August 20, 2009
More probing for reasons USC's seven-year streak at the top of the Pac-10 may be vulnerable. Part of the Doc’s Pac-10 Week.
They Shall Not Pass. Statistically, the strength of last year's team was the pass defense, both up front and in the secondary: The Bears were sixth nationally in pass efficiency D, tying for third with 24 interceptions (to just 12 touchdowns) and holding fully half the offenses they faced in the regular season at or below a 50 percent completion rate; most notably, Oregon's Justin Roper and Jeremiah Masoli combined to go 11-of-32 with two interceptions in a loss in an absolute downpour in October, just a week after UCLA served up four picks in another Bear rout. The Ducks' prolific attack managed all of 16 points (downpour or not, the only other defense that held Oregon below 31 was USC's band of NFL-bound headhunters) and the Trojans themselves were held to a season-low 17 in L.A. the following week.
On that front, give it up for the pass rush, which consistently got to the quarterback -- it had at least three sacks in eight different games, including three at USC -- and finished in the top 20 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss. Those numbers, like every major number on last year's defense, were the best since (and in some cases better than) the killer 2004 D, easily the best of the Tedford era on a team that was six points at eventual national champ USC from a perfect regular season. In that respect, it's hard to expect another brush along the ceiling this time around, especially minus the defense's best player, linebacker Zach Follett, who led the team in sacks. But every starter is back on the front line, and every starter is back in the secondary, including All-Pac-10 guys at both spots, end Tyson Alualu and corner Syd'Quan Thompson. Along with last year's big change, a shift from the 4-3 to more 3-4 as a base scheme, the holdovers could be good for a command performance.
Beat the Best With the Best. With all due respect to wrecking ball safety Taylor Mays, the first player I’d take out of the Pac-10 is still Jahvid Best, who can do just about anything you ask him to do with the ball as well as anyone else can do it -- he was second nationally in all-purpose yards and yards from scrimmage and deserves to be the most feared running back in America once it’s in his hands. In fact, the strongest complaint you can make about Best’s role in the offense, if you can make one at all, is that he sometimes doesn’t touch the ball enough:
Watching Best effortlessly gash Miami for 186 yards on 20 carries in the bowl game – his first 20-carry game since the opener against Michigan State -- the recurring question in my mind was, how can they get him the ball more often? Best is the closest player in the country this year to Reggie Bush, and with Shane Vereen perfectly capable of setting the pace (and taking the shots) between the tackles, an increased role for Best in the passing game -- clearly the weak point of the offense and the team in general last year -- could help settle the quarterback, keep defenses guessing and give the Bears' only real home run threat three or four more chances per game. And would it kill him to return a punt for a change?
USC is in Berkeley. Not that crumbling Memorial Stadium is exactly a mad house or a traditional graveyard for big-name opponents, but Cal is probably underrated here: The ’08 Bears were 7-0 at home for the third time in five years, including wins over Michigan State and Oregon, and have only lost four games in Berkeley since 2004, against USC and Oregon State in both 2005 and 2007. They ruined SC's perfect season at home in '03 and took the Trojans well into the fourth quarter in '07. All but one of USC's seven Pac-10 losses since 2002 has come away from home. Plus, there's always a chance a beam will fall on JoeMcKnight when he’s en route to the field.
Kevin Riley is Mature. Maturing. Kevin Riley is Maturing. Right? I will not insult anyone by arguing that Kevin Riley was actually good by any definition as a sophomore -- he completed an almost unbelievable 44.4 percent of his passes in Pac-10 games, good for the Juice Williams Memorial Trophy for Excellence in Inaccuracy despite a respectable (14:6) touchdown:interception ratio. He flashed almost none of the alleged athleticism (-56 yards rushing for the year) that helped him win the job. He couldn't keep senior paperweight Nate Longshore on the bench. It’s telling that Riley, a fourth-year junior with 10 career starts to his name, still had to win the job all over again the spring over a sophomore who’s attempted six garbage time passes.
But Riley has the physical tools -- he stacked up pretty well among a pretty star-studded class of quarterbacks out of high school in 2006 -- and would hardly be the first quarterback to make a leap as a junior, especially under Tedford, who before Longshore’s strange fade had an unbroken line of pocket-passing successes who went in the first round of the draft. Tedford deferred far more than usual last year to first-year coordinator Frank Cignetti, who seemed to wear out his welcome and bolt for Pittsburgh; with Andy Ludwig arriving from Utah in the same role, it’s the rubber year for Riley, who may singlehandedly be the difference between the BCS and the Sun Bowl.
Friday: Four arguments for Oregon.