USC’s Matt Barkley was the Heisman Trophy frontrunner until last Saturday.
The senior quarterback’s two interceptions led to a 21-14 loss to Stanford that bumped the Trojans down to No. 13 in the country and out of the national title picture, for now.
The Cal football team does not expect a repeat performance from Barkley and the Trojans when the squad travels south for its Pac-12 opener against USC at 3 p.m. Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“Matt Barkley is not gonna have another bad game,” said Cal safety Josh Hill. “Unless we force him to.”
While the Bears (1-2) are coming off their best performance of the season — a nail-biting 35-28 loss to then-No. 12 Ohio State in Columbus — the Trojans (2-1, 0-1 in the Pac-12) will be looking to make up ground in the conference.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we’re gonna get their best effort,” said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. The Bears haven’t beaten USC since 2003.
It starts with containing the Trojans’ explosive offense. Fortunately for Cal, the team is in good spirits and Tedford is “fired up about the improvement” made in the near upset.
For all his troubles against the Cardinal defense Saturday, Barkley has still thrown for 813 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. Although Barkley doesn’t have the speed of the Buckeyes’ Braxton Miller, Tedford said that the USC star is no stiff.
Moreover, Barkley has arguably the country’s best receiving duo in preseason All-Americans Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
“They’re as gifted as any receivers around, no doubt,” Tedford said. “We can’t give Barkley a lot of time to throw the ball, because those receivers will get open.”
The key for Stanford was its ability to pressure Barkley. Hill said Cal’s defense will try to confuse him and keep him off-balanced. The Bears were, for the most part, successful in slowing down Ohio State’s offense — but they gave up big plays that ended up costing the game.
“If we can make those plays, then we are a successful defense,” said sophomore linebacker Nick Forbes. “You have to really hone on your techniques, make sure you take the proper angles.”
Woods and Lee will be matched up with Marc Anthony and Steve Williams, Cal’s pair of cornerbacks that Hill called the best in the conference— if not the nation. The Bears’ secondary actually showed an impressive effort in the squads’ previous go-around. Despite routing Cal, 30-9, in 2011, USC gained just 195 yards in the air. Woods, who entered that game first in the country in receiving yards per game, tallied just 36.
The difference in last year’s game was turnovers. The Trojans’ offense never really got going, but Cal shot itself in the foot with five turnovers, including three interceptions.
Yet Zach Maynard has made strides since then. The senior quarterback’s last two games were among the most efficient of his career, and he has completed two-third of his passes for 754 yards in 2012. It helps that he has weapons around him, including Brendan Bigelow, who was named All-Purpose Performer of the Week by the College Football Performance Awards.
The sophomore electrified the nation with touchdown runs of 81 and 59 yards last week. But being the third-string running back, he only had four carries. Having three productive tailbacks is a complicated but good problem for Tedford to have.
“It’s just hard to get them all in the game,” Tedford said. “Bigelow should be in on a few more plays this week.”
That might be the understatement of the season for these underdog Bears — and perhaps Cal’s answer to the Trojan triumvirate of Barkley, Woods and Lee.
Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org