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The California Golden Bears must embrace their own fears this week if they expect to have any shot of beating USC.
This game is about fear.
It's not as if "The Bears are afraid of USC." They probably aren't. But they sure have played afraid in every contest the past three seasons. They've rushed throws, they've missed blocking assignments, they've turned over the football. USC has barely had to lift a finger to exert their dominance. Cal has been the ones beating themselves up on every critical play the last three seasons (most of the previous five losses have come down to the 4th quarter). They have been panicky performances by a team trying to do more than they need to do.
If I had to lay a theory about Cal's poor performance and their failure to execute, I'd have to say some of it has to do with the front the Bears put up every week leading into the game. The Golden Bears don't seem to indicate they fear the Trojans every year, sometimes showing false bravado. They put up a good front going into the week, acting cocksure, and that makes everyone think they finally are about to naysay the naysayers.
Then, boom! Haymaker! Right to the chin.
There's nothing wrong with being afraid of this matchup. Cal should fear USC. They are the most intimidating team they face on their schedule every year, top to bottom. The Trojans have generally always stacked the lines on both sides of the football. Yes, Stanford undressed them last week, but they've had years of prep in beating USC thanks to Harbaugh, Luck and Gerhart. In fact, the loss by USC should make Cal even more apprehensive, because they know they'll get the best that Kiffin, Barkley and the Trojans will throw at them.
Fear is healthy. But denying fear will only make it leak out during the game and it'll eventually consume the way they play. The Bears have to confront it early, absorb the early blows, then get back to work.
The bad news? They're still SC. They're still loaded with talented and athletic playmakers. They've still beaten us 8 years in a row...most of which have been neither close nor competitive. We have a suspect secondary, and they have two incredible wide receivers. We have yet to demonstrate an ability to consistently pressure the quarterback. Stanford may have provided the blueprint, but it will take an incredible effort and a soundly executed gameplan to duplicate what they did. Plus, the Trojans are probably pretty angry right now, and this game is in the Coliseum. The last time Cal won there? 2000.
Since Cal's last win over USC the Bears have averaged 10.2 points per game with a high of 17. Cal has scored less than a touchdown per game since Adimchinobe Echemandu and Reggie Roberson led the upset in 2003. Even if this is the worst USC defense over that span, and even if this is the best Cal offense since 2006*, that's quite a bit of bad mojo to overcome.
So maybe this game is less about Cal vs. USC and more about Cal vs. Cal. I'm sure if you asked, the players would say that the losing streak (and last year's ugly blowout) motivates them. But after so many ugly performances you can't help but wonder. I don't think anybody would argue that the Bears aren't capable of putting up points. But until the offense breaks through skepticism will persist.
1. Does the USC offensive line bounce back?
There aren't many words needed to describe the offensive line play last week, but there are plenty that do. Think of all the synonyms of "bad." Stanford's front-seven is one of the best in the country and they exploited USC's weaknesses, particularly in the middle where redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi made his first career start. If Khaled Holmes returns this week, which is likely considering he was suited up last week and has been practicing this week, the big boys up front should play much better. Holmes is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the line, anchoring the middle and making all the calls.
But even if Holmes is unavailable, the Trojans should fare better this week. Expect them to control the tempo better than they did at Stanford and not wear down like Aundrey Walker did in the second half. When asked Tuesday if the line was ready to get back on the field and play another game, Walker told reporters, "Just watch Saturday. That's all I've got to tell you, 'Just watch Saturday.'"
Now many people are singing the same exact tune as last year. How will this team respond from such a devastating loss?
Looking back now, that game in Tempe proved to be beneficial for USC. That loss, in a way, transformed the team.
It won seven of its last eight games. The defense allowed an average of just 23 points during those last eight games of the season, while the offense put up an average of almost 41 points.
They went on the road as near double-digit underdogs to defeat Notre Dame. They went up to Autzen Stadium and stunned the Ducks. Finally, they punctuated their season with a 50-0 thrashing over crosstown rival UCLA.
Lots for Cal to overcome if they expect to upset USC this year.