BERKELEY-If there's one word to describe Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, it's intense. And while defending USC on Saturday will be a bit different than in years past, that doesn't mean that he's any less obsessed with perfection.
"They're still a two-headed monster," Pendergast said on Wednesday. "They're very good at running the football and they're very explosive in the passing game, so they create a lot of match-up problems from the standpoint that they have a big line that's athletic, they've got a stable of good running backs that run hard and their wideouts are all explosive, big-play guys that we have to do a good job of tackling, because they're very good run-after-catch guys. Taking correct angles to the football in the run and the pass will be very valuable to our defense."
Despite thinned ranks thanks to NCAA sanctions, the Trojans are still armed with sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, the No. 14 signal-caller in the nation in terms of passing efficiency, with a 162.03 rating (just behind Andrew Luck's 166.86 for first in the conference).
"He played pretty well last year, too," said Bears head coach Jeff Tedford. "I think anytime that somebody acquires that experience, you can just see that comfort level. He never panics, he always makes good decisions with the football, he's very accurate with the football, he can throw all the passes on the field, he can throw it deep, he's very accurate underneath. It looks like he's got a great command of what they're doing."
Barkley has plenty of big targets downfield, including two of the conference's leading receivers in senior Ronald Johnson and true freshman Robert Woods. Johnson is fourth in the conference with an average of 5.3 catches per game for 69.8 yards per contest, stats that put him at fourth and sixth in the conference, respectively.
Woods gains an average of 66.5 yards per game-right behind Johnson, at No. 7 in the Pac-10-and had a huge breakout game against Stanford last week, racking up an eye-popping 224 yards on 12 catches while finding paydirt three times. If any team in this conference has an answer to the Bears' freshman phenom Keenan Allen, it's the Trojans.
"SC has great talent, and that has not changed," Tedford said. "That hasn't changed in one year. They still have great players and they're very athletic and very physical."
As if that's not enough, USC has plenty of veteran tailbacks that can all do damage.
Senior Allen Bradford leads the Trojans with 533 yards on 64 carries, and junior Marc Tyler has toted the rock 68 times for 359 yards and five scores. Then, of course, there's C.J. Gable, the senior who ran for 79 yards against the Bears last time they visited Los Angeles, and 91 yards against Cal in the Coliseum in 2006. Bradford and Tyler are among the top 10 backs in the conference, ranking sixth and 10th, respectively.
"They're a zone-blocking running team," Pendergast said. "Their line is very athletic. They work well together. They communicate very well and they don't make a lot of mistakes. They play with good pad level and good technique, so it'll be a big challenge for us, up front."
Given that the Trojans run a pro-style offense similar in principle to the scheme that lies at the heart of the Bears' playbook, one would think that Cal would have at least some whiff of a schematic head start. But Pendergast isn't about to take anything for granted. Not against USC. Not in Los Angeles.
"We have to be sound and disciplined, with the pistol, with the West Coast or whatever type of offense you play, if you don't do things well, at every level of the defense, in terms of playing gaps, getting off blocks and reading your keys, you're going to have nights like we had against Nevada," Pendergast said. "So, this week's no different. It's a pro-style offense, but we have to do the things that we have to do, defensively, in order to play well."
The Bears' inconsistent offensive performances over the course of the season may force them to lean heavily on the defense to shut down the conference's fourth-best scoring offense-one that's mighty ticked off after losing two straight games-if the passing game doesn't vastly improve.
"It's tough to get a feel for it and, we're going to have to make some plays in the passing game," said senior quarterback Kevin Riley about improving the passing offense from a season-worst 83-yard performance against UCLA. "It's going to be a big game. I know they're going to be coming out all fiery after losing their last two games by a field goal in the last second. They're going to be ready to play. It's just going to be a fight. It's going to be fun."
One of the players who will be having the most fun out on defense will be linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who delivered the hit of the season against the Bruins when he pulled a WWE-style spinebuster out on Johnathan Franklin last Saturday.
"It got everybody excited and it brought some energy on the field when it happened," says Pendergast, as a smile pulls its way across his grizzled mug. "It got everybody kind of juiced-up, and that was as good a form of a tackle as any that I've seen in quite a while, and he was pretty proud of it."
Kendricks has come into his own this season and is a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to stopping the run. In fact, Cal's rushing defense is No. 2 in the conference (and No. 21 in the nation), allowing just 106 yards per game on the ground. And that's not the only superlative for Pendergast's punishers.
The Bears are also No. 1 in the Pac-10-and No. 6 in the country-in pass defense, holding opponents to an average of 148.8 yards. Quarterbacks are at their worst when facing the Bears, who also own the conference's top spot in pass defense efficiency, holding opposing signal-callers to a 94.5 passer rating. Cal is tied for second in the Pac-10 with 16 sacks, costing opponents 101 yards. The Bears are also tied for 17th in the country in scoring defense and No. 8 outright in total team defense.
"I didn't even know that," Pendergast said of his unit's rankings. "Our expectations are high, and we've just got to continue to play consistent. There's a lot of football left to be played, and, every week, every team presents a new challenge. This week against 'SC it'll be a completely different challenge than against than we had last week, and then Arizona State will present a different challenge than USC, and so on and so forth. We just want to continue to play consistent football, week-in and week-out."
And while rankings like that are certainly nice, the fact of the matter is that the Bears are 3-2 overall, 1-1 in conference play. The only statistic that matters is wins.
"I'm very competitive, and I want things done a certain way," said Pendergast. "I've got a vision for where this defense is, and where I want it to be, and the players need to have the same type of vision, because they're the ones that are actually out there, doing it. My biggest thing is that I try to get our guys to think like me as much as they can, because they're going to go how I go."