LOS ANGELES (AP) — Matt Barkley apparently figured one way he could help Southern California bounce back from a disheartening loss at Stanford was with an unusual blast of bravado.
So the star quarterback went on Twitter on Thursday and declared: “It’s bear hunting season.”
The 13th-ranked Trojans (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) look to save their season when they face California (1-2) for the 100th time Saturday. Perhaps Barkley — the four-year starter known for his humility and piety — was just making sure everybody knows the stakes.
Perfection is no longer a possibility for USC. Another loss will finish the preseason No. 1 team’s national title dreams, and could end USC’s Pac-12 championship hopes as well.
Barkley didn’t return to USC for his senior season to play in a second-tier bowl game after the Trojans’ two-year bowl ban ended, but that’s what USC will be facing with even one more loss over the final two months of the season.
The Trojans still have most of the ingredients for a title contender. Barkley is betting they can still put it all together.
“I wasn’t expecting that was going to happen this year,” Barkley said. “You’ve got to make sure it’s a quick turnaround.”
The Trojans realize they’ll have to get right back on top of their game to earn their ninth straight win over the Golden Bears, who are coming off their own seven-point road loss last week with considerably more optimism. Cal nearly beat Ohio State, yet realizes the Coliseum is every bit as tough as the Horseshoe — particularly when the Trojans are seriously motivated.
“I feel like every time we play them, they’re coming off a dramatic loss,” Cal safety Josh Hill said. “So we know we’re going to get their best effort. I know Matt Barkley. He’s not going to have another bad game like that unless we force him to, so they’re going to come out 100 percent ready to go. We just have to match their intensity.”
USC’s offensive struggles this season have been easy to trace. Most are emanating from the line, which didn’t have injured center Khaled Holmes last week.
The young line allowed Barkley to be constantly harassed and failed to establish the run, allowing Stanford to shut out USC for the final 41 minutes. USC’s defense played fairly well, but was worn down by the Cardinal’s running game — not a good omen going against another opponent with three talented ball-carriers.
“You can’t let last week affect this week,” Trojans defensive tackle George Uko said. “Even the best fighters get knocked down. You’ve got to get back up.”
USC’s talented receivers and tailbacks never got going last week, largely limited by what the offensive line couldn’t do. The stars were careful not to directly criticize the line this week, choosing to encourage the growing group.
“We have two great running backs, and we need to show that,” USC receiver Robert Woods said. “The play-calling was there. It was just a struggle to actually get it happening. We couldn’t execute what was called.”
Cal, which has lost three straight conference openers, will attempt to exploit the USC line’s weaknesses — yet the Bears’ pass rush has been among their weakest areas. Cal managed just one combined sack in its two losses this season, and didn’t manage to sack Barkley once last year.
“You have to understand that they will go back and work on fixing those things as well,” Bears coach Jeff Tedford said. “Stressing the protections is key. You can’t give Barkley a lot of time to throw the ball, because those receivers will get open at some point.”
Tedford has stood on the Coliseum sideline for outstanding games, such as the schools’ 2004 meeting in which USC stopped Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers on fourth and goal in the final minutes to end it. He has also presided over not-so-outstanding games, such as the Bears’ last visit two years ago — a 48-14 demolition in which Barkley threw five touchdown passes before halftime.
For all his success in transforming the Bears’ program over the past decade, Tedford has never led Cal to a win at the Coliseum. The Los Angeles-area native also hasn’t beaten USC coach Lane Kiffin, who played quarterback for Tedford at Fresno State and later worked for him.
Kiffin directed frank criticism at his entire team following its loss at Stanford, even questioning Barkley’s decision-making and re-opening the competition for left tackle Aundrey Walker’s starting job. The Trojans mostly agreed with their coach’s critiques and vowed to improve, with the defense focusing on shutting down mobile Cal quarterback Zach Maynard, who looked mostly sharp against Ohio State.
“(Maynard) is better than last year,” USC linebacker Dion Bailey said. “His accuracy has improved, so we know we’re going to see a better player this time. … We need to get this train rolling again. The chip on our shoulder is heavier than ever.”
The schools’ familiarity always adds an element of spice to the rivalry game, with high school teammates and rivals frequently lining up against each other. There’s an even better matchup brewing on the lines: Cal defensive end Keni Kaufusi could line up against his brother, John Martinez, USC’s starting right guard.
“I know a lot of guys,” Woods said. “Some friends, some of them who wished they could have come to SC, so it’s going to be fun.”