The Weekender is upon us. TheUSC Trojans and California Golden Bears will renew acquaintances in a matchup that will have significant implications in the Pac-12 South, especially if Cal is able to break its 14-game losing streak to USC. To put it another way: the Bears' last win in the series came when Aaron Rodgers was playing for them.
While the Trojans have the momentum coming into the game, Cal boasts a defense that is ranked in the top 20 nationally. USC is less than a touchdown favorite, so that gives you an indication of what Vegas thinks about the job Bears head coach Justin Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter have done.
Then again, the spread also is an indicator of USC's struggling offense, and to use that as the descriptor may be a slight understatement. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin lost his play-calling duties prior to the Oregon State game and considering the Trojans churned out a season-high 509 yards in the 38-21 victory in Corvallis, he probably isn't getting that job back anytime soon.
Although USC certainly looked like a different offense last week, this week's challenge is to do the same against a Bears defense that is giving up 21.9 points per game and is fourth in the Pac-12 against the run. On the other hand, Cal's offense is less of a sure thing, starting with the quarterback position, but the Bears do have running back Patrick Laird to lean on.
The bottom line is this: both teams still need one more win to become bowl eligible and there will be just two more chances after Saturday. Further, the Trojans are currently part of a three-way tie for first place in the Pac-12 South (with Arizona State right behind at 3-3 and arguably the team with the clearest path) and have just one more conference game (at UCLA) left. So a victory not only increases USC's chances of winning the division but it also could impact the future of head coach Clay Helton, who has come under fire recently and was already forced to make changes on his coaching staff.
Whether the changes were self-imposed or at the urging of athletic director Lynn Swann is only known to the two of them, but the leash appears to be getting shorter and Martin didn’t seem to care much for the demotion, going so far as to change his Twitter bio and removing USC imagery from it. Things may not be hunky-dory in Trojan land and losing to Cal for the first time in 15 years could put this season on the brink of disaster, in more ways than one.
Cal at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Cal finally get over the hump?
The Golden Bears are arguably a couple of plays away from being a 7-2 football team and much more of a factor in the Pac-12 North race. They ran out of time against Washington State, falling 19-13, and also lost to Arizona by seven points. These are the type of losses that turn into wins as the season progresses. This same exact point was made about Arizona State prior to their game with USC and the Sun Devils found a way to get it done and are now on a winning streak and in control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 South. It is possible for Cal to kick-start a winning streak with the Trojans being the first domino to fall.
Beating USC gives teams a certain je ne sais quoi, and the right coach can motivate more wins out of a team after beating the Trojans. It's been a solid second season with the Bears under Justin Wilcox. Beating the Trojans to not only end a 14-game losing streak but also to secure a bowl berth would take things to another level.
2. Will either quarterback finally get going?
JT Daniels and Chase Garbers are definitely the future of their respective programs as well as the present, but they’re not putting up the kind of numbers we have come to see from blue-chip quarterbacks. For his part, Daniels is only completing 56.6 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio bordering on 1:1. And it’s not like he’s putting up yardage in these games either. In one game of relief, backup Jack Sears posted 235 yards of offense while completing 71.4 percent of his passes. Sears’ yards per attempt (8.39) also was higher than Daniels’ season average (7.4), so USC can and has gotten more out of its offense.
Garbers probably isn’t under the same kind of pressure as Daniels. Nobody expects Cal to compete for national titles year in and year out, but people are expecting this Cal offense to match the efforts by the defense at some point in 2018. Garbers would be wise to avoid Trojan CB Iman Marshall if he wants to improve his outings. Marshall has only allowed 13 receptions for 120 yards all year long. That includes only one reception for 28 yards to Arizona State's N’Keal Henry. If Garbers can minimize the mistakes (just one INT over his last three games) and take advantage of the opportunities that arise (has two games with three TD passes), Cal has a bona fide chance to win on Saturday night.
3. Battle of the backs
In order to secure victory on Saturday, one of these teams is going to have to assert themselves in the run game, not just because running the football helps stretch the field but also because it’s part of the fabric of their identity. Cal’s Patrick Laird has been a workhorse all season, but he only has one game where he rushed for more than 100 yards and that was his 193-yard performance against Oregon State. Last week, against Washington State, Laird managed just 40 yards with his longest run of the night going for seven (!!) yards. Cal is going to need more out of him on the ground if the Bears hope to win. After giving up nearly 500 yards on the ground in losses to Utah and Arizona State, USC clamped down on Oregon State, holding the Beavers to 31 yards on 32 carries.
For the Trojans, Aca’Cedric Ware only has three games on the season with more than 100 rushing yards. In fact, he seems to get 100-plus yards every fourth game. He did it the first game of the season, the fifth game of the season and the ninth game of the season. He wasn’t used heavily against Texas or Washington State, and those two games have significantly brought down his averages. Health has played a role in his slower senior year, but Ware is capable of getting going at any time and the Trojans sure could use his veteran leadership as they try to get tough yards against a stout Bears defense.
Since giving up 207 rushing yards to UCLA a month ago, the Cal defense has surrendered a total of 265 in its last three games – wins over Oregon State and Washington, last week's loss to Washington State. Opponents are averaging 3.7 yards per carry for the season against the Bears, who have surrendered a total of 10 rushing touchdowns in nine games.
Cal has a good enough defense to keep things close on the scoreboard with USC. Because of the Trojans' offensive issues, this is shaping up to be a golden (pun intended) opportunity for the Bears to put an end to 14 years of futility against USC.
The pressure is on USC, both to continue the streak and to seal up bowl eligibility or the pressure will ratchet up another level (or more) over the final two games (at UCLA, vs. Notre Dame). The Trojans are still in the Pac-12 South race, but they need this win if they wish to stay in the running with Arizona, Arizona State and Utah. More importantly, the boosters and fan base are growing restless, and good things rarely happen when the team is struggling and the fans are screaming for change in Heritage Hall.
Both teams are currently working with similar tools. Both teams have a young freshman quarterback with a good starting record and who also looks to be the future of the program. Both teams feature defenses with playmakers and talent throughout, capable of making the big play and keeping their offenses in the game. Both teams also feature very talented running backs who are capable of making plays as a runner or receiver, can move the chains but also hit the big play if given the chance.
Considering the similarities between the two teams Cal has to bring an end to the losing streak at some point. This feels like the year for the Golden Bears to break through against the Trojans.
Prediction: Cal 26, USC 20
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.