Predicting college football games can sometimes feel like a fool's errand. There are times when you think you have every aspect of the game analyzed and then you're completely surprised on a Saturday. Such was the case this past weekend with USC's matchup against Arizona, though perhaps it shouldn't have been with the aid of a little hindsight. The Trojans knew it wasn't going to be easy on the road and missing so many key players on defense, but the scrappy Wildcats were able to expose more than just the depth chart in their 45-37 loss.
One positive for USC's injury problems was the way the Trojans handled the absence of Jordan Addison at receiver. Tahj Washington and Kyle Ford stepped up and each delivered on the offensive side. They helped Caleb Williams put up 411 passing yards with five touchdowns while Travis Dye (113 yards and a TD on 20 carries) did the heavy lifting on the ground.
Now 7-1 overall, 5-1 in Pac-12 play, and coming in at No. 9 in the initial College Football Playoff Rankings, USC shifts its attention to California. The Golden Bears (3-5, 1-4) are fighting for their postseason chances as they need to win three of their final four to become bowl eligible. USC's dominance in this series is well documented, but Cal has won two of the past three meetings.
California at No. 9 USC
When California Has the Ball
Head coach Justin Wilcox is feeling the heat in his sixth season at the helm of the Golden Bears. He hasn't had a winning season since 2019, and that's likely not going to happen this year with his team in the midst of a four-game losing streak. And it's not just the losses that stand out. The Bears' three wins have come against teams that are a combined 11-13 and include a victory over UC Davis, an FCS program. Overall, Wilcox is 29-33 and 16-29 in Pac-12 play.
Offense has been a consistent problem throughout Wilcox's tenure, and that's the case again this season. Quarterback Jack Plummer is putting up decent numbers (246 ypg, 13 TDs, 5 INTs), but the running game hasn't been offering much support. As a team, Cal is averaging 3.8 yards per carry and has seven rushing touchdowns in eight games. As a result, the Bears are averaging 23.4 points per game, which is outstanding if you're playing football in 1975. But it just doesn't win you many games in an offensive league like the Pac-12 where more than half of the teams are putting up more than 32 points per contest week in and week out.
USC's defense is no doubt eager to redeem itself after giving up 80 points and more than 1,100 yards in its last two games, a heartbreaking one-point loss at Utah and the narrow escape at Arizona. Getting some of their injured starters back would be a huge boost, but the Trojans also need to get back to creating turnovers. After generating 14 in the first four games, the defense has a total of three over the last four. For its part, Cal is plus-six in the turnover department in its five conference games.
When USC Has the Ball
Offense was certainly not the problem for the Trojans last week. They totaled a season-best 621 yards on 8.1 yards per play, and their 45 points were the most scored in a Pac-12 game so far. USC was basically doing whatever it wanted, and even though Cal has built a reputation for solid defense under Wilcox, this unit is not playing up to that standard.
The Golden Bears have done a good job in slowing down teams on the ground, ranking 35th nationally at 124.1 rushing yards per game, but that's partially due to the fact that teams have faced little resistance when attacking through the air. Cal is 126th (out of 131 FBS teams) in passing yards allowed per game (292.3) and is allowing teams to complete 66.2 percent of their attempts. The Bears do have 10 interceptions against 15 touchdown passes allowed, but they will be facing a quarterback in Caleb Williams who has tossed 24 scoring strikes and been picked off just once.
Even with Addison's status up in the air because of the injury he suffered against Utah, the Trojans have plenty of talented wide receivers to employ. USC head coach and offensive genius Lincoln Riley has to be looking at the Bears' secondary like Lane Kiffin when he knew his play was a touchdown before it even happened. And don't forget about Dye, who's averaging close to 100 yards per game on the ground.
The Trojans would ideally like to have this game wrapped up sooner than later so they can give their starters more rest. With Colorado coming up on Friday, the short week means Riley is going to have to manage the injured guys a little more tightly than he might otherwise. It's going to be critical to have everyone available for the UCLA and Notre Dame games to wrap up the regular season. So don't expect Williams and others to play a full game — but don't forget about style points either. This is the time in the season when those become important, and USC needs as many of those as it can get with one loss on the résumé.
Cal really only has one way to win this one and that's putting forth its best defensive effort of the season while hoping the Trojans make an unprecedented amount of mistakes in a year in which they have committed a single turnover. This game should be over well before the fourth quarter begins.
Prediction: USC 46, California 20
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— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.
*Price as of publication.