With one of the conference’s most prolific offenses coming to town in the middle of the week, the Cal defense has to complete one task: not get lost in the Woods.
Playing on its second consecutive Thursday night, the Cal football team (3-2, 0-2 in the Pac-12) welcomes USC — led by star quarterback Matt Barkley and juggernaut receiver Robert Woods — at 6 p.m. at AT&T Park for its homecoming game and first home game since Sept. 17.
The Trojans (4-1, 2-1) arrive in San Francisco with a high-flying offense and a porous pass defense. In their 48-41 victory over Arizona on Oct. 1, Barkley threw for a school-record 468 yards, four touchdowns and one interception while Woods caught 14 balls for 255 yards and two scores.
But while the offense racked up 582 yards of total offense and reached the end zone six times, the defense allowed an eye-popping 37 first downs, including 25 through the air.
USC’s secondary has struggled mightily in its last two games, having surrendered a combined 84 points and 648 passing yards.
So it remains to be seen if Bears quarterback Zach Maynard, who is coming off of his worst game of the season, will be able to improve his accuracy and exploit one of the conference’s worst passing units.
Maynard didn’t throw any interceptions in Cal’s 43-15 loss to Oregon, but he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, threw a series of woeful balls that missed open receivers and looked naturally unsettled in the pocket.
“I played exactly how I thought I played,” Maynard said. “I was trying to anticipate things that weren’t there. I just need to keep my feet moving and keep my feet up under me.”
Despite the Trojans’ massive defensive struggles, Cal head coach Jeff Tedford may be more concerned with trying to contain Barkley and Woods, the two players that his defense failed to stop last year and have vastly improved this season. Barkley threw for 352 yards and five touchdowns while Woods caught seven balls for 116 yards and found pay dirt twice.
“(Barkley) has absolutely matured,” Tedford said. “He was a youngster playing and now he has a lot of games under his belt. He played great against us last year so it’s hard to improve on that. He was lights out.”
The two offensive stalwarts have been spectacular in USC’s first five games. Barkley has completed over 70 percent of his passes, averaging over 300 yards passing per game, and has thrown for 14 touchdowns while Woods is averaging an astounding 149.4 yards per game. True freshman Marqise Lee has been stellar as well. The Inglewood, Calif. product rocketed up the depth chart during training camp and had the best game of his young career last week, catching eight balls for 144 yards and one touchdown.
While Tedford predictably insists that last year plays no role in the preparation for this game, it’s hard to imagine that last year’s massacre in Los Angeles won’t be in the minds of the Cal players that were embarrassed to the tune of a 42-0 halftime deficit and eventually a 48-14 defeat.
So then maybe it is a good thing that freshman Stefan McClure, making his first career collegiate start and likely the one assigned to guard Woods, is getting his first look at the man that many consider to be the best receiver in the nation and perhaps the best receiver in USC history.
McClure took over last week after Marc Anthony separated his shoulder in the second quarter for his first extended college action.
“(Woods) is for sure the best that we will face,” McClure said. “We need to make sure that we get hands on him and that he doesn’t get going too fast down the field running free. You’ve gotta bring it. You can’t play his reputation.”