Cal is never going to sneak up on USC again.
Since 2003, the Bears have never seen an unfocused effort from the Trojans. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
It’s just payback. In 2003, the Bears’ triple overtime win over then-No 1 USC ruined what would have been one of the most dominant seasons in college football history. Behind the emergence of future Heisman winner Matt Leinart, the Trojans were next to unstoppable — steamrolling powerhouses like No. 6 Auburn and No. 4 Michigan. The loss against Cal was the only game in which they didn’t win by at least two touchdowns.
Coach Jeff Tedford and his upstart Bears won because they caught USC sleeping — something that is never going to happen again.
And Cal’s recent luck of playing USC after emotional losses hasn’t helped on that front either.
“I feel like, every time we’re playing them, they’re coming off a dramatic loss,” safety Josh Hill said.
The most recent example he’s probably referring to would be 2010’s tilt, in which Cal was lucky enough to trek down to the Coliseum a week after Stanford kicked a field goal on the final play to upset USC, 37-35. Seven days later, a hell-bent USC squad took out its frustration on the Bears to the tune of a 48-14 final score.
This year’s situation is eerily similar, as the former No. 1 Trojans were just embarrassed on national television by the Cardinal in a game that likely took away Heisman hopes for quarterback Matt Barkley and national title aspirations for the rest of the team.
Now the Trojans return home to the friendly confines of the L.A. Coliseum and will likely be looking for a punching bag to vent all that pent up frustration.
Without a doubt, Cal is going to see a focused and angry USC team on Saturday.
So in order to beat — or at least contend with — the Trojans the Bears are going to have to match the effort.
Saturday’s game against Ohio State was encouraging but incomplete. The team showed an ability to execute that it hadn’t displayed thus far, but key breakdowns on defense and some subpar kicking spoiled the effort. Still, Cal was resilient and beat the Buckeyes in almost every aspect of the game — except the final score.
Tedford also turned in what was probably his best coaching performance since the 2009 Big Game. For three and a half quarters, he was back to his 2004 self, constantly a few steps ahead of Ohio State and Urban Meyer. The Bears’ offense was balanced and varied, keeping the Buckeye defense constantly guessing.
Then the fourth quarter hit, and Tedford trotted out his special teams unit instead of keeping his rolling offense on the field for a fourth and inches — reminding everyone why his seat is so hot.
If Cal is to win on Saturday, the team will have to turn in an effort similar to that against the Buckeyes. But this time, the Bears need to make it last the whole game. A couple blown assignments or tedious coaching decisions could likely prove to be the difference, as it did last week.
The formula itself is similar to last week’s: establish the run while keeping Zach Maynard in manageable situations, and use the continuously improving front seven to expose the weakness of the Trojans’ offensive line.
Whether Cal can continue to execute in another hostile environment remains to be seen.
But one thing is for certain: USC is going to bring their A-game. Let’s hope the Bears do, too.
Connor Byrne covers football. Contact him at [email protected]