defense is considerably stouter on the ground than through the air. The edge in the passing game has to go to the Trojans; Maynard is not without talent and his receivers are nearly without peer, but he struggles at times with efficiency, something that hasn't been much of a problem for Barkley and his boys this year. Compounding Cal's defensive woes is the health of starting cornerback Marc Anthony, who may have to be spelled by a freshman backup. The most interesting key matchup may be between Barkley's offensive line, which has been top-notch at protecting him this season, versus a Cal defense averaging three sacks a game.