It’s that time of year again when the USC Trojans and California Golden Bears meet for the Weekender. Though both teams sit at 4-3, they are very much still alive in their respective Pac-12 divisions. The Trojans might have the upper hand when it comes to meat left on the bone, but it won’t be by much. Both teams still have to play Washington. Both teams still have to play UCLA, and both teams still have their biggest rivals ahead of them.
Coming into the season, it’s probably not unfair to say that both programs expected more than what they’ve produced. Cal went through a smorgasbord of changes to improve its defensive structure and productivity, USC went through its annual head coaching change and subsequent coordinator shifts. The results have been varied and mixed, but the fact that both teams are positioned for success if they win out might speak volumes about the talent and ability these coaches have at their disposal.
The Golden Bears haven’t beaten the Trojans since 2003 and haven’t won in Los Angeles at the Coliseum since 2000. Those two pieces of information aside, this is a game that USC must have if the Men of Troy have any designs on playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Their remaining slate would be terrifying any other year, but Oregon and UCLA aren’t the teams people expected. That said, Washington is every bit the team people expected and the Huskies are downright terrifying. USC has not enjoyed a lot of success in Seattle in the first place, but this Washington team has looked unbeatable at times and is No. 4 in the nation.
Whatever happens, it’s sure to have a significant impact on the Pac-12 race. As a whole, the conference hasn’t had its best season. The teams have done a fantastic job of ripping each other apart, but the Huskies have emerged from the carnage as the conference’s lone, legitimate College Football Playoff contender. Utah may finally win the South, but the Utes get Washington this weekend in another critical cross-divisional matchup. All in all, this is either going to be a historic weekend for the Pac-12 or it’s going to be another instance of the conference tearing itself apart from the inside while the rest of the nation improves its playoff positioning.
California at USC
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 27 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: USC -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Avoid Thursday Slip-Up
There isn’t much to go on about here. USC has had problems with midweek and Thursday games for some time now. While the results have improved, the games still leave a strong tension in the air and a feeling that the Trojans have escaped doom. Midweek games aren’t exactly a joy for any program, but USC can look back on some Thursdays and point to losses that have eliminated the Trojans from the national championship race.
They won’t have to worry about that this tonight, as their three losses have already taken care of that. But even with the spectre of seasons past hanging over their head, USC will be well aware that this group of Cal players know how to finish off worthy opponents. The Bears may have some questionable losses, but Cal came to play against Texas, Utah and Oregon. The Trojans are just the kind of name needed to get the blood pumping once again, as the Bears look to build off of last week’s win over the Ducks. Consider that Cal’s two conference losses thus far have come in shootouts against Arizona State and Oregon State, two teams with losing records in Pac-12 games.
2. Sam Darnold Must Continue to Flourish
Ever since he hijacked the starting quarterback job from Max Browne, Darnold has done little to indicate that Browne will ever have the chance to add his name to the list of USC legends at the position. In fact, Darnold’s performance is likely to send Browne packing when the season ends. There can only be one starting quarterback and Browne may be looking at his final weeks as a Trojan if Darnold’s play continues.
USC lists Darnold as the program’s most productive running quarterbacks in the last 25 years. Though Darnold has just 137 rushing yards thus far, that’s still the most by a USC quarterback since 1991, when Reggie Perry ran for 254 yards. It’s not so much that Darnold has the ability to tear apart a defense with his legs -- he does -- it’s that USC isn’t forcing a redshirt freshman to beat teams with his legs and arm. The way USC has eased him into the position has set him up for the success he’s had.
3. Now That USC Has Figured Out Its Identity, These Trojans Must Own It
Throughout the years, USC has been a team that gained victories via a slow hammering to the opposing defensive lines via the run game and then allowing the program’s All-American recruits to sling the ball all over the field to their All-American wideouts. USC has gone back to this and opened things up for Darnold, which has allowed him to flourish (see above). Now the Trojans must ride it out.
Darnold has the luxury of not being the quarterback on the field during USC’s worst efforts this season. Fortunately for the redshirt freshman, he’s been able to slide right in and give USC several different looks in its offensive packages. Defenses must now honor what he can do with his legs, picking up first downs and stretching the field. He doesn’t need to run like Robert Griffin III to be effective.
Darnold has been a blessing for head coach Clay Helton and in some ways may be the reason he still has a job. Without Darnold, USC wouldn’t have too many different options upon which the offense could turn to. The added dimensions he gives to the Trojans’ power-running game have been enough to open things up and allow USC to experiment with different looks. As the Trojans enter the meat of their schedule, they must remember that things can occasionally go wrong, but this new plan has been working. Now stick with it and see what kind of fruit the Darnold tree brings forth.
California hasn’t won this game since I was a freshman in college. Eventually these types of streaks come to an end, but this doesn’t feel like that year. Perhaps it did earlier in the season, but then USC found an identity and has been riding that look to victory after victory. Now the Trojans just need to carry out that same task on a Thursday in front of their home crowd.
For all their offseason changes, Cal is still pretty much the same team it was in 2015. The Bears give up a lot of points, but they also score a lot of points. No, seriously, the only game they’ve played in which the opposing team didn’t score at least 30 points was against Utah (Utes won 28-23). In every other game Cal has scored at least 40 points (50 or more three times) and has given up 31 or more. To that end, USC will be prepared for that version of the Golden Bears.
Prediction: USC 48, Cal 41
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California.