A week ago, this weekend's USC-Cal clash was considered a seismic Pac-10 showdown. But after Washington stunned USC 13-10, Oregon's 42-3 pounding of Cal administered the coup de grace. Still, while this game has lost some of its national-title implications, it maintains much of its luster.
With one Pac-10 loss each, the Bears and the Trojans now find their margin of error razor-slim. A Cal defeat would give the Bears their first 0-2 Pac-10 start under Jeff Tedford, while a USC loss would seriously jeopardize the Trojans' quest for an eighth straight BCS berth.
Cal and USC aren't playing for a Rose Bowl guarantee--they are playing to avoid Rose Bowl elimination.
1. How will the Trojans handle Stafon Johnson's injury? The USC running back underwent a seven-hour reconstructive throat surgery after suffering a freak weightlifting accident on Monday. Thankfully, he's expected to make a full recovery and is even Tweeting from the hospital. While the fact that Johnson survived is relief enough, it's still unclear how the team will replace his production and what emotional toll his accident will take on his teammates.
Johnson wasn't as explosive as Joe McKnight, but the 5-foot-11, 210-pounder made his impact felt in short-yardage situations. Trojans coach Pete Carroll hasn't revealed who will fill that void, saying only: "We're working on it. We'll see what we're going to do about that." The most logical choice appears to be Allen Bradford, who at 5-11 and 235 pounds is the biggest back in USC's deep tailback stable.
USC's depth should help ease the loss of Johnson's on-field production, but the effect on the team's psyche is another matter. "We're connected. This is a very tight program and a very tight team," Carroll said. "Stafon's been a spiritual leader and a leader on the field in all ways for a long time here and a beloved guy. So this is something that does affect you. We all will feel it for some time."
Carroll's teams have responded well to on-field setbacks in the past, never suffering consecutive losses since his first season. But this is a different animal. Quarterback Matt Barkley, for one, expects USC to use the loss of Johnson as a rallying point. "It will motivate us," Barkley said. "It won't negatively affect us."
2. How will Cal respond after its humbling loss in Eugene? It would be an understatement to say the Bears were embarrassed in Autzen Stadium last Saturday. During its 3-0 start, Cal averaged 488 yards of offense (including 249.6 on the ground) and 48.6 points. But against the Ducks, Cal wound up with a paltry 207 total yards (77 rushing) and just three points. It was the Bears' most lopsided loss under Tedford and the program's worst since a 55-14 defeat at the hands of USC in 2001.
Unfortunately, the Bears don't have 1-3 Washington State to rebound against the way the Trojans did after losing to Washington in Week 3. Instead, they must try to get back on track against a team they haven't beaten since a triple-overtime victory at Memorial Stadium in 2003.
"You've just got to come back and you can't think about it," Cal quarterback Kevin Riley said this week. "The game's over with, we got beat and we got beat down. You've got to just go out there and play, and I think SC players know we're going to be ready to play and they know it's going to be a fight for four quarters."
It'll only be a fight, though, if Cal's offense regains its footing in a hurry. The Trojans lead the nation with 18 sacks and haven't given up more than 16 points in a single game. For Cal to avoid a second crushing loss, Riley needs better protection from an offensive line that failed to offer resistance against an Oregon front that had 11 tackles for loss, including five sacks.
3. Can Jahvid Best rescue his Heisman campaign? There's little debate that the Bears' big-play runner is, as the school's campaign says "Simply The Best" back in the country. In Cal's first three games, he torched opponents for 412 yards and eight touchdowns while gaining 7.8 yards per carry. But, like the Bears' national title hopes, Best's Heisman candidacy took a hit with a 55-yard, zero-TD nightmare against the Ducks.
Voters will let one subpar performance slide, but now the pressure is squarely on the 5-10, 195-pound speed freak. A big day in the biggest game of the Bears' season could help erase the Oregon game and vault Best back to the forefront of the race. Another dud, though, could leave him as the most entertaining player who won't be making a trip to New York in December.
The numbers aren't on Best's side. The Trojans are giving up a Pac-10 best 59.5 yards per game on the ground and a minuscule 1.7 yards per carry, third nationally. On top of that, last season against USC Best had one of the worst performances of his career, finishing with 30 yards and no scores as the Trojans won 17-3. That failure still weighs heavily on Best.
"It just gives me a little bit more motivation to go out there and produce this weekend, just to show that I can produce," he said.
How much of a headache is facing Best? I asked Eastern Washington assistant coach Torey Hunter, whose defense faced Best earlier this season. Here's what he had to say:
"The same things that made him special are the same things that made Reggie Bush special. He's got tremendous vision to go with tremendous feet and tremendous speed and when you put those three things together, [as a defender] you have to pick your poison.
"You try to string out and he can beat you to the corner. If you over-pursue, like we did a few times, he can cut back and complete his run. A few runs he started strong-side B [gap], and wound up back-side B and then flat-out outran us.
"I think if you can, come up with a game plan where you're pressuring weak. They like to run power strong, which makes them dangerous. But [the ideal is] kind of like what Oregon did: backside pressure and make him go one way so you can have a better chance."
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It's all about who controls the line of scrimmage. No one has run well on USC thus far, so expect them to control like Oregon did.-- @BlueWorkhorse
USC 27, Cal 21. Carroll said earlier this week he thought Cal ran into an Oregon team "that was on fire." But the Bears played so poorly on each side of the ball, it's hard to believe they weren't looking ahead to the Trojans. Cal will look more like the team we thought it was against USC, but ultimately, the Trojans have enough weapons to overcome Best's best. Plus, the loss of Johnson should help keep this group focused and motivated.