BERKELEY -- Herm Edwards opened California’s training camp with an exhortation: “It’s about you guys. It don’t matter who you play. It’s who they’re playing. It ain’t about who we playing. Who they playing? They’re playing you guys, and I don’t care if it’s here. It could be across the street; it don’t matter, men. Just flip the coin, say we kick off, we receiver; it don’t matter.”
The Golden Bears have taken that to heart.
Cal has not beaten USC since 2003. The Bears have never been able to get past the cardinal and gold, to never get past the 90,000 fans in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, to never get past the white horse, the sword at the 50-yard line and that same old song, sung now for 10 straight seasons.
But this week, it’s not about the Trojans. It’s about the team the Trojans are playing.
“They’re the same as any team we’ve played,” says freshman running back Vic Enwere. “They’re going to have some athleticism. They’re going to have some players, highly-recruited and whatnot, but at the end of the day, how we play is going to dictate the game.”
“The truth of the matter is,” Enwere continues, “if we come out there and we run hard and we come at them early, get some big plays and wear them down, at the end of the day, we’ll have control of the game.”
That goes for the running backs, who will be facing the third-best rushing defense in the conference. That goes for the passing attack, led by Jared Goff and two newly-returned burners in Kenny Lawler and Trevor Davis, who will be tasked with returning the big play to the fold against the team with the most interceptions (11) in the conference.
“They’re good. They’ve got quick feet. I ain’t going to put much out there,” Lawler says, when asked about what he thinks of the Trojans. “They’ve got quick feet, they’re fast, and they’re like every other corner.
“After big plays, what we like to do, we like to get on the ball and go fast. After a big play, that kind of gasses the defense, and gets them really tired. That’s what we want from them. We preach that we want to be the fastest, the most conditioned team in the Pac and in the nation, so after those big plays, we want to get the defense tired. That’s what [the big plays] do. We keep them on the field, get them tired. Those will be very important for us.”
USC boasts the fifth-best red zone defense in the nation. They’re eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in turnover margin. They’re 18th in defending third down. The Bears are 18th in the nation in red zone offense, Goff has thrown just four interceptions on the year and Cal is 19th in the country in third-down conversion rate (47.5%).
“They’re just athletic, they have really good players, they recruit well every year,” says Goff. “They’re a very athletic defense: Long linebackers, fast linebackers. The D-line gets a good pass rush. They start good guys over the top. They’re a good, solid defense, that’s very athletic.”
But, they’re nothing Cal has not seen before.
“Nothing too exotic,” Goff says. “They mix it up pretty well with their coverages, but nothing that we haven’t seen so far.”
USC does have talent, but the Trojans also had all of last week off, until Saturday.
“I’ve heard,” Goff says.
But it’s not just the skill position players who have taken Edwards’ words to heart. Without Brennan Scarlett, the beating heart of the defensive line is Mustafa Jalil, and for him, it’s all about the trenches.
“They’ve got a great history of linemen. So do we,” Jalil says. “I think, this year, it’ll be great to see what unit wants to come out and fight and get after it. Everything starts with the offensive and defensive lines. If we do our job, they’re not going to be able to do anything that they want to.”
The Bears will be getting after it against an offensive line that has protected one of the nation’s most efficient passers in Cody Kessler. USC has allowed 21 sacks – fifth-least in the conference – and features two sophomores, two freshmen and a junior. But, those youngsters were very, very highly recruited – tackle Chad Wheeler (three-star, five Pac-12 offers), tackle Zach Banner (four-star), guard Toa Lobendahn (four-star) and true freshman guard Viane Talamaivao (four-star). That line has plowed the way for 1,124 rushing yards by Javorious Allen (15th in the nation), and 1,552 yards on the ground in total (172.4 per game).
“I feel like their youth, they’ve played nine games, so they’ve stepped it up,” says Jalil. “It doesn’t really matter. We don't look at who they are; we look at ourselves. It’s not a matter of who USC has, or who USC is. It’s a matter of what is Cal going to bring down to the game: What kind of Cal football team are we going to be on Thursday night?”
Thanks to a bye week, the Bears are chomping at the bit.
“This is the biggest week, I think,” says Jalil. “I feel 100 percent [healthy], and everybody else, you can see it on everyone’s faces. We’re ready to come down on Thursday and get some of that Trojan.”