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October 10, 2011

Cal passing attack vs. USC's secondary



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Read BearTerritory's PREMIUM in-depth analysis of the battle between Cal's secondary and USC's passing attack HERE

BERKELEY -- For all USC's firepower through the air on offense, the Trojans leave a lot to be desired when defending the pass.

USC has had problems both pressuring the passer (10 sacks, seventh in the Pac-12) and in covering big receivers like Arizona's 6-foot-4, 220-pound Dan Buckner (6 catches, 88 yards), Arizona State's 6-foot-4, 211-pound Mike Willie (4 catches, 44 yards) and Utah's 6-foot-1, 200-pound DeVonte Christopher (11 catches, 136 yards).

The Trojans rank last in the conference in turnover margin with three picks and two fumbles recovered. Over the past two games, USC has surrendered 84 points, with six touchdowns coming by way of the pass, five on the ground and one coming on a 41-yard interception return by the Sun Devils' Shelly Lyons.

Despite having a former five-star recruit in junior safety T.J. McDonald and four former high-four star recruits in junior safety Jawanza Starling and sophomore cornerbacks Torin Harris and Nickell Robey, the Trojans rank 98th in the country in passing defense, allowing 267.2 yards per game through the air (1,336 total), 10 touchdowns and an opponents' completion percentage of 66.15.

USC is ninth in the Pac-12 in passing defense, eighth in passing efficiency defense with opposing QBs posting a 137.6 rating, and boasts not a single player in the Pac-12's top 20 in passes defended.

"They're good players, no doubt," California head coach Jeff Tedford said. "They're all good players and they mix looks up well and they have guys up front that can get after you with pass rush. That's part of the pass game. If you can get some pressure on people, then it makes your DBs look a little bit better, and so you disrupt the timing, and they're good. They can rush the passer really well. They're physical and they're fast and they have a lot of good athletes on that side of the ball, as well."

The point of the Bears' spear in attacking that soft underbelly will be sophomore Keenan Allen -- who, like the Trojans' Robert Woods -- was a five-star recruit in 2010.

"We get a look at him in crossover and one-on-ones and stuff like that, so we'll be prepared," Cal freshman defensive back Stefan McClure said of Allen's similarity to Woods. "You can't simulate all the stuff that he does, because he's going to be over there in practice, too, and they're going to know that we're going to have something for him, so he'll be practicing and working, also."

Even Allen's brother -- starting quarterback Zach Maynard -- has noted his sibling's on-field resemblance to Woods.

"We all know he's a great athlete. He did a great job as a true freshman, and you see him doing his thing right now against other teams this year," Maynard said. "We just have to find a way to stop him, find a way to get over him. I know the defense has a great scheme, and if they get us the ball back, we've got to score as much as they do, if they even score."

Allen though, often noted for his soft-spoken and concise nature, hasn't even opened up to big bro about the comparisons.

"Keenan doesn't say much. He just waits until the game comes," Maynard said. "They're both great receivers and they're both going to get yards, regardless, so they'll go out there and play their best game."

Though Allen gave up his title as the most prolific receiver in the country this past week to Woods -- who had 255 yards in a 48-41 shootout at home against Arizona to best Allen's 170-yard day against the Ducks -- the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder is still right behind the USC sophomore on the national leader boards.

"[Woods] is probably one of the best receivers in the nation, and for sure the best that we'll face -- him and Keenan up there -- so he's got a lot of speed and we've just got to get hands on him and make sure he doesn't get going too fast down field, running free," McClure said.

Allen is indeed in the stratosphere along with Woods, averaging 17.1 yards per catch (second in the conference), ranking 11th in the nation in receptions per game (7.8), fifth in receiving yards (668) and 25th in touchdown grabs (four).

If anything, fans can expect a lot of points scored during the Homecoming extravaganza on Thursday.

The Bears are 26th in the nation in total offense and fourth in the Pac-12, averaging 458.0 yards per game. Cal is fifth in the league in scoring offense (34.6 points per game) and the Bears' passing offense ranks fourth in the Pac-12 with 300.4 yards per game, while USC is sixth in scoring defense, allowing 26.4 points per game.

Across from Allen, senior Marvin Jones is 45th in the country and fifth in the Pac-12 in catches per game (5.8). With 441 total receiving yards, the Cal receiving corps' elder statesman ranks fifth in the conference with 88.2 yards per game.

Of the Bears' 116 first downs this season (23.2 per game, seventh in the Pac-12), 63 (54.3 percent) have come through the air. Eerily enough, the Trojans have allowed 116 first downs (23.2 per game, ninth in the conference) with 76 of those (65.5 percent) coming via the pass.

"They run a lot of base stuff," Maynard said of the USC defense. "They're a strong, fast team with a lot of big guys. They can run whatever they want to run, I feel. We've got to find a way to get past it."

The big question will be how Maynard responds from an underwhelming performance against Oregon last week.

Maynard currently sits at 109th in the country in completion percentage (51.4), despite ranking 24th in the nation -- tied with Fresno State's Derek Carr -- in passing yards (1,291) and 22nd in the Football Bowl Subdivision -- tied with Colorado's Tyler Hansen and Stanford's Andrew Luck -- in touchdown passes, with 11.

Against the Ducks, Maynard showed some shaky footwork, and particular difficulty pushing off his back leg to finish short passes in the flat -- the type of high-percentage passes that put an offense in a rhythm.

"His feet were a little live," Tedford said. "He was a little jittery and that caused him to miss a couple throws that we had some guys open and I think he rushed himself a little bit and ended up, early there were a couple that the ball was real wet and you could see it coming out of his hand really funny, then there were a couple where he threw some great balls, too, but there were a couple where he missed because he was rushing himself a little bit."

Maynard took the blame on himself after the game, and even after the Bears' practice on Sunday.

"I played exactly how I thought I played," Maynard said after reviewing the game tape, confirming his initial assessment. "I could have been a lot better, but we're on to the next week, and we play a different team this week.

"It was just me trying to anticipate something that's not really there. I was off and I had to go back to the next read -- one, two, three, and just run -- and I guess in my third read, my feet weren't all set. I was still stuck on my second read and I just threw a bad ball. I just have to keep moving, and keep my feet up under [me], don't try to over-stride as much."

Aside from the atmosphere of Autzen Stadium, there were some mechanical issues that Tedford and quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo will address during this week of practice.

"I think things were moving pretty quick and those are all learning experiences and feeling the pace of the game and the speed of the game and how much time he actually had, and until you go through something like that, I think the pace at the end was probably faster," Tedford said. "That's something that you can improve on, absolutely, no doubt about it. He made a lot of really good plays, too. He scrambled out and hit Keenan down the side and he made a lot of real good plays, as well. But, he's got to be more consistent, and that comes with time. It comes over time and game experience."

For the first time since a week three romp over FCS opponent Presbyterian, Maynard and the Bears will finally be playing at home, and for a good stretch, to boot. Over the first five weeks of the season, Cal played in five different venues. Over the next five weeks, the Bears will play four games at their home away from home -- AT&T Park in San Francisco -- and they will be playing in front of a raucous homecoming crowd.

"It's exciting to play against USC. They're a great team, a great program and we should have some fun this week," Maynard said. "Playing against a good team like this, and playing at home as well, we'll have the fans behind our backs supporting us, it should be a good game for us."



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