BERKELEY — For those who call themselves connoisseurs of linebacker play, the Los Angeles Coliseum will be the place to be Saturday.
The matchup between No. 21 Cal and No. 7 USC not only features two of the best linebacker corps in the Pac-10, but in the nation. Each team has two players on the watch list for the 2008 Butkus Award, given to the country's top linebacker. And they each lead a defense ranked among the best nationally.
"I have a lot of respect for their linebacking corps," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "They're great players, as well as ours. When you look at these two teams, you're looking at two linebacking corps that you'd match up against anybody."
The Trojans corps is led by middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and strong side backer Brian Cushing, each expected to be a first-round pick in April's NFL draft. In addition to the Butkus Award, both players are on several other watch lists for postseason awards, with Maualuga also on the list for the Walter Camp Award as the top player in the country overall.
"They're great players, there's no question about it," Cal quarterback Kevin Riley said. "They're athletes, they're big. But the guys on our team are athletes and big, too. I think it's the best two groups of linebackers in the Pac-10. It's good for us to practice against them every day. We'll be ready."
While the Bears corps, led by Butkus watch list linebackers Zack Follett and Worrell Williams, gets its share of notoriety, it's not quite on the level as the Trojans group. But Cal might have more depth at the position, with Anthony Felder, Eddie Young and Mike Mohamed also making an impact. In fact, Mohamed and Felder are the team's top two tacklers, with Mohamed ranking fourth in the Pac-10 at 7.4 tackles per game.
"I think our linebacker corps is going to step it up a little bit and grab that No. 1 spot," said Follett, the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week for defense. "We're second behind them. I think the way we've been playing this year, we've been just as good, if not better. Hopefully we can go out there against them and show it."
Cal's linebackers are getting noticed by NFL scouts, as well. Follett is projected as a third-round pick by a handful of early mock drafts, and Felder and Williams are expected to be drafted, as well. Young is only a junior and Mohamed is a sophomore.
"You always want to find a personal matchup that you can get a little extra reason to go hard," Williams said. "Those guys are great. They're big guys who fly around the field. I think we match up with them well, though."
USC coach Pete Carroll said his group of linebackers form the anchor of the defense, which is really saying something this season. The Trojans have been nearly impenetrable, allowing just 7.1 points per game (No. 1 in the nation). USC also leads the country in total defense (211.6 yards per game) and has recorded shutouts in three of its past four games.
Cal ranks 23rd nationally in total defense (300 ypg) and third in the Pac-10 in scoring defense (21 ppg).
"Those guys are very good players," Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. "We have very good linebackers, and so does USC."
Notes: Quarterbacks Riley and Nate Longshore continued to split first-team reps Thursday night, but Tedford has yet to name the starter for Saturday's game. ... Cal right guard Noris Malele returned to practice and should play Saturday. He sat out last week's game against Oregon with a sprained ankle.
Contact Jonathan Okanes at firstname.lastname@example.org