With Cal cornerback Marc Anthony likely out for Thursday's game against USC, true freshman Stefan McClure will get his first career start and face off against arguably the nation's top receiver in Robert Woods.
"It reminds you a little bit of when (Syd'Quan) Thompson took his first start," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "You saw what kind of player he turned out to be. I have no doubt that Stef will do the same thing."
Thompson had what might be described as a nightmarish afternoon in 2006 while making his first career start in a game at Tennessee. The Cal redshirt freshman yielded five receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns to Vols wide receiver Robert Meachem. Thompson eventually became an All-Pac-10 cornerback and now plays for the Denver Broncos.
McClure's experience at Oregon last week wasn't quite as bad as Thompson's. Forced into extensive action for the first time because of Anthony's shoulder injury, McClure was beaten in man coverage a handful of times during Cal's 43-15 loss to the Ducks.
Now the Bears hope McClure's career follows a similar path to Thompson's.
Covering Woods, who goes 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, will be a challenge. The sophomore is tied for the national lead with 11 catches per game and ranks second with 149.4 receiving yards per game.
"He's probably one of the best receivers in the nation and for sure the best that we'll face," said McClure, whom scout.com ranked as the No. 4 cornerback in the nation last year coming out of Vista High. "You can't play his reputation. You just have to be ready."
Replacing Anthony with the inexperienced McClure is a blow to an already maligned secondary that has disappointed for most of the season.
The Bears gave up 474 passing yards during an overtime win at Colorado and 292 during a loss at Washington. Cal allowed just 198 passing yards at Oregon, but quarterback Darron Thomas threw all three of his touchdown passes in the second half when the Ducks consistently beat the Bears in man coverage.
Cal's problems with pass defense aren't limited to just the secondary. The Bears haven't been able to get a consistent pass rush.
But with a returning nucleus of Anthony, cornerback Steve Williams and safety Sean Cattouse, more was expected from the defensive backfield.
"Average," Cattouse said when asked to grade the secondary so far. "We definitely came out with big expectations for ourselves, huge expectations. It's something we're going to keep working at, because we know what we can do."
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was quick to spread the blame throughout his defense, saying the linebackers are also responsible and pointing to the inconsistent pass rush. He said the secondary was in a tough spot against Oregon because he asked them to play a lot of man defense while his front seven focused on stopping All-America running back LaMichael James.
"That's not all the secondary," Pendergast said. "The other night, with that kind of assignment, we were going to play a lot of man. To be one-on-one over 50 percent of the situations, that's a lot to ask them to do. They're an improving group."
The Bears will need quick improvement from McClure, who should split time with Williams in defending Woods. Pendergast traditionally keeps his corners on one side of the field rather than matching up one against a specific receiver.
"I was out there playing like I had no arms," McClure said of the Oregon game "I have to make sure I use my arms and footwork. That was a great game to build on as far as experience. Now I can just build on that and know what to expect, this week against SC and down the road."
Tedford said quarterback Zach Maynard played most of the Oregon game with a quad contusion, which he suffered early in the first half. Maynard had his worst game of the season, completing 20 of 41 passes for 218 yards.
USC (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12) vs. Cal (3-2, 0-2) at AT&T Park, 6 p.m. ESPN