Cal Football: 7 Keys to Winning the USC Game
With the team is at a crossroads, the Golden Bears can take a huge step in the right direction by defeating the USC Trojans at the Coliseum on September 22.
A win would bolster future recruiting classes and shift the balance of power in the Pac-12.
Here are the keys to a Cal victory over USC.
Punter Cole Leininger
After losing star punter Bryan Anger to the draft after last season, Cal's fate against USC could be in the hands of a freshman punter.
Usually a punter would never be considered a "key" player in a high-profile matchup. Against the Trojans, however, new punter Cole Leininger is key and the Bears won't win if he punts poorly.
USC probably has the best offense in the country. With QB Matt Barkley, RB Silas Redd and two of the best WRs in the country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, USC has its best offense since Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.
If the Trojans are consistently given field position at midfield, the Trojans will put up 50+ points. Cal won't be able to overcome that.
Fortunately, lack of talent won't get in Leininger's way. Kicking guru Chris Sailer ranked him as the No. 11 punter in the entire nation.
The only thing stopping Leininger is pressure. As a freshman, he must be mentally prepared to perform.
WR Keenan Allen
QB Zach Maynard doesn't have a strong or accurate enough arm to out-throw Barkley and the Trojans. The Bears will need to find other ways to score, and it starts with Keenan Allen.
Allen is one of the top WRs in the nation. He's a sure-fire Biletnikoff Award candidate and caught over 1,300 yards last season—and Bears fans are predicting Heisman candidacy.
However, Allen will probably have his worst receiving day when the Bears visit the Coliseum on Sept. 22.
Best-in-conference CB Nickell Robey will cover him the entire game. No matter how good Allen may be as a WR, Robey is just as good of a CB. Allen will get his catches, but it's unreasonable to expect 100+ yards especially with star safety TJ McDonald lurking in the backfield.
Yet Allen remains one of Cal's most important players. He's an explosive athlete and is incredibly dangerous in the open field. Allen should look to catch short passes and focus on punt returns.
Allen will need to take one to the house to keep Cal in the game.
USC has one of the most athletic, youthful and talented defenses in the entire nation. This could ultimately be their downfall against Cal, but only if the Golden Bears can capitalize.
This season, USC will start three sophomore linebackers according to its newly released depth chart. The linebackers made mistakes last year and will continue to mature this coming season. However, a slip-up here and there is to be expected and the Bears need to capitalize when it happens.
The player to look out for is TJ McDonald.
The hyper-athletic senior safety had more than his fair share of mistakes last season. He delivered several personal fouls in a big loss against Arizona State and was flagged for a late hit against Stanford that may have cost USC the game.
McDonald may be a senior and potential first-round pick but still needs to mature on the field.
Cal will have very few opportunities to beat the Trojans. When the youthful Trojans make mistakes, the Golden Bears can't squander these chances.
QB Zach Maynard
QB Zach Maynard has absolutely no chance at out-throwing Matt Barkley. In fact, he may not even throw for half Barkley's passing yards. Maynard, however, is still a huge X-factor.
Most importantly, the senior quarterback can't make mistakes. He threw too many floaters last season and the ultra-fast and talented USC defense will take advantage of weak passes every time. 17 TDs and 12 INTs simply won't cut it.
Solid play the red zone is also essential. Maynard can't turn the ball over in the red zone and surrender easy points.
Finally, Maynard simply needs to move the chains. If the Trojans get good field position, the game will be out of hand by the first quarter.
Maynard won't be able to outplay Barkley, but he can drive the Bears down the field by making smart passing choices. He needs to move the chains and keep USC's offense off the field, and he can only do that by making smart quarterback decisions.
Cal's defense has some holes that need to be filled. After losing top recruits in the wake of the Tosh Lupoi debacle, Cal's defense is thinner than expected. Staying healthy for the USC game is key.
An injury or two would devastate the Bears; ability to defend USC's high-powered offense. Most Cal defensive backups haven't seen very much playing time, and with a decimated freshman class, the Bears need their starters.
Luckily, Cal plays USC in its fourth game of the season and the defense should be fairly fresh at that point.
However, an injury or two early on will devastate Cal's ability to keep the high-powered USC offense in check.
The Cal defense may have some weaknesses but has no shortage of experience. This experience is Cal's best chance to defend Barkley's dangerous passing offense.
At safety, the Bears bring back safeties Alex Logan and Josh Hill, a junior and senior, respectively. Logan will make huge strides as a starter while Hill will add to his 42 tackles last season.
At cornerback, the Bears will start senior Marc Anthony and junior Steve Williams.
The Bears will not only rely on these players' talent, but also for their decision-making. One mistake on defense and Barkley will find the end zone — every time.
However, with a mature offense the Bears can limit their mistakes and do a good job keeping the game close.
USC QB Matt Barkley's blind side hasn't been this exposed since his freshman year. Cal needs to capitalize on this weakness.
OT Matt Kalil, Barkley's blindside protector, is now gone to the NFL. Kalil gave up zero sacks in 2012 (that's right, none), meaning Aundrey Walker has impossibly big shoes to fill.
Walker is a good talent, but it's still unknown how he'll fare against top DEs.
DEs Mustafa Jalil and Deandre Coleman need to get to Barkley for Cal to have a shot. If Barkley gets time in the pocket he'll go deep to Woods, Lee and the rest all day.
Pressure by Jalil, Coleman and the rest of Cal's pass-rushers are imperative. If Barkley gets time in the pocket the Bears won't have a chance.
However, if Cal can execute on all of these keys to victory, they'll have a decent chance at spoiling USC's championship hopes.