Thursday Night Football: SDSU at Air Force, USC at Cal

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Cal had a nationally televised opportunity to prove it rebounded from a disappointing 5-7 finish in 2010. For a half, the Golden Bears of 2011 looked like the Golden Bears of old. But as it had Arizona and Stanford the season prior, Oregon turned on the juice in the second half to blow away the visitors. Jeff Tedford’s Bears are back on Thursday primetime, again with an opportunity to wash away the sour taste last year left.

Full-time tenants of Cal’s current home-away-from-home AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants, missed the MLB Playoffs. But the Golden Bears could provide the Bay Area a spark and prove the previous campaign was a road bump for this consistent program, not a lengthy derailing.

What was the Pac’s best rivalry of the Aughties was part of that bump. Last October, Cal came into the Coliseum where it had given the Trojans so many great games and laid an egg. USC had its most impressive offensive outing of ’10, Cal’s offense struggled as it had the entire season, and the Trojans won by five touchdowns. A similar showing this time around and again on a national broadcast would certainly turn up the heat on Jeff Tedford. Just look at what televised drubbings did for Mike Stoops.

USC’s offensive eruption in its last outing helped seal the Arizona coach’s fate. Yet despite Matt Barkley and Robert Woods’ historic days, Lane Kiffin evidently feels his team lacks firepower. With no hope of a bowl game, and a loss to Arizona State last month dashing the minuscule hope of an undefeated, split championship season Kiffin surprisingly is opting to burn freshman George Farmer’s redshirt for the Golden Bears.

Perhaps Kiffin watched Oregon toast the Golden Bear rush defense to the tune of 365 yards, more than 50 percent of what the Trojans have gained on the ground through all five of their games. Adding the much ballyhooed freshman Farmer isn’t necessarily the answer to solving the Trojans’ rushing woes, however. Marc Tyler has been oft used at 72 carries, but is only gaining 4.3 yards per attempt. D.J. Morgan has been ineffective and Curtis McNeal used sparingly. Like Farmer, Dillon Baxter was a celebrated, Southern California prep recruit but has become a complete afterthought.

And while Cal was torched by the Duck ground game, the Golden Bears came into Autzen Stadium allowing less than 100 rushing yards per game despite facing two of the more talented tailbacks on the West Coast, Robbie Rouse and Chris Polk. Farmer could be used as a swing option the way Chip Kelly employed DeAnthony Thomas to complement LaMichael James. One more throwing option would make the already dangerous Trojan passing attack downright terrifying.

Though the Golden Bears have burner Isi Sofele in the backfield, Tedford isn’t bashful about throwing. His quarterbacks threw 60 times against the Ducks, partially the byproduct of UO blowing the game open in the third quarter. But the Trojan secondary has shown kinks. Last time out, Arizona nearly rallied with Nick Foles airing it out for 450 yards. UA also had its best running game of 2011 on the Trojan defense though, so Tedford may reverse the script by throwing early, get USC in multiple defensive back sets, then unleash Sofele.

The key for Cal will be maintaining a pace throughout. Faltering late against UO and Washington was the Golden Bears’ undoing. USC has had a similar problem in games vs. UA, Minnesota and Arizona State. The alike issues should make for an interesting pairing.

Cal’s Keys

  • Ball control: While Tedford has shown a renewed commitment to pass, the Golden Bears need to use Sofele and C.J. Anderson often to keep the Trojan offense off the field.
  • Shut down the Trojan ground game: USC’s passing attack is its strength. So why key in on the ground game? Well, aside from limiting USC’s options, it will
  • Force Barkley to force: Barkley has astronomical numbers, true. He’s also been turnover-prone in the past and continues to get away with forcing balls. The Golden Bears must find a way to capitalize on any forced throws Barkley puts out there.

USC’s Keys

  • Get up early: Cal’s tendency to wilt late would benefit the Trojans greatly if they can build a 7-to-point lead by halftime.
  • Make Cal a passing offense: The USC rush defense ranks No. 31, but against Pac-12 competition has been pedestrian at best. Sofele and Anderson are more likely to beat the Trojans than is Zach Maynard.
  • Spread the wealth: Woods is perhaps the nation’s single greatest receiver, but that entire corps is deep. Barkley’s less likely to commit turnovers when he’s targeting several receivers. A viable option from the backfield would certainly bolster that.

* * *

San Diego State and Air Force are as alike as they are different. Since Troy Calhoun was hired in 2007, AFA has been a picture of consistency with its triple option offense. San Diego State is trying to establish some consistency of its own with an exciting, balanced offensive style. Both need Thursday’s Mountain West contest badly with identical 3-2 overall and 0-1 conference records. Both come into the affair on short rest and off disappointing showings last week.

AFA was completely overmatched at Notre Dame, evident in the game’s early minutes. SDSU had its second offensively anemic showing in as many outings, what has to be a troubling sign for a team that’s success in 2010 was predicated on potency from that side of the ball. TCU bullied the Aztecs enough early to build a multiple score lead, enough to keep SDSU at arm’s distance as it mounted an ultimately fruitless rally effort.

Ronnie Hillman is among the nation’s top rushers at 132 yards per game, but the last two games has suffered from fumblitis. Quarterback Ronnie Hillman has suffered a notable regression under new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Former SDSU OC Al Borges is renowned for his ability to bring the most out of a quarterback; Ludwig, not so much. SDSU will need a capable passing attack against a Falcon team that in its two losses was schooled through the air. TCU’s Casey Pachall and Notre Dame’s Tommy Rees both put in work on the Falcon secondary. Perhaps the Academy is the launching point Aztec Air needs to truly get flying.

AFA is the third true option offense SDSU has seen on the season, but Tim Jefferson provides a dimension that Army and Cal Poly’s offenses lack. Jefferson’s ability to pass makes him more akin to Denard Robinson than Trent Steelman and Shoelaces sliced through the Aztec defense.

SDSU’s Keys

  • Set up the pass with the run game: Lindley needs to get back on track, and in order for that to happen Hillman must soften up the Falcon defense.
  • Make Jefferson more passer than rusher: Jefferson’s ability to throw is more a complement to his style than a first option weapon. Notre Dame forced Jefferson into more throwing downs than the Falcon offense is accustomed to. That means a lot of pinpoint accurate reads on the option.

AFA’s Keys

  • Establish tempo early: Both Michigan and TCU succeeded in dictate the pace early. Army failed to do so, which put its run-based offense in a deep hole playing catch-up while chewing up clock.
  • Pressure Lindley: The Aztec quarterback has been ineffective when rushers get to him. He threw many rushed and uncatchable balls at Michigan when the Wolverine defense put on some heat.