October 7, 2004

Cal at USC

According to the media, this is going to be a great game. For once, the media are 100% right.

I've spent hours looking at statistics trying to figure out whether either team has a distinct advantage over the other, and I can't find anything that really sets one as a clear favorite. The closest anything comes is USC's 9 interceptions in four games and overall +2.25 turnover ratio per game. This is not a fluke as they have a dominant middle defense (two all-America quality DTs, very gifted linebacking corps, two top safeties returning). I think this entire game hinges on turnovers. If Cal ends up negative on turnovers, they WILL lose. If USC ends up negative on turnovers, they are likely to lose.

Now, to the analysis:
USC is #1 in both polls and in the Sagarin ratings with a 93.41 score. Cal is #7 in both polls and #5 in Sagarin's ratings at 88.72. With the home advantage in Sagarin's formula, USC is an 8 point favorite. 92,000 fans are expected for the game. Quoth Tedford: "The biggest crowd I've ever seen." Tedford's teams have a tendency to play better in front of big crowds, especially big, hostile crowds. I do not see the crowd or the venue as a distinct advantage for USC.

If anyone doubts that USC deserves their ranking and rating, though, understand some things:
- USC have not trailed at the end of regulation in 25 straight games
- USC have a 16-game home winning streak
- USC have a 13-game win streak overall
- During the win streak, Leinart has thrown 38 TDs and 5 interceptions
- USC are averaging a +2.25 turnover ratio with 9 interceptions

This year's USC team is legitimately strong and a legitimate national championship contender. They have a player in the national top-25 in 9 of the 13 categories. USC as a team are in the top 25 nationally in 9 of the 13 categories and in the top 15 in five categories. That's significant after four games--it may change as their schedule gets tougher in the Pac-10, but it's unlikely to change much.

USC have beaten four teams this year with only Stanford giving them a real scare. Virginia Tech also hung in there with USC until mid 3rd quarter, but USC is bigger, stronger, faster, and fitter than most teams. USC is a team that could play a 90-minute game and still have gas in the tank. Most teams aren't that fit and are going to get worn down by USC by the 4th quarter. This is one reason USC has given up 10 points average in the first half yet only 2.5 points average in the second half. (They've scored 28 points average in both the 1st and 2nd halves.)

The point is, no matter how good you are, you should not get overconfident against the Trojans.

On the other hand, as good as Cal is, they should be confident that they match up well and have as good a shot to win this game as the Trojans do.

USC's opponents have been Virginia Tech (roughly equivalent to Oregon State probably), Stanford (better than Va Tech but nowhere near as good as Cal), BYU (not good), and Colorado State (woeful, about equivalent to Air Force). USC have played better teams, on average, than Cal, but not significantly better teams. New Mexico State is the worst of the entire bunch, but statistically that game turned out the same for Cal as the other two games.

Cal matches up physically well against USC. USC is the biggest, strongest, fittest team Cal has faced, but the two teams are probably evenly matched. USC's O line is HUGE, averaging 317 pounds, including 370-pound TD Taitusi Lutui (the 350-pound John Drake is on the other side at LG). Cal's O line averages 312 pounds. No matter which color you wear on Saturday, your team will be facing a mirror image: big O line, top QB, to running back, strong returning defense, good coaching, overall a hellishly fit and deep team that will trade you blow-for-blow all day long and well into the night if that's what it takes.

Statistically, Cal has a slight edge, but as I said earlier, USC have played tougher competition.

Nationall, Cal has players in the top 25 in 5 of the 13 categories. As a team, Cal is in the top 25 in 11 of the 13 categories and leads the nation in scoring offense and passing efficiency. Cal is top-15 in 9 of the 15 categories.

Cal leads the Pac-10 in
- rush offense
- total offense
- scoring offense
- passing defense
- total defense
- scoring defense

USC does not lead the Pac-10 in any statistical category at this point but is #2 or #3 in
- rush offense (3)
- total offense (3)
- scoring offense (2)
- rush defense (2)
- total defense (3)
- scoring defense (2)

According to the statistics, Cal has a better offense than USC. The stats for both teams are gaudy and impressive. Some highlights:
- Cal scores 7 touchdowns A GAME, USC scores five
- Cal has 278 yards/game rushing, USC has 200
- Cal gains 6.7 yards/rush, USC gains 5.0 per rush
- Cal has 13 rushing TDs (4.3/game), USC has 11 (2.75/game)
- Cal has 73% pass completion, USC has 67.7%
- Cal gains 12.2 yards/att, USC gains 8.2
- Both teams have 8 passing TDs and 2 INT
- Cal has 261 yards/game passing, USC has 255.8
- Both teams get about 24 first downs per game
- Both teams have about 55% 3rd-down conversion, though
- USC has 14.5 3rd downs each game to Cal's 9.3

Here is perhaps the most impressive Cal statistic:
Cal is 100% in the red zone with 12 touchdowns in 12 opportunities. They tried (and missed) one field goal, but it was over 50 yards.

USC, however, is a very mortal 64% in the red zone with just 13 TDs and 1 field goal in 22 opportunities.

Again, the statistics are very similar. The defensive edge goes to USC, however. Highlights:
- Cal gives up 1.7 TDs a game (0 FG), USC 1.5 (plus 0.75 FG/gm)
- Cal gives up 103 rush yards/game, USC just 86.5
- Cal gives up 2.6 yards per rush, USC gives up 3.0
- Cal gives up 158.3 yards/gm passing, USC 190.8
- Cal has given up 2 passing TDs, USC 4
- Cal has captured 3 interceptions, USC 9
- Cal gives up 15 first downs a game, USC gives up 19
- Cal gets 2.7 sacks/game, USC gets an impressive 4 sacks/game

In the red zone on defense, Cal has allowed 4 TDs and 0 field goals in 6 attempts. USC has allowed 4 TDs and 2 field goals in 8 attempts. Thus, each team has allowed an average of two opportunities a game, but USC is slightly better at keeping the opponent out of the end zone.

All in all, this is a beautiful matchup and will be a very difficult win for either team. USC has motivation from last year's loss and the home crowd; Cal has motivation because as one Cal lineman said this week, "USC is where we want to be," and the team still has something to prove.

I really think this game could go either way and will depend on turnovers. I think whoever gains more turnovers will win. If there are no turnovers in the game, however, I like Cal's chances. USC will not have the luxury of relying on fitness to overwhelm Cal in the 4th quarter like they did to Virginia Tech and Stanford, and they may have trouble keeping Cal from scoring in the first half. On the other side, USC is balanced but is not as strong a passing team as you might think. The Bears need to maintain discipline and not give up the big play, especially from USC territory.

USC will put a lot of pressure on Aaron Rodgers, particularly with a strong pass rush up the middle and blitzing linebackers. He has to be careful not to force throws because those safeties will pick them off. I think Tedford may try to move Rodgers around to slow down the pressure, or go with more quick routes and screens to draw the LBs in and put the ball just beyond them.

In any case, don't leave early. No matter what happens in the first half, both coaches are more than capable of adjusting and changing the game in the second half, and the players will all be fit enough to play hard right to the end. I think this game could go into overtime again, in which case I like Cal's chances. But really I think it will be won in the last 2-3 minutes.

I am hoping, more than predicting, this will be a Cal victory. I like the Bears' chances, but there are good reasons USC is a 7-point favorite. Still, I'll go out on a limb and say that Cal will win this one, 35-28. I will also say that Cal will score first and take a lead into halftime, but USC will tie it. Cal will get the final touchdown near the end of the game to break the tie.

Go Bears!

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