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USC vs. California extensive game preview

Game 8: ‘Thirteen’s My Lucky Number, To You It Means Stay Inside’

Can the Trojans finish their October rebound by pushing the streak against the Golden Bears to 13?

The USC Trojans (4-3, 3-2 in the Pac-12) put a three-game winning streak on the line when they face the California Golden Bears (4-3, 2-2) on Thursday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It’s the 104th meeting – USC’s most against any opponent – in a series that dates to 1915. The Trojans lead the series 68-30-5, including 12 consecutive victories. A season ago, USC posted 24 unanswered points en route to a 27-21 decision in Berkeley. In the previous L.A. meeting, the Trojans led 31-9 at the half before holding off Cal, 38-30.

The spread for this game is USC (-16) according to Sports Betting Dime. Can the Trojans, riding a three game winning streak, keep the high powered 'Bear Raid' offense in check after they ran a record 118 plays against Oregon last weekend?

Last week, the Trojans enjoyed their lone bye of 2016 after walloping Arizona, 48-14, in Tucson on Oct. 15. USC’s 574 total yards (320 rushing) marked a third-consecutive 500-plus yard outing, while Sam Darnold set a school freshman record with five touchdown passes (three to JuJu Smith-Schuster). Meanwhile, the Golden Bears continued their season-long high-wire act with a 52-49 double-OT victory over Oregon in Berkeley last Friday. After squandering a 34-14 third-quarter lead, the Bears needed a Jordan Kunaszyk interception to clinch the victory. Cal ran 118 offensive plays, while the game featured 203 total plays – both FBS records

In Tucson, USC Coach Clay Helton (10-7 overall in parts of three seasons) saw his Trojans win their first game away from the Coliseum since Nov. 13, 2015. California headman Sonny Dykes (18-26 with the Bears, 40-41 in seven seasons as a college head coach) is in fourth season in Berkeley. Cal lost No. 1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff, offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, and the bulk of an outstanding receiving corps after 2015 but they’ve kept right on rolling thanks to some impressive replacements. The defense, however, has regressed. The result? Some incredibly entertaining football from a team that’s scratched and clawed to stay on the right side of .500.

California Offense

When Franklin bolted for the same job at Middle Tennessee State during the offseason, the Golden Bears took a shot on 31-year old Jake Spavital. The young coach has gained a reputation as a quarterback savant, having worked with Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State, Geno Smith at West Virginia, and Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. Cal’s “Bear Raid” offense is among the nation’s leaders in: total offense, 545.3 yards per game (No. 1 Pac-12; No. 6 nationally); passing offense, 370.3 yards per game (No. 1 Pac-12, No. 4 nationally); and scoring offense, 43.7 points per game (No. 2 Pac-12, No. 8 nationally). Cal ranks eighth in the conference and No. 62 nationally in rushing offense (175 yards per game), but has rushed for more than 300 yards in each of its past two outings. Graduate transfer Davis Webb’s performance at quarterback has further burnished Spavital’s reputation. After reneging on a commitment to attend Colorado, all Webb has done in Berkeley – aside from becoming the 2016 college football season’s first Twitter meme (http://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2016/8/27/12669976/davis-webb-c...) – is position himself to become the first quarterback selected in the 2017 NFL draft.

At 6-foot-5, the 2013 Holiday Bowl offensive MVP for Texas Tech leads the nation in passing attempts (362), ranks second nationally in touchdown passes (27), and is third nationally in completions (225) and passing yards per game (368.7). He’s thrown for at least four TDs in six of seven games. Though he’s been sacked 14 times, he’s also rushed for four TDs.

Webb’s done this with a receiving corps that lost its top six pass catchers from 2015. His top target, junior Chad Hansen, had blossomed into one of the nation’s most dangerous pass catchers before suffering an ankle injury at Oregon State on Oct. 8 that forced him to miss last weekend’s win over Oregon. Hansen leads the Pac-12 in receptions per game (9.8, No. 3 nationally), receiving yards per game (128.3, No. 8 nationally), and receiving TDs (eight, No. 12 nationally). True freshmen Melquise Stovall (30 catches, 10.3 yards per, two TDs) and Demetris Robinson (26 catches, 14.5, six TDs) have been key contributors. Sophomore Vic Wharton III (22 catches, one TD), senior Bug Rivera (17 catches, one TD), redshirt freshman Brandon Singleton (13 catches, one score), junior Jordan Veasy (12 catches, two scores), and junior Raymond Hudson (10 catches, three TDs) round out the group.

Though Cal lost junior Vic Enwere (336 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, two TDs) for the season to a broken foot after the Oregon State loss, the Golden Bear rushing attack seems to have found its footing during the past two games. After a five-game stretch where Cal averaged just 75.6 yards per game on the ground, the Bears rolled to 317 rushing yards at Oregon State and 325 vs. Oregon. Senior scatback Khalfani Muhammad is Cal’s top rusher (525 yards, 6.7 per carry, two TDs, plus six receptions). He’s posted 314 yards in the past two. Keep a close eye on junior Tre Watson. He’s gained 290 of his 451 rushing yards in the past two games – plus three of his five TDs in 2016 have come as a receiver (he has 13 total grabs).

California returned three starting offensive linemen in 2016. Seniors Steven Moore (right tackle) and Chris Borrayo (left guard) and junior left tackle Aaron Cochran are the veterans, while sophomore Addison Ooms has started all seven at center. At right guard, junior Dwayne Wallace and senior Jeremiah Stuckey have split time.

California Defense

The story has been different for the Bears’ defense. But it also hasn’t been devoid of highlights. Though coordinator Art Kaufman’s defense has made crucial late stops in home wins over Texas, Utah, and Oregon, the group has been ravaged by opponents’ rushing attacks and is ranked near the bottom of the nation in a number of categories. Cal is allowing 488.3 total yards per game (11th Pac-12, 121st nationally), 270.7 rushing yards per game (last in the conference, No. 126 nationally), and 41.3 points per game (11th Pac-12, No. 124 nationally). The Bears’ pass defense has been middle of the road – 217.6 yards per game, sixth in the conference and 54th nationally – but that’s likely because opponents double down on the run game. Another issue has been a regression in havoc plays. After ratcheting up their turnover, sack, and tackle-for-loss totals in 2015, Cal has backtracked – the Bears have just 11 sacks (10th in the league, No. 99 nationally) and have forced only 10 turnovers through seven games.

Up front, Cal has started the same quartet in all seven games – good for consistency, but odd given those opponents’ rushing numbers. At end, former USC recruit and senior DaVante Wilson (26 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks) is bookended by impressive sophomore Cameron Saffle (45 tackles, five for loss, a team-leading 2.5 sacks). The tackles are experienced juniors James Looney (37 tackles, five for loss, two sacks plus the key goal-line tackle to end the Utah game) and Tony Mekari (21 tackles, two for loss). Senior Marcus Manley (10 stops) rotates in at tackle, while junior Noah Westerfeld (11 tackles) and freshman Evan Weaver (10 tackles, one sack) see spot duty at the end positions.

The linebacker corps lost two key 2015 contributors to graduate transfers – Michael Barton to Arizona and Hardy Nickerson to Illinois. Cal has essentially scrapped the three-linebacker set by opting to play mainly out of the nickel. Junior middle backer Raymond Davison is the team’s leading tackler (52) and also had a key pick-six at Oregon State. Kunaszyk – who had the game-sealing INT vs. Oregon last Friday – spells Davison (18 tackles). Junior Devante Downs patrols the weak side and is just a notch behind Davison with 51 tackles.

Junior cornerback Darius Allensworth (12 tackles, one interception, four pass breakups) has been joined in the starting lineup by impressive JC transfer Marloshawn Franklin Jr. (31 tackles, one INT, six pass breakups). However, Allensworth is questionable for Thursday with a hamstring issue. If he’s unavailable, that likely pushes freshman Josh Drayden (20 tackles) into the spotlight. Senior Khari Vanderbilt (47 tackles, two for loss) and junior Luke Rebenzer (43 tackles, one INT) man the safety spots. The Bears’ experienced depth here is thin, after they lost senior Demariay Drew in camp and sophomore Evan Rambo after week four to knee injuries. Wizened senior nickel back Cameron Walker adds 26 tackles – three for loss – and an interception.

California Special Teams

Junior Matt Anderson has been solid, making 13-of-15 field goals (long of 47) and all 35 PATs. Senior kickoff specialist Noah Beito has just 17 touchbacks in 54 boots. Sophomore punter Dylan Klumph averages 44 yards per punt, but kicks a returnable ball – opponents have returned 18 of his 29 attempts for an average of 8.9 yards. Wharton III is averaging just 2.4 yards on five punt returns. Muhammad is a dangerous kick returner, averaging 27.2 yards on 15 tries to rank 22nd nationally.

USC Offensive Gameplan

Though Darnold’s five TD tosses received much of the hoopla – with how the freshman has performed since his insertion into the lineup, it makes sense – the most heartening thing for USC fans had to be the Trojans’ ground game, even while missing starting tailback Justin Davis. Ronald Jones (77 yards in 16 totes) is still looking for that breakout, but was more decisive than he’s been all season, while Aca’Cedric Ware (12 carries for 103 yards) and Dominic Davis (seven for 89) also impressed. Darnold chipped in 54 yards rushing and made better ball-security decisions at the ends of those runs. One continuing concern: USC’s struggle to consistently complete deep shots in the passing game. Early on, the Trojans faced a number of third-and-long situations due to failed deep passes (they still converted seven-of-13 third downs).

The loss of Steven Mitchell to a torn ACL thins the Trojan receiving ranks, but Deontay Burnett presents Darnold with an ever-improving threat as Mitchell’s replacement in the slot. The emergence of tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe as an athletic target, especially in the red zone, is another boost to Darnold’s weapons. There’s no doubt, though, that Smith-Schuster has benefitted the most from Darnold’s efforts: 29 catches, 16.1 yards per, six TDs in the past four games.

Against Cal, expect USC to seek to establish itself much the same way as it has in recent weeks: mixing the run and pass, allowing Darnold to create with both his arm and his legs. Darnold’s threat as a runner is likely to open up rushing lanes for Jones and Ware (Davis is not expected to make it back from his ankle sprain), and USC must capitalize there. Cal has struggled to get much, if any, push up front this season – the Bears have allowed three opponents to rush for more than 300 yards. The USC front five must continue that trend. If they do, Darnold’s options to attack the Bears’ back seven will be vast.

USC Defensive Gameplan

It turns out that a banged-up Arizona team was as easy a mark as it appeared before kickoff. That’s not to diminish the USC defense’s effort in steamy Tucson. The Trojans held the Wildcats to 343 total yards (at less than five yards per play), forced four turnovers, and allowed just six of 14 third-down conversions. All of that helped USC’s core unit stay fresh, as Arizona held the ball for just 24:36.

How will Clancy Pendergast attack the most potent passing offense USC has seen? When the Bears get rolling, Webb’s effectiveness creates huge holes for Muhammad and Watson in the running attack. Unlike the past three outings, it’s hard to imagine the Trojans going with a stop-the-run-first look against Cal. The Bears like to throw it too much, and they have an array of weapons that Webb’s used effectively. Hansen’s availability, though, is key. If he’s unavailable or limited, USC is more likely to try to crash down on Cal’s rushing attack in an effort to take it away.

Webb has been sacked 14 times and intercepted seven times (six of those in Cal’s three defeats). USC must continue to focus on getting pressure in the offensive backfield – something it’s impressed with in recent weeks. The Trojans want Webb to feel them and get rid of the ball more quickly than he wants. Even so, this is the biggest test USC’s secondary has faced. Cal’s been a successful third-down (and an extremely successful fourth-down) offense. How well the Trojan defensive backs hold up will likely tell the story.

The Pick

After finally logging a road win, can the Trojans continue their mastery at the Coliseum? Not only has USC won six consecutive games at home, but the Trojans also have won the past seven visits by the Bears. The bye week should have helped USC refresh, while Cal gets a taste of the six-day prep week that the Trojans had to handle between the Stanford and Utah games in September.

Additionally, Cal is winless in true road games so far in 2016 (the Bears’ only win away from Berkeley was pretty far away: Cal knocked off Hawaii in Sydney, Australia on Aug. 27). While the Bears have found enough magic in Strawberry Canyon to win what seems like an endless array of shootouts, they’ve yet to find the right mix to get it done in another team’s stadium.

Vegas insiders have USC has a two-touchdown favorite in this one – a bit surprising given the Trojans’ shaky start to 2016 and Cal’s tendency for all sorts of #Pac12AfterDark madness. However, this is not the same Trojan team that struggled in September. When USC avoids mistakes on offense – and Cal hasn’t shown a knack for forcing turnovers so far in 2016 – it’s become a juggernaut. There’s no reason to expect the Trojans to put up fewer than 40 – especially if they ring up a big special teams play or two. It’s up to the USC defense to find a way to slow down Webb and Co. We’ll see just how effective Pendergast’s crew has become. If they perform to recent standards, the Trojans’ win streak over the Bears will reach a baker’s dozen.

USC 45, California 30

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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 thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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