At Cal, Bears Are Looking Golden
Monday, October 9, 2006
Southern California is riding a Pacific-10-record 26-game conference winning streak, but the team that is looking more and more like the class of the league resides a few hundred miles north in Berkeley.
California has made vast improvements, most notably at quarterback, since a 17-point loss at Tennessee on Sept. 2. Since the loss, the Golden Bears have scored 40 or more points in five straight games, a team record.
None of their victories this season was more impressive than Saturday night's 45-24 triumph against then-No. 11 Oregon at Memorial Stadium. The Bears (5-1) intercepted Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon three times and showed why they were a popular top 10 choice in the preseason.
"I said this was probably the most athletic football team we will have played on both sides of the ball," Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti told reporters after the game. "They are physical up front and they did some really good things. Am I surprised by how well they played? Yes. It was not what I anticipated."
The Trojans, on the other hand, have not played like the nation's third-ranked team the past two weeks against Washington and Washington State. In two six-point victories, USC (5-0) needed last-second stops to remain undefeated.
The most drama occurred at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday, when Washington drove to the USC 15-yard line with two seconds remaining but failed to get a snap off before time ran out. USC's usually high-powered offense has been hampered in recent weeks by injuries to receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Chris McFoy. Sophomore Patrick Turner turned in an impressive effort Saturday by registering career highs in receptions (12) and receiving yards (116).
After the game, USC Coach Pete Carroll pinpointed the defense, which was expected to be the strength of the team, as one of the problems. "We are not getting any sacks," Carroll said. "We are not getting any turnovers. Those are major changes, and we need them and we're just not doing it. Until we make those things happen, games are going to be close."
Those areas had better improve by November, when the Trojans play three potent offenses (Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame) in consecutive weeks. The most difficult opponent could be the Golden Bears, who are one of only two teams to have beaten USC over the past 50 games (the other is Texas).
California's 34-31 triple-overtime victory in 2003 also marks the last time USC lost a conference game. The 2004 meeting between the teams was just as dramatic, as the Trojans stopped QB Aaron Rodgers from finding the end zone in the final moments of a six-point victory.
Last year's game at Memorial Stadium was expected to continue the trend, but Cal Coach Jeff Tedford did not have a capable quarterback to offset USC's Matt Leinart. Nate Longshore missed almost all of last season with an ankle injury.
Disappointment under center continued at the start of this season, when Longshore threw for only 85 yards at Tennessee. But he has been superb ever since, throwing for 17 touchdowns and four interceptions in the past five games. It also helps that Longshore has on his side a speedy playmaker like DeSean Jackson, who has 18 touchdowns in 17 college games.
As a result, California will once again have a legitimate chance to dethrone USC.