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USC versus Cal: Emotional baggage on both sides

The Trojans are dealing with Stafon Johnson's injury, and the Bears have their own issues after a crushing loss at Oregon.

October 03, 2009|Gary Klein

USC addressed some, but not all, of its problems last week in a bounce-back victory over Washington State. Meanwhile, California imploded at Oregon with a head-scratching defeat that sent it spiraling out of the top 10 in national polls. Times staff writer Gary Klein looks at some of the USC-Cal game's key issues and matchups:

Emotional rescue

Both teams come into the game with mental baggage that could inspire or derail their effort.

USC's Stafon Johnson is in the hospital recovering from emergency throat surgery necessitated by a weightlifting accident that shook the Trojans early this week. USC is motivated to play well in the senior tailback's absence, but Coach Pete Carroll has cautioned players about letting it overwhelm their play.

Cal is dealing with confidence and identity issues after its 42-3 loss at Oregon, a defeat that fueled the Golden Bears' reputation for blowing it every time they're on the cusp making a true national statement.

Whatever is Best

Speedy Cal tailback Jahvid Best has triple motivation for burning the Trojans:

* Last season, USC held Best to 30 yards rushing.

* Oregon limited the junior to 55 yards last week.

* A big performance against a Trojans defense giving up only 1.7 yards per rushing play would put Best back into the Heisman Trophy discussion.

With Johnson sidelined, USC will rely on juniors Joe McKnight, Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable.

Starts and stops

USC quarterback Matt Barkley says he still feels pain in his right shoulder when he throws. However, his velocity appears to have returned. So let's see whether play-caller Jeremy Bates allows the freshman to make longer throws as he did against Washington State, or whether the Trojans revert to conservative ways out of fear that Barkley might try to be too aggressive and commit turnovers.

Barkley has completed 60% of his passes and thrown for three touchdowns with one interception. His two touchdown passes within a 10-second span against Washington State were big-time throws.

The Trojans' third-down conversion rate is a Pacific 10 Conference-worst 25%, and Cal's defense features a veteran secondary and is second behind USC in sacks.

Cal quarterback Kevin Riley will be on the spot, especially if USC is able to contain Best. Riley has completed 57% of his passes and has thrown for five touchdowns without an interception.

Cal has converted 43% of its third-down opportunities.

Get out your hankies

After committing 13 penalties against Washington State, USC spent much of practice this week working on subtle changes in its blocking and tackling techniques. Will it help a team averaging more than eight penalties a game?

It better.

USC could overcome poor field position and interruptions in offensive rhythm against lowly Washington State, but probably not against the Golden Bears, the Pac-10's least-penalized team.

Turnover time

It's tough to find fault with a USC defense that ranks among the top six nationally in total defense, scoring defense and tackles for loss and sacks.

But the Trojans still aren't creating or capitalizing on turnovers, a problem that has plagued the program the last few seasons.

USC has recovered four fumbles and intercepted two passes. The Trojans are at minus-2 in turnover margin.

Cal has recovered seven fumbles and intercepted three passes, helping to put the Golden Bears at plus-7.

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gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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