Will Khaled Holmes return to anchor the offensive line?
USC and Cal both enter the game after tough seven-point defeats on the road at ranked opponents. However, the difference in expectations has the fanbases with radically different views.
Cal fans are excited about the promise of the team after seeing the explosiveness of Brendan Bigelow and Keenan Allen with the development of Zach Maynard and freshman receivers Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs. This is the team the Golden Bears were supposed to have all season, not the squad that dropped a 31-24 game to Nevada the opening weekend.
Trojan fans are worried about not only the squad's national championship hopes, but also if last Saturday was just a precursor to what will happen if a couple of key injuries strike at the wrong time. USC fans are concerned about the young offensive line that was beaten down by Stanford's rugged front-seven. They are also bothered by how much of a beating Matt Barkley had to take because of the young offensive line last week.
We touch on some of the subjects that are concerning fans in our five burning questions to watch for as USC takes on Cal at the Coliseum on Saturday.
1. Does the USC offensive line bounce back?
There aren't many words needed to describe the offensive line play last week, but there are plenty that do. Think of all the synonyms of "bad." Stanford's front-seven is one of the best in the country and they exploited USC's weaknesses, particularly in the middle where redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi made his first career start. If Khaled Holmes returns this week, which is likely considering he was suited up last week and has been practicing this week, the big boys up front should play much better. Holmes is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the line, anchoring the middle and making all the calls.
But even if Holmes is unavailable, the Trojans should fare better this week. Expect them to control the tempo better than they did at Stanford and not wear down like Aundrey Walker did in the second half. When asked Tuesday if the line was ready to get back on the field and play another game, Walker told reporters, "Just watch Saturday. That's all I've got to tell you, 'Just watch Saturday.'"
2. Will Brendan Bigelow get more touches and continue his break out?
Last week, Brendan Bigelow burst onto the national scene with the most spectacular run of the season when he twice spun away from Ohio State defenders before taking it 81 yards to the house on his first carry of the game. Bigelow followed that run up with a 16-yard carry and then a 59-yard touchdown run. In total, he rushed for 160 yards on only four carries. Not too shabby, especially considering he only had eight career carries for 40 yards entering the game.
Bigelow is still behind Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson, who are both a little more physical, but don't be surprised if coach Jeff Tedford tries to get the explosive playmaking of Bigelow a few more opportunities.
3. Will Alex Wood or Craig McMahon ever get a chance to kick a field goal?
Fourth-and-19 from the 25-yard line. Simple field goal, right? Not with Lane Kiffin calling the shots and not having any faith in his kickers. Luckily, some guy named Robert Woods made a play and picked up the first down and USC scored two plays later. But later when the Trojans had fourth-and-2 at the 13-yard line, they threw the ball in the end zone where the play was broken up. How different might the Stanford game been if USC would have made it 17-7 there in the third quarter? Maybe Stanford decides they need to throw one or two more times? Who knows?
But rather than worrying about what could have been, we need to worry about what will happen. Will we again see USC routinely going for it on fourth down in Cal territory? Or will walk-ons Alex Wood or Craig McMahon get an opportunity to notch three points on the board?
4. Can USC get out to a fast start?
The last two times they've faced Cal, the Trojans have been coming off tough losses to Stanford, but quickly doused any upset thoughts. USC jumped out to a combined 62-0 lead at halftime the past two years. In 2010, it was five Matt Barkley touchdown passes. Last year, it was four first half turnovers.
If the Trojans can jump out to a fast start once again, all the Trojan faithful will smile and quietly let out a breath of relief, but things could get tense quickly if Zach Maynard hits Keenan Allen for a TD and one of the Bears' running backs rips off a scoring run. Not only will the Trojan faithful be gasping for air, but the team could also be in shock.
5. Can Cal get Keenan Allen one-on-one with anybody other than Nickell Robey?
Similar to what it did last week against Stanford, putting nine in the box to slow down the run game, the Trojans may bring down the safeties and dare Maynard to beat them over the top. USC won't commit to stopping the run as much as they did against the Cardinal, but expect the safeties to play closer to the line of scrimmage than they did against Syracuse or Hawaii.
Maynard has definitely improved, but there are still severe flaws in his game, including his decision-making at times. He often plays like he has a bigger arm and thinks he can fit balls into windows that are closed before his passes get there. However, if he can find half-brother Keenan Allen lined up in one-on-one coverage, Maynard knows he has a mismatch. Much like Marqise Lee, Allen does a great job going up and picking the ball out of the air, allowing him to bail out Maynard at times.
With how porous USC's secondary has been other than Nickell Robey, Cal will likely try to use motions and formation shifts to get Allen into favorable matchups. Any time Maynard sees Allen matched up with Torin Harris or Anthony Brown, his eyes are going to get a little wider.
USC-Cal kicks off at 3:00 p.m. PT and will be televised live on the Pac-12 Network. You can also catch the game on ESPNRadio nationally (710 ESPN locally).
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