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October 13, 2011
PREVIEW: Focus on the running game
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BERKELEY -- Almost exactly one year ago, USC hammered California 48-14 in Los Angeles.
The Bears saw Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley rack up 352 passing yards, completing 25 of 37 attempts (67.6 percent). In the first half alone, Barkley went 20-for-29 for 257 yards and four touchdowns.
"I think it was indicative of the whole team's first half," said USC head coach Lane Kiffin. "Everything just went right for us, and everything just went wrong for them, and everybody has those games every year or two where just everything, even when you call a play that's not supposed to work, someone makes a great play and then they get a ball picked, so it's just one of those games where everything went our way and nothing went their way, and that's why it was 42-0 at half. With that, though, Matt did play great. A lot of good stuff happened around him, too."
Barkley and Kiffin went into the locker room up 42-0, all but completely demoralizing the Cal defense.
"It's always a new season and a new game, and it's all about us this year and doing things right this year. It's definitely something, though," said senior Cal safety Sean Cattouse. "The guys they have over there, we're amped up to get that taste out of our mouth from last year, but I think it's a motivation, probably not the biggest, but it's nothing that we forget and nothing that we've forgotten."
Bears tailback Isi Sofele didn't see much action, as starter Shane Vereen carried the ball 10 times for 53 yards.
"It was crazy just to see us down 42," Sofele said. "We've just got to look at it and take it as motivation right now, and work hard this whole week, as we have been. We've just got to go out there and execute every play."
Cal went to the air much of the game, trying to play catch-up, as USC both passed and ran at will, gaining 211 yards on 36 rushing attempts.
Not that they had to run much. Then-freshman wide receiver Robert Woods put on a clinic, catching seven balls for 116 yards and two touchdowns. This year, both Barkley and Woods return, with the sophomore deep threat leading the nation in receiving yards.
"I've never been in a game like that," said Bears head coach Jeff Tedford. "It got away so early and they made every play they could possibly make and we didn't. It got away from us early, so that was definitely a long day. We definitely want to make sure that doesn't happen again, that we come out, play fast, start fast and that's going to be key."
As crucial as the passing attack will be for both Cal (3-2, 0-2) and USC during Thursday's primetime contest at AT&T Park, though, the battle on the ground could wind up being just as important. Aside from getting Sofele going early behind a steadily-improving offensive line, stopping the stable of backs from Tailback U is equally crucial, particularly given the Trojans' perceived vulnerability due to uneven play this season in a lackluster first-week win over Minnesota, a close-shave 48-41 win over Arizona and a sound, 43-22 thumping at the hands of Arizona State.
"I'm not too aware of what [the Sun Devils] did to them, so I don't think that was our biggest thing," Cattouse said. "Coach always tells us, it's all about us, running our D and our scheme and just getting done what we need to get done. I'm sure coach will take some things from whatever team did well against them and try to use that against them."
USC (4-1, 2-1 in the Pac-12) has produced four Heisman Trophy winners at the tailback position, including Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen. In the early 2000s, the Trojans boasted a tandem of LenDale White and Reggie Bush in their backfield.
Lately, though, the Trojans have been a little light in the running department. USC has not produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Bush turned the trick in 2005.
While the Trojans currently rank 29th in the nation in total offense (454.40 yards per game), they are seventh in the league in rushing offense (136.6 yards per game).
"I don't know about exploiting them; they're very good players," Tedford said of the USC tailbacks. "They're very physical, very fast, very good players."
With Barkley having two big-play threats in the passing game in the persons of Woods and true freshman Marqise Lee, the Trojans have had little impetus to go to the running game, though, after seeing Oregon rack up 365 yards on the ground last week in Eugene against the Bears, they might change their tune.
"I don't know if I'd call them under the norm," said Cal defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi. "It's just been because their passing game has been so effective. They're still very tough to prepare for. They're still very multiple, with one back, two backs and different looks, a lot of pre-snap shifts and motions and I think they've still got some good, young runners in the backfield, so as those guys mature and learn the system, new players -- just like with everything -- they'll come on and do well."
Part of the reason that passing game has been so effective has been the surprising -- if uneven -- play along the offensive line.
With two sophomores and one true freshman starting up front, the Bears defensive line would have reason to lick its chops, save for the fact that the line -- anchored by junior tackle Matt Kalil -- has allowed just four sacks this season.
"I think the offensive line is athletic and led by a great offensive tackle, who perhaps could be a possible first-round draft pick in Kalil, and he does a nice job," Lupoi said. "It's an athletic group that does a nice job of reaching and cutting off the defensive line. They still have that element of downhill and double teaming the safeties and it's very similar to the overall system: the offensive line and everything that they do up front, they do a nice job and it causes you to prepare for multiple blocks instead of just really focusing on one or two."
Some of that group's success, though, has been due to Barkley.
"I think he does a nice job of pre-snap recognition, of seeing pressure and then, checking out of it or he has the ability to run opposite of pressure or get to his hot route well," Lupoi said. "He does a nice job of pre-snap recognition, I think, to put himself in a successful position."
Cal ranks eighth in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 135.6 yards per game, but has allowed just one tailback to break the century mark. That one, though, was the Ducks' LaMichael James, who gained 239 yards on 30 carries.
During last week's 43-15 loss to Oregon, not only did James break the Bears' backs on the ground, but No. 2 back Kenjon Barner gained 88 yards on 10 carries, though 68 of those came on one run.
Three of the Ducks' six touchdowns came via the run, but, on the season, the Bears have seen five of the 14 touchdowns they've allowed on defense come on the ground. Before heading up north last week, Cal had surrendered 11 plays of 20 yards or more, with just two of those coming on the ground. Oregon, however, broke off 10 plays of over 20 yards, with five coming on the ground, almost all of those coming on the outside edge.
"I could see most of it from the sideline," said Bears defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "I thought a couple of the perimeter plays got out on us. [James] is a very good back, and explosive, and we allowed too many big plays in the running game, but it was going to be a situation where we were going to do a lot of things to try to stop the run, because they're a run-first team. We're disappointed that we lost, but there were some positives that came out of the game, as well."
One of those positives was the first-half play of the defensive line, which seemed to be more disruptive before the break than after.
"They changed some of the things they were doing," Pendergast said. "They kind of pulled things back, and they became very methodical -- either they were going to run it or they were going to throw it -- and they made two runs, they were going to run, then they made two passes, so it was more of a situation where we knew we had to win in the secondary and win the game defensively, and they made more plays than we did when it counted."
Because of the Ducks' run-heavy offense, true freshman outside linebacker Cecil Whiteside did not see action last week, but with the vast majority of USC's offensive yards coming through the air (69.9 percent), Whiteside may finally have a chance to shine.
In three games this season, Whiteside has made five tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss for 15 yards, two sacks and forced two fumbles. Though the Trojans have not gone to the ground very often (31.6 rushing plays to 37.8 passing plays per game), players like Whiteside and freshman Chris McCain putting pressure on Barkley may lead to a change in game plan towards a thinner-than-usual stable of backs.
Thanks to having the No. 3 passing offense (317.8 yards per game) in the Pac-12 and a 70.9 completion percentage when they go to the air, the Trojans have mostly eschewed the run, gaining 683 yards on the ground (4.3 per carry) this season, and shying away from using 5-foot-11, 230-pound senior Marc Tyler as a feature back, despite his physicality and durability. Observers have said that something seems to be missing from this Trojans running attack, and that something is a true every-down back, or at least the utilization of one player as an every-down back.
Only twice in five games has Tyler carried the ball more than 20 times, and in both of those games -- against Utah and Arizona State -- he ran for over 100 yards, the only two times he's broken the century mark this season. Tyler has played in four games, rushing 72 times for 338 yards (4.7 per carry) with two touchdowns, averaging 84.5 yards per game.
Three tailbacks have double-digit carries, with Tyler leading the pack (72), followed by Curtis McNeal (24 carries for 203 yards, one TD, 8.5 ypc) and D.J. Morgan (30 carries for 100 yards, 3.3 ypc). The Trojans have also seen sophomore Dillon Baxter -- a former five-star recruit like Woods -- tote the rock nine times for 29 yards.
USC has been particularly reticent to turn to the run when it comes to moving the chains.
Of the Trojans' 123 first downs this season, 52 have come via the run. Cal -- second in the conference in fewest first downs allowed -- has allowed just 17.2 first downs per game, with 47 of 86 coming via the run.
The strength of that ability to stop the run comes from Lupoi's defensive line.
Of the Bears' 38 tackles for loss, 4.5 have come from defensive end Ernest Owusu (ninth in the conference), with an additional four apiece coming from defensive end DeAndre Coleman and senior linebacker Mychal Kendricks. Owusu also has a team-high 2.5 sacks and even two pass break-ups.
Defensive end Trevor Guyton is the most prolific tackler along the defensive front, registering 15 stops, 1.5 sacks and one fumble recovery.
When it comes to the red zone, both teams have been rather unremarkable. Cal's red zone defense is eighth in the conference, allowing opponents to score 85.7 percent of the time, with eight TDs and five field goals. Of the touchdowns that the Bears have allowed, three have been via the rush, and five via the pass. USC's red zone offense is 10th in the Pac-12 (75 percent), scoring 11 TDs and four field goals. Of those 11 touchdowns, four have come on the rush
There is one factor, though, that numbers cannot quantify, and that is the possibility that the Trojans could pull the redshirt of true freshman George Farmer.
"There's a lot of guys on that roster that are explosive and very talented and we wouldn't treat him any different than anybody else," Lupoi said. "USC, as an offensive unit, you're going to get too much talent to account for just one guy or stop one or two guys, because they have the ability in other positions to hurt you, so whether we see Farmer or not, it's more of just the system that you need to prepare for and then the fact that there's multiple student-athletes that can hurt you all over the place. I don't think there's any specific preparation just to stop Farmer, just to stop one man. It's an effective system that can hurt you in many different ways, not just by one person."
That one person, though, was a five-star recruit as a wide receiver, making him double dangerous if USC follows through on its practice preparation this week and uses Farmer as a tailback.
"It was really just something that he's been beat up early in camp and was injured and then came back and we had him actually play quarterback for the service unit the first week and he ran well, so we kind of messed around with him, so he's still doing some of both for us," Kiffin said. "Eventually, he'll be a really good player."
Farmer, while now a running back, could wind up catching the ball out of the backfield, or perhaps even more unnerving to the Bears, the Trojans can get him underneath in the soft spot in coverage, like Arizona has done with Keola Antolin and like Colorado did with Rodney Stewart earlier this year with great success.
"Being a former receiver, he can catch the ball and run routes, but he's got a long ways to go before he can run it," Kiffin insisted. "It's hard to back there and play running back all of the sudden, so that's why we did something early on just to see if we can potentially develop him there in the future."
That being said, Barkley had nothing but glowing praise for the young athlete's week of practice in the backfield, and perhaps, tipped his team's hand.
"He's been looking awesome," Barkley said. "I'm happy that we'll be able to utilize him and his speed. He's probably the fastest guy on our team. It's going to be fun to watch him with the ball in his hands if he gets in on Saturday. We plan on using him in a couple different spots so it should be fun to watch him."