(Reposted--but revised--from Pacific Takes. Also, check out this cool interview Kodiak and I did with NeonTommy!)
This game is about fear.
It's not to see this is just about emotions. It's not like the Bears are afraid of USC. But they sure have played afraid in every contest the past three seasons, and just a little bit here and there in all of the eight losses. They've rushed throws, they've missed blocking assignments, they've lost contain, they've committed non-trivial errors, and they've turned over the football. USC has barely had to lift a finger to exert their dominance. Cal has been the ones beating themselves up on every critical play the last three seasons (most of the previous five losses have come down to the 4th quarter). They have been panicky performances by a team trying to do way more than they need to do to win a football game, and end up giving away the win before there's a football game that's out there to be won.
If I had to lay a theory about Cal's poor performance and their failure to execute, I'd have to say some of it has to do with the type of attitude the Bears put up every week leading into the game. The Golden Bears don't seem to indicate they fear the Trojans every year, sometimes showing false bravado. They put up a good front going into the week, acting cocksure, and that makes everyone think they finally are about to naysay the naysayers. I remember before the epic smackdown two years ago how the Bears felt confident they were going to go into the Coliseum and knock heads, particularly after the Trojans had lost two straight games.
Then, boom! Haymaker! Right to the chin. Down for the count. Never to recover.
There's nothing wrong with being afraid of this matchup. Cal should fear USC. They are the most intimidating team they face on their schedule every year, top to bottom. The Trojans have generally always stacked the lines on both sides of the football. It's healthy to realize that fear, but hiding it behind bravado can reek of insecurity.
Yes, Stanford undressed them last week, but they've had years of prep in beating USC thanks to Harbaugh, Luck and Gerhart, so there's already a lot of confidence for these guys going into their matchup. In fact, the loss by USC should make Cal even more apprehensive, because they know they'll get the best that Kiffin, Barkley and the Trojans will throw at them.
Fear isn't always bad; it can be a powerful, instinctive urge that gets Cal acting proactively rather than reactively. It should make the Bears realize that a monumental task is at hand, and focus their attention all the more on putting together their best effort. The Bears have to confront those fears, realize them quickly, then let them dissipate and get back to the instinctive act of playing football.
Cal has already proven they're more than capable of competing and putting out a winning effort in a very hostile environment like the Horseshoe. But there's always something about USC that gets us a little starstruck. This is where the Bears have to continue to show their growth and prove they're not just capable of competing, but winning big games.
Push through Bears. Let fear find you again, so you can learn how to conquer it in time to conquer all.
Excerpt from NeonTommy Interview:
Cal has not beaten USC in eight years and has not beaten the Trojans in Los Angeles in 12 years. Why has USC been such a bad matchup for Cal over the years?
Kunnath: Cal has a demanding pro-style offense they recruit for that requires solid players that can execute in all phases of the game rather than specialists who would excel in a particular college scheme. There are high barriers to entry here.
USC does all those things better, particularly in finding the linemen in the trenches and the quarterbacks for their system.
Kodiak: I should probably make the obligatory crack about how our players simply aren't as motivated for these games because they're not paid. If you're just looking at match ups, I think it's ultimately been O-line/D-line talent followed closely by quarterback play. 'SC is usually able to make Cal one dimensional by shutting down the run with just their front seven.
And when you factor in that for some of those years, we just haven't had reliable play at QB, that just snowballs. Throw in a bet-on-it specials teams gaffe or three per game, and we've got our current streak.
Moving beyond the field, I think the players and coaches have this weird mental block. I'm not sure if they get overly amped or what. But the Trojan mystique seems to be alive and well in our locker room.