Five things to watch: USC-Cal

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
11:11
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- The No. 13-ranked USC Trojans continue Pac-12 conference play Saturday against the Cal Bears at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. (3 p.m. PT on the Pac-12 Network).

Here are five things to watch.

1. Will Lane Kiffin turn the page? The third-year USC head coach needs a pick-me-up right now. His team's mistakes against Stanford last week have been well-documented, and things haven't improved much in the days since. Kiffin has made headlines this week by calling out players and by abruptly walking out on a post-practice press conference. On Saturday, he'll finally get a chance to erase some of the frustration from the past week, particularly if the Trojans can put together a convincing win. (But here's betting he won't completely forget the Stanford outcome no matter what happens against Cal, or in any of USC's remaining games.)

2. Can Barkley rebound? USC's official site has started an interesting weekly feature this season called "Barkley's Breakdown," where the Trojans quarterback and one other player break down one or two plays from the previous week and tell viewers why they worked or didn't work. Well, this week they should change it to "Barkley's Rebound" if all goes as planned against the Bears. It's impossible to gauge how much of it was because of his poor offensive line, but the senior signal-caller obviously had one of the worst games of his career; the Stanford loss was his first no-touchdown performance since October 2010 and his first game with a sub-50 percent completion rate since November 2009. And while he was the clear-cut Heisman Trophy favorite just a few weeks ago, Barkley will need to rebound quite a bit over the next couple months if he wants to earn more than a courtesy invite to New York City.

3. Was Cal's play last week for real? This happens a lot early in the college football season. Medium-tier teams will play really poorly one nonconference game and lose to a team they should never lose to, then play a much better team a week or two later and nearly beat them. The Cal team that lost to Nevada at home in the Bears' season opener barely resembled the team that looked like it was going to beat Ohio State until midway through the fourth quarter at Ohio Stadium. If Cal had made its field goals in that game, the Bears could be 2-1 right now, and the lead-up to this week's game would sound a lot different. One thing's for sure: Cal running back dynamo Brendan Bigelow looked like he was for real against the Buckeyes, and USC's front seven could have a lot of trouble stopping him on his few chances, which would equal trouble given the Trojans' tackling troubles in the secondary.

4. Will the running backs run? If it seems like we've been asking this question every week, it's because we have. Curtis McNeal said this week that the team needs to run more in order to play at its highest level. Will Kiffin commit to giving McNeal and Silas Redd a combined 30 or 35 carries a game? Stay tuned. In terms of yards per carry, Cal's defense has been pretty good against the run this season, but volume sort of did them in against Nevada, with the Wolf Pack carrying the ball a remarkable 57 times. USC won't reach that number, but anywhere remotely near it would be fine.

5. Will USC once again miss the team's two most "irreplaceable" players? Kiffin told an interesting story on his day-after-game conference call this week, recalling a preseason meeting with USC's coaches in which someone asked who the Trojans' most valuable players are. Most coaches said Barkley or one of the other standout skill-position players, but one assistant unexpectedly said he thought USC's center and kicker were its two "most irreplaceable" players -- not necessarily best, just most difficult to adequately replace. Kiffin noted in the aftermath of the Stanford loss -- a game in which center Khaled Holmes and kicker Andre Heidari did not play -- that the assistant may have been right after all.

Prediction: USC 38, Cal 14

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