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Battle of Backups as USC Plays Cal : College football: Trojan reserve Otton, Bear sub McGonigal will lead their offenses in the Coliseum today.


Starting the second half of its season with a two-game winning streak, USC's confident football team looks for a victory over California today in the Coliseum, then a Pacific 10 Conference season-closing sweep of Washington State, Arizona and UCLA.

That's the goal, a Rose Bowl finish, after consecutive road victories over Oregon State and Stanford.

USC, 3-1 in the Pac-10 and 4-2 overall, will be without injured starting quarterback Rob Johnson, but the offense has responded efficiently to sophomore backup Brad Otton.

Cal (2-1, 3-3) seeks revenge for a humiliating loss to USC at Berkeley a year ago. The Golden Bears caught Johnson on perhaps his greatest day, when he completed 32 of 39 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns, resulting in a 42-14 USC blowout.

Johnson, throwing to 11 receivers that day, converted 16 of 20 third downs.

Cal was 2-0 in the Pac-10 until it lost to Oregon last Saturday at Eugene, 23-7. Coach Keith Gilbertson's team had previously beaten UCLA and Arizona State.

But Cal, too, is down to its backup quarterback.

Junior Kerry McGonigal has taken over for Dave Barr, sidelined because of a broken collarbone. McGonigal didn't respond well last week, completing only 11 of 32 passes and throwing two interceptions against Oregon.

"He threw the ball well early, but the longer it went, the farther off target he got," Gilbertson said. "The pressure was picked up and they took our offense away."

Gilbertson said the wave of injuries to front-line players in the Pac-10 this season might foreshadow an unhappy future.

"If we continue to recruit quicker, bigger and stronger players, then we're going to have five guys out all the time," he said.

"We're starting to see in Division I what we see in the NFL--the big hits on the quarterbacks. It's gotten to where if you don't have at least two capable quarterbacks, you've got a problem."

Gilberston was asked about USC tailback Shawn Walters, who had a 234-yard day at Stanford.

"Oregon ran on us whenever they wanted," he said. "If we aren't improved by Saturday, Shawn Walters will need oxygen by the end of the first half."

Gilbertson was unhappy with his offense even before Barr was injured. Cal averaged more than 30 points and more than 400 yards in offense in the early 1990s, but the 1994 numbers are 23.3 points and 355 yards, including a 55-point, 523-yard game against San Jose State.

USC Coach John Robinson, meanwhile, seems happy with his team, which hasn't committed a turnover in its last 11 quarters and is beginning to make big defensive plays.

Employing a bend-but-don't-break deep pass defense against Stanford's Steve Stenstrom last week, USC got exceptional games from outside linebacker Erroll Small and sophomore safety Sammy Knight.

"That was the best game Sammy's played since he's been here," said Keith Burns, who coaches the Trojan safeties, adding that Knight had his speed and aggressiveness under control for the first time.

Robinson and defensive coordinator Don Lindsey are also happy with the play of their linebackers, the heart of USC's defense.

Seniors Jeff Kopp and Brian Williams are having their best years, with a combined 102 tackles. And junior Errick Herrin has come on with a rush in the last three games.

Kopp is the leading tackler with 60 and has two interceptions. Small is the sack leader with three.

USC Notes

Erroll Small, a linebacker who had an interception, two deflections and two sacks among his four tackles last week, says the Trojans are "playing with new life, with a sense of urgency. Losing to Oregon meant we can't lose any more games if we want to go to the Rose Bowl. I'm a senior and I've never tasted the Rose Bowl experience." . . . USC cornerback Quincy Harrison will sit out today's game because of a hamstring pull.



* Opponent: California Golden Bears.

* Site: Coliseum.

* Time: 3:30 p.m.

* Records: USC 4-2, 3-1 in Pac-10; California 3-3, 2-1.

* Radio: KNX (1070).

* TV: Prime Ticket.

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