USC continues its quest for a “November to Remember” by seeking an 11th-consecutive win over the Golden Bears.
The USC Trojans (6-3, 5-2 Pac-12 South) begin the final quarter of the 2014 regular season against the California Golden Bears (5-4, 3-4 Pac-12 North) on Thursday, November 13, at 6 p.m. PST in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. This is the 102nd meeting in a series that dates to 1915 – USC’s most games against any opponent – with the Trojans holding a 66-30-5 edge. USC has won the past 10 meetings – Cal’s last victory was a 34-31 triple-OT win in Berkeley in 2003 and its last win in Los Angeles was in 2000. A season ago, the Trojans hammered the Bears, 62-28, in Berkeley.
A week ago, the Trojans enjoyed a much-needed bye after defeating Washington State, 44-17, in Pullman on Nov. 1. Cody Kessler tossed five TD passes – three to freshman wideout Juju Smith – while Nelson Agholor caught eight passes for 220 yards (including an 87-yard score) and set a USC record with his fourth career punt return for a TD, a 65-yarder in the first quarter. The Bears also enjoyed a week off following their 45-31 victory over Oregon State in Corvallis. The Bears rushed for a season-high 269 yards – led by junior RB Daniel Lasco’s career-high 188 yards.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (6-3 at USC, 40-32 career) is in his first season at USC after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as a USC assistant under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). In Berkeley, California headman Sonny Dykes (6-15 at WSU, 28-30 career) is in second season – and he’s in the midst of an impressive turnaround after a 1-11 campaign in 2013. His offensive acumen has taken hold, with Cal in the national top 20 in eight offensive categories, while he’s built depth on a young defense that still must improve.
Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin must be happy with his offense’s growth in 2014. Yes, the Bears are still a pass-oriented attack, but improved offensive line play has helped Cal’s rushing attack improve and has provided sophomore quarterback Jared Goff with improved protection (Cal’s allowed 20 sacks through nine games after allowing 36 total a season ago). The Bears rank fourth nationally in pass offense (361 yards per game), eighth nationally in scoring (41.9), and 11th nationally in total offense (509.1 yards per game). Goff gained experience as a freshman in 2013 and it’s paid off, as the 6-foot-4 pocket passer has grasped the Dykes-Franklin scheme this season. He’s completing 62.6 percent of his passes and has thrown 27 TDs (fourth in the nation) with only four interceptions. Freshman Luke Rebenzer is a change-of-pace running threat from the position, used most effectively against Oregon on Oct. 24, when he gained 48 yards on 10 carries, including two TDs.
Seven of Cal’s wideouts have at least 18 receptions in 2014, led by junior Bryce Treggs (40 catches, 11.6 yards per catch, five TDs). Classmates Stephen Anderson (34 catches, 15.0 yards per, three scores) and Chris Harper (32, 14.2, five TDs) rank second and third on the team in catches, but Cal has to be excited about game-breaking threats Kenny Lawler and Trevor Davis returning from injury this week. Sophomore Lawler (29 catches, 13.9 yards per, a team-leading six TDs) suffered an ankle injury against Oregon and missed the Oregon State game, while junior Davis (21 catches, team-leading 17.1 yards per, four TDs) suffered a neck injury late in the UCLA game and missed the past two. Juniors Maurice Harris (19 grabs) and Darius Powe (18 catches) will also be factors.
Lasco, a junior, seized control of the starting running back job in the season’s third week. He has 796 yards rushing (averaging 5.4 yards per carry) and has scored 10 TDs. He’s had three 100-plus yard games, a big step for a Cal rushing attack that was anemic a season ago. He also is a threat as a receiver with 27 catches and two TDs. Sophomore scatback Khalfani Muhammad (201 yards, 4.7 average, 4 TDs) has seen his opportunities dwindle – just seven of his 43 carries in 2014 have come since the end of September, thanks to a broken left thumb that saw him in a cast for a number of weeks.
California hoped to build around a group of offensive linemen who battled injuries but learned on the job in 2013. A core group of five has emerged to take nearly every start in 2014. Senior center Chris Adcock is the leader. Guard Alejandro Crosthwaite is the only other senior in the starting five, and he’s joined on the right side by junior tackle Jordan Rigsbee. On the left side, sophomore tackle Steven Moore is rounding into a solid player after making nine starts as a freshman, while classmate Chris Borrayo is becoming a linchpin at guard, though he did account for this quintet’s only missed start when a concussion kept him out against UCLA. Sophomore Matt Cochran took his spot in that contest.
New defensive coordinator Art Kaufman took over a unit that was decimated by injuries in 2013 and is still trying to build experience and depth. Injuries have again been a factor but can only take so much blame for the group’s struggles. The Bears have allowed more than 525 yards per game (dead last in the Pac-12 and No. 122 nationally) including an astounding 376.4 passing yards. Cal also ranks last in the conference in scoring defense (39.9 ppg), but there are signs of improvement – Cal is fourth in the conference in pass efficiency defense (thanks mainly to its nine interceptions) and seventh in rushing defense (149.4 yards per game).
The Bears operate out of a 4-3 set, and the line lost players who accounted for three-quarters of last season’s starts. Then, one of the more experienced returnees they were counting on, junior defensive end Brennan Scarlett, was lost to a knee injury in the season’s fifth game. On a team with just 12 sacks total, Scarlett’s two are still good enough to tie for the team lead with junior end Todd Barr. Freshman Noah Westerfield took over for Scarlett, but has yet to register a sack among his 12 tackles, while classmate Tony Mekari (11 tackles) may be in line to make his first start ahead of Barr. In the middle, senior Austin Clark and junior Mustafa Jalil have seen the bulk of the action. Jalil has 4.5 tackles for loss among 18 stops, while Clark has 17 tackles. Junior Trevor Kelly can play either tackle or end, has started three times, and has 16 stops.
Thanks to injuries, the Bears’ linebacking corps has shifted spots throughout the season, but a solid quintet has stood out from the rest. Atop the depth chart this week: junior Jalen Jefferson (46 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack, one interception) on the strong side (though he started the first seven on the weak side); sophomore Michael Barton (team-leading 60 tackles, team-leading 5.5 for loss) on the weak side (though he started the first seven in the middle); and sophomore Hardy Nickerson (44 tackles, two for loss) in the middle. Sophomore strong-sider Jake Kearney is expected back from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the Oregon State game, while freshman Devante Downs will also see time in the middle.
Cal’s secondary has been blistered. Perhaps a positive for 2015, sophomore cornerbacks Cedric Dozier and Cameron Walker have started every game. Walker is third on the team with 53 tackles and has a pick, while Dozier has 39 tackles. Third cornerback Darius Allensworth, a redshirt freshman, sees time in the nickel and has 27 stops, including a sack. Classmate – and converted receiver – Caleb Coleman notched his first interception in the Bears’ win over Oregon State. Senior strong safety Michael Lowe missed the Washington game, but has started the other eight and is second on the team with 55 tackles. Junior free safety Stefan McClure has battled injuries throughout his career – including missing four games this season – but might be the Bears’ heart and soul. He has 30 tackles. When McClure was out in the middle of the season, sophomore Griffin Piatt had 40 stops and a team-leading three picks before suffering a knee injury against Washington that put him out for the season.
California Special Teams
Senior James Langford handles all placekicking duties. He’s 45-of-46 on PATs, but just 10-of-15 on field goals – all of his misses are from longer than 40 yards. On kickoffs, he’s notched touchbacks one-third of the time and the Bears’ coverage has been solid, allowing 19.9 yards per kick return. Junior punter Cole Leininger averages 41.8 yards per punt, but Cal’s punt coverage has struggled. Receivers Harper and Davis share punt return duties, but the Bears are averaging just 6.4 yards per chance. Davis returned a pair of kickoffs for scores against Washington State, so he’s worth keeping an eye on this week. Muhammad and reserve running back Tre Watson have also returned kickoffs.
USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojans had their big-play ability working well in Pullman. But – for much of the first three quarters – not much else seemed to click. With the Trojans making some shifts on their young offensive line to combat the loss of Chad Wheeler, there were some expected growing pains in the rushing attack before things finally got going. While the Trojans faced second- and third-and-long far too often against the Cougars, Kessler and his receivers were able to overcome those struggles against a troubled Wazzu secondary.
With Kessler throwing for a career-high 400 yards and Javorius “Buck” Allen notching his sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing effort, there were plenty of highlights above and beyond the playmaking skills of Smith and Agholor mentioned earlier. Still, consistency remains an issue for the USC offense – there are still too many three-and-outs, still too many third-and-longs and, among the Trojan faithful, still some curiosity about putting the best talent in the best position to succeed more regularly.
Against the Bears, expect to see some similarities to the Washington State gameplan. Cal struggles to rush the passer and three of its nine interceptions left the field when Piatt was ruled out for the season. The Bears have been decimated by the big play, especially through the air. Cal has actually been fairly solid in red-zone defense – ranking fourth in the conference, allowing just 29 TDs and nine field goals on 46 opportunities. Cal has allowed the most first downs in the conference and has struggled on third-down defense, allowing nearly a 40-percent conversion rate. USC will look to exploit its physical advantages on the outside early and often.
USC Defensive Gameplan
USC did a solid job against the Cougars’ passing attack, containing redshirt freshman Luke Falk, who replaced the injured Connor Halliday in the first quarter – something Oregon State couldn’t do in a loss to the Cougars last Saturday. The Trojans overcame what looked like a troubling injury to Su’a Cravens – tests showed no structural damage to his knee and he should be ready to go Thursday night – and held the Cougars to just 34 yards rushing, seven-of-20 on third down, and 17 points.
USC’s bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for a defense that’s been banged up. From the looks of things in practice, Cravens, Leonard Williams (shoulder) and Leon McQuay III (shoulder) should be ready to go, while a practice injury to safety John Plattenburg looks to be offset by the fact that previous starter Gerald Bowman appears to be as healthy as he has in weeks.
While Dykes and Co. love to throw the ball just about as much as Mike Leach does at Washington State, there’s a big difference for Cal in 2014 – the Bears’ rushing attack has improved almost weekly. Where the Trojans could ignore Washington State’s rushing attack, Lasco will hurt USC if the Trojans focus too heavily on Goff and his receivers. While I expect the blitz-light Trojans (see the outstanding piece by Ryan Abraham from earlier this week on how rarely USC brings extra pressure) to play a similar gameplan against the Cal passing attack, Cravens appears likely to move from the outside linebacker spot he’s played recently to nickel to contend with Goff. This means, though, that USC’s success in slowing down the Bears – who’ve been stellar on third down – is going to come down to USC’s down linemen. Can they put heat on Goff, while not losing track of Lasco?
There’s been a lot of talk from the Trojans about a “November to remember.” USC’s three heart-wrenching losses have put it in a position to need a lot of help to win the Pac-12 South, so what’s left is to close out strong, especially against rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. With UCLA in the midst of a bye week and already preparing for the Trojans, many outside the program are wondering if USC will be looking ahead when they take the field Thursday night.
I’m not among those worried about that. The Trojans should be refreshed and ready for the spotlight of a nationally televised game – especially if the “November to remember” mantra is to be believed. USC has plenty of motivation to handle Cal for an 11th consecutive time – and not just for the outside shot at a spot in the Pac-12 title game. The Bears have not been shy about discussing how crucial this game is against their “rivals” in the past week. I don’t expect that’s gone unnoticed inside the McKay Center.
USC should score early and often against Cal. The Trojans have outscored opponents 108-20 in the first quarter in 2014. Cal, on the other hand, holds just an 80-66 edge in the first quarter. Can USC slow the Bears’ offense and turn the game into a runaway? Or will Goff and Co.’s offense keep Cal in the game? If USC brings its usual first-quarter fire, expect the Bears to be playing catch-up most of the evening – a recipe for the Trojans to force the kind of mistakes that have made them one of the nation’s best turnover-margin teams.
USC 48, California 30
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).