The USC Trojans (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) travel north for the traditional Bay Area Weekender to face the California Golden Bears (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) on Saturday, October 31 at noon PDT in California Memorial Stadium and in front of a national FOX television audience. It’s the 103rd meeting between the schools – USC’s most against any opponent – in a series that dates to 1915. The Trojans hold a commanding 67-30-5 edge, including victories in the past 11 clashes – Cal’s last victory was a 34-31 triple-OT win in Berkeley in 2003. A season ago, USC jumped to a 31-9 halftime lead in Los Angeles before holding off the Bears, 38-30. In the previous Berkeley meeting, the Trojans hammered Cal, 62-28, in 2013.
Last Saturday, linebacker Cameron Smith came up with three shocking interceptions of Utah QB Travis Wilson – including a second quarter pick-six – as the Trojans whipped then-No. 3 Utah, 42-24 at the Coliseum. Quarterback Cody Kessler completed 21-of-28 passes for 264 yards and a TD, but it was the nearly nine-minute drive in the third quarter, leading to his QB sneak touchdown, that was perhaps most impressive of USC’s season. Meanwhile, the Bears spent Saturday licking their wounds after suffering a 40-24 defeat to UCLA in Pasadena on Thursday, Oct. 22. The Bruins rolled up 573 total yards, and while Bears quarterback Jared Goff threw for 295 yards and three TDs, he averaged just 5.6 yards per pass attempt.
USC interim head coach Clay Helton (2-1 at USC, including a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State) leads the Trojans for the third time since replacing the fired Steve Sarkisian on Oct. 9. California headman Sonny Dykes (11-20 at Cal, 33-35 in six seasons as a college head coach) is in third season in Berkeley. After a 1-11 campaign in 2013, the Bears are 10-9 since the start of the 2014 season. Dykes’ “Bear Raid” offense (and Goff’s mastery of it) can be given much of the credit for that improvement, but the defense remains a work in progress and takes a big chunk of the blame for Cal’s two-game losing streak after allowing 1,008 total yards combined to Utah and UCLA.California Offense
Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin played Goff as a true freshman in 2013 – and everyone involved took their expected lumps. But that decision has paid off, as Goff has become a well-regarded NFL prospect (he holds 26 school records) and Cal has been firmly ensconced near the top of both the Pac-12 and national offensive rankings. Cal ranks No. 16 nationally in total offense (504.6 yards per game) and No. 21 nationally in scoring offense with 37.9 points per game. However, with Goff at the controls of the Bear Raid, Cal ranks second in the Pac-12 and 10th nationally in passing offense (346.7 yards per game) – more than making up for a middling rushing attack, which ranks ninth in the conference (No. 82 overall, 157.9 yards per game). Goff is in the NCAA top 15 in seven different passing categories and has improved his completion percentage to 65.1 percent this season. His 20 TD passes rank ninth nationally, but he’s also thrown nine interceptions, including a baffling five in the loss to Utah.
Has Goff’s made Cal’s receiving corps among the nation’s most dangerous – or vice versa? Cal’s four-receiver sets challenge every secondary with plenty of speed and talent. Six Bear receivers have at least 16 grabs in 2015, led by junior Kenny Lawler and senior Stephen Anderson. Lawler was recently added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list after a series of acrobatic grabs among his 39 total catches. He’s averaging 12.7 yards per and ranks second in the Pac-12 (tied for eighth nationally) with nine TD catches. Anderson is a big target – some say a tight end who moves like a receiver – with 28 catches for an average of 12.4 yards per. Senior Bryce Treggs has a 33-game reception streak and has hauled in two scores among his 20 grabs. He’s second on the team in yards per catch to classmate Trevor Davis (21.6 yards per on 16 catches with two TDs). And don’t forget seniors Darius Powe (24 catches, three TDs) and Maurice Harris (19 catches, three TDs).
After a breakthrough junior season, much was expected of running back Daniel Lasco. But a hip injury against San Diego State in week two kept him sidelined for a couple of weeks and he hasn’t appeared to be 100 percent since. He’s averaging 4.7 yards on 38 carries and has scored twice. In his stead, junior scatback Khalfani Muhammad (51 carries, a shocking 8.4 yards per, one TD) has made the most of his chances. He’s also a solid receiver (13 catches, one TD). Sophomore Vic Enwere, more of a thumper, leads the Bears in total carries (68 for a 4.6 yards per average) and rushing TDs (five).
California returned three starters to its offensive line in 2015 and while the group has been decent, the lack of a consistent rushing attack and the fact that Goff has been sacked 20 times are concerning. Senior Jordan Rigsbee has started 43 games as a Golden Bear, with his current spot at right guard being the fourth position he’s played on the line. Juniors Steven Moore (right tackle) and Chris Borrayo (left guard) also bring plenty of solid experience. Junior Dominic Granado has taken hold of the center position, while Brian Farley started five of the first six at left tackle before a lingering ankle injury gave sophomore Aaron Cochran an opening. Both are likely to play Saturday.California Defense
Prior to their past two games, defensive coordinator Art Kaufman’s Bear defense was in the midst of a minor renaissance. After owning the bottom rungs of league and national rankings in recent seasons, California’s improvement – even after its back-to-back losses – is noteworthy. The Golden Bears are getting much more payoff from attacking out of their 4-3 set (Cal prefers a nickel back over the SAM linebacker most of the time, though). They lead the nation in takeaways (22), with 10 fumble recoveries (T-1 nationally) and 12 interceptions (T-5 nationally). Cal also ranks third in the conference with 20 sacks. Still, the Bears give up plenty: 420.3 total yards (eighth in the conference, No. 54 nationally); 259.6 passing yards (10th in the Pac-12, No. 101 nationally); 160.7 rushing yards (seventh/60th); and 26.7 points (sixth/66th).
The front four is led by senior defensive end Kyle Kragen, who was recently added to the Hendricks Award watch list. His team-leading five sacks are tied for second in the conference and his 38 total stops are nearly double those of the second-ranking down lineman on the team, sophomore tackle James Looney (20). Looney (two sacks) is part of a three-player rotation at tackle with sophomore Tony Mekari (12 tackles, one sack) and senior Mustafa Jalil (eight tackles, one sack) who has been hampered by a lingering knee problem. Junior DaVante Wilson, who spent time at USC before transferring to Riverside CC, shares the other end spot with senior Jonathan Johnson. They’ve combined for three sacks among 21 total tackles.
Junior SAM linebacker Michael Barton (24 tackles) is out this week after suffering a knee sprain against UCLA, leaving classmate Jake Kearney (seven tackles) as the lone option there. However, the SAM is the first player out when Cal opts for its preferred nickel look (the Bears have started six of seven games in the nickel). Senior weaksider Jalen Jefferson (33 tackles, one sack, one INT) and junior MLB Hardy Nickerson (40 stops, one fumble recovery) see the bulk of the snaps, though sophomore Devante Downs (15 tackles, two interceptions from the weak side) and senior Nate Broussard (14 stops) also see time.
Personnel consistency has helped the California secondary improve from an atrocious 2014, when the Bears allowed 42 TD passes. Not only does Cal lead the conference in interceptions, as noted above, but also opponents have completed just eight touchdown passes. Cornerbacks Darius White, a senior and Darius Allensworth, a sophomore, have been an upgrade. White has 30 tackles and two interceptions, while Allensworth has 27 stops and a pick. Senior strong safety Stefan McClure (31 tackles, one sack) has battled injuries throughout his career and is a physical and emotional leader (sophomore Luke Rebenzer spots McClure, and has 18 tackles). Junior free safety Damariay Drew leads Cal with 44 tackles (including 19 in the Bears’ past two games) and also has two interceptions. Junior nickel man Cameron Walker has started five times and boasts two sacks, an INT, and 22 stops.California Special Teams
Sophomore Matt Anderson won the placekicking job during the offseason. He’s 27-of-28 on PATs, and seven-of-10 on field goals – with a long of 41 yards. On kickoffs, he’s only had 12 touchbacks in 42 opportunities, but the Bears’ coverage has been solid, allowing 19.6 yards per kick return. Senior punter Cole Leininger averages 41.8 yards per punt, and opponents have only had five punt return opportunities this season (10.6 yards per, however). Senior wideout Davis handles the bulk of the punt and kick return duties, averaging 6.8 yards on punts and 21.4 on kickoffs.USC Offensive Gameplan
A week after squandering 590 yards of total offense at Notre Dame, the Trojans – with a little help from Cameron Smith – were much more efficient, posting 35 offensive points on just 380 yards of total offense against a predictably stingy Utah defense. Not only did USC minimize the mistakes that hampered them in Indiana, but the Trojans also forged a bit of an offensive identity for the first time this season. USC’s willingness to run the ball with Ronald Jones and Justin Davis, even with marginal success, kept Utah’s defense honest, limited the pressure Kessler faced as the game went on, and proved extremely beneficial on USC’s surprising nine-minute third quarter scoring drive that opened up a 35-17 lead.
Of course, that’s not to minimize the efforts of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who battled through a left leg injury to catch eight balls for 143 yards, including a 26-yard TD – as well as produce perhaps the best stiff-arm of the season against Ute CB Dominique Hatfield. Smith-Schuster is likely to regain some crucial support at receiver this week, with Darreus Rogers looking ready to go after re-injuring his hamstring at Notre Dame. Steven Mitchell appears close, as well, but will be a game-time decision. Their availability, plus the growth of Dominique Davis as an option, will be crucial Saturday with Adoree’ Jackson needed on defense against Cal’s passing attack.
The Bear pass rush will try to take advantage of the Trojans’ injury-riddled offensive line, but the return of Chad Wheeler should help. USC must give Kessler time to find his options, because – though Cal has improved against the pass – the Trojans can take a page out of UCLA’s book from last Thursday if they open up the middle of the Cal secondary. The best way to do that: stick with that rushing attack that perked up its head for the first time last weekend – and push the offensive line to remain physical. While no one expects Smith-Schuster to go Nelson Agholor (16 catches for 216 yards and two scores vs. Cal in 2014), there’s a likelihood of a big day. While the Bears’ back seven is susceptible to a big game from Kessler, the best way for USC to efficiently maximize that opportunity is to allow Davis, Jones and Tre Madden (if healthy) their touches early in each series.USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense also rose to the occasion on Saturday. Beyond Smith’s headline-grabbing three interceptions, USC was able to control Utah RB Devontae Booker, holding him to 62 yards on an inexplicable – if you’re a Utah fan – 14 carries. The Trojans also stood up along the defensive front to what had been a stout Utah offensive line, notching three important sacks, while limiting Wilson’s effectiveness as a runner. And, finally, USC tidied up its ineffectiveness in the middle of the field against the pass – an area the Utes tried to exploit. And, aside from two questionable pass interference calls against Iman Marshall on a late second-quarter field goal drive, the Trojans limited penalties.
The performance served as a bit of a reprieve for defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who has been under fire since arriving with Sarkisian in 2014. Helton’s focus on both the offensive and defensive lines last week – their physicality, their fundamentals and techniques – seems to have caught on among not only the players but the coaching staff. But after facing Utah’s fairly staid and conservative offense, the challenge is totally different against the Golden Bears.
Goff will test the USC secondary – the main reason to expect Jackson to get the bulk of his snaps on defense. The Trojans will need every man they can find against the Bears’ bevy of receivers. Jackson, Marshall, and Kevon Seymour will have to win their share of one-on-one battles against the likes of Lawler, Treggs, and Anderson. Yes, USC held Cal to 384 total yards a season ago, most of those gained after the Trojans had built a 29-point lead. But the Bears are a different team in Berkeley. It’s imperative that the Trojans pressure Goff – he’s been sacked 20 times, so it’s not like the Cal front five is impenetrable. And though UCLA controlled the Cal rushing attack, don’t sleep on Lasco. Dykes says that during this week’s practices, he’s looked as healthy as he has in weeks.The Pick
Perhaps no team on USC’s schedule was happier to see Agholor leave a year early for the NFL. Beyond last season’s domination, he returned a pair of punts for TDs in Berkeley in 2013. While no one player can be expected to replace that kind of production on Saturday, there are a few candidates out there – Smith-Schuster, Jones, Jackson – who could make life miserable for the blue-clad fans in Strawberry Canyon come Saturday.
Big plays would be nice for the Trojans in what will be a strongly partisan environment. Any time the Bears have a decent chance to beat USC, their fans turn up the dial more than a few notches. However, this game is going to come down to who limits mistakes and who hassles the quarterback effectively enough. The Bears have feasted on opponents’ miscues in 2015, only losing the turnover battle twice (in a one-point win at Texas, and in their loss at Utah). USC cannot put the ball on the ground, and Kessler needs to make good decisions against an improved Cal secondary. Meanwhile, the Trojans are +6 in turnover margin in their past two wins, forcing four turnovers each by Arizona State and Utah.
Kessler and Goff, as good as they’ve been in recent seasons, are still playing behind offensive lines that have struggled to protect them at times. Who will be forced into making key mistakes? If the Trojans stick and succeed with the idea that running the football on early downs helps open things up against Cal’s preferred nickel look, Kessler should be able to keep his jersey clean and rely on his playmakers to carry the day.
USC 42, California 34
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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)