After appearing down and out following their loss to Notre Dame, the USC Trojans rebounded in spectacular fashion to take down the No. 3-ranked Utah Utes at the Coliseum. Through an impressive display of offensive ball distribution and defensive pressure, the Trojans hurried, sacked, out-hustled, and humiliated (literally in the case of Dominique Hatfield) the Utes en route to a 42-24 victory and a renewed sense of self confidence ahead of a tough road game at Cal.
USC interim head coach Clay Helton knew that his performance on Saturday would go a long way in helping or hurting his case to become the Trojans' permanent skipper and he prepared accordingly. More than just targeting things that had ailed USC for most of the season prior to Saturday — generating pressure, creating turnovers, running the ball in key situations, and sticking with offensive play-calling that is working when it is working — Helton proved that previous head coaches might have been complicating matters too much.
There have been several games this season — Arkansas State, Idaho and Notre Dame — where the Trojans have seemingly used the entire roster at some point in the game. Those game plans seemed to be focused on overloading opponents with potential threats on offense, but the degree to which it worked is subject to interpretation. Though hit hard by injuries and incurring several of them in-game, Helton kept things extremely simple and efficient for USC, with the bulk of the offense generated by five guys.
Quarterback Cody Kessler had an extremely efficient night. Though sacked four different times, Kessler was 21-of-28 for 264 yards and a touchdown. Helton allowed his playmakers to do what they do best and dialed up a game plan that called for Kessler to give them the ball in space. JuJu Smith-Schuster ran over, through, and around the Utes for the vast majority of the night. He ended the evening with 143 yards on just eight catches, an average of about 17.9 yards per reception.
Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis handled the bulk of the carries out of the backfield and even though neither ran for more than 81 yards, it never felt like USC struggled to pick up yardage in the run game. In fact, it felt like Utah couldn't do anything to stop the Trojans when they ran the ball. The more time he gets on the field, the more Jones II looks like he will factor into USC's plans quite heavily moving forward.
Cal might be coming off two losses, but both of them were on the road and they get this one at Memorial Stadium. Had the Bears won either of their previous two matchups, it's likely this game would have been a night game and much more tricky for the Trojans as a result. The fact that it's a noon game on Halloween may be the biggest blessing for a Trojan team still trying to figure out its new identity.
College Football Podcast: Week 9 Preview Matt Stinchcomb
USC at Cal
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: USC -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. USC's secondary against Jared Goff
Goff is regarded by many in the college football media circuit as one of the best available prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft, should he choose to come out. Efficient, strong-armed, and extremely intelligent, Goff possesses all of the tools necessary to destroy a defensive coordinator's game plan. When you factor in Goff's ability to anticipate his throws and put them in seemingly impossible spots, it's easy to see why NFL scouts feel like he can be a difference-maker at the next level.
Goff is currently No. 10 in the nation in passing. To give you a frame of reference on this, Seth Russell, Baylor's recently-injured star QB, sat five spots behind Goff. To be fair, Russell is No. 7 in total offense and Goff checks in at No. 13. Goff's biggest asset to Cal aside from his golden arm is his ability to generate points. Goff is currently No. 10 in the nation in points responsible for per game and No. 14 in the nation in overall points responsible for, a veritable force on offense.
Goff has shown his human side, however. When pressured, Goff turns the ball over quite a bit and that will lose you a job with alarming speed in the NFL. If USC's defense can replicate its performance against Utah, the Trojans have an opportunity to force Goff into mistake after mistake. Given what the Trojans were able to do on defense last week, the momentum is there to be seized and carried over. All eyes will be on coordinator Justin Wilcox as his defense could be the difference between a win and a loss.
2. Continue to Ride the Wave of Success
Too many times this season the Trojans have curiously moved away from effective play-calling late in games. Whether it was abandoning the run against Stanford and Notre Dame or checking the ball down when they needed big chunks of yards, USC has overreacted or under-reacted to the score. Against Utah, the Trojans found Utah's weak spots and dug in their heels. Coming back to that word simple again, Helton didn't over-think the situation and create a barrier where there was none. The Trojans stayed within themselves and the results were impressive.
USC has always been at its best when the team keeps it simple. Even during the Trojans' dominant run in the mid-2000's, USC's strength was in its ability to line up and hit you in the mouth even when you knew it was coming. The efficiency with which the Trojans moved the ball against the Utes was more impressive than it reads on paper. Creative play designs masked simple concepts and gave the Trojans' skill position players the ability to catch the ball and run. The Trojans are awfully difficult to stop when they are at their best and they are at their best when they keep it simple and keep it coming.
3. USC's Ability to Generate a Pass Rush
USC's front seven needed last Saturday in a big way. The type of game this group played against Utah is one that can provide enough confidence to fuel a tremendous closing stretch. Matching and surpassing the physicality of a team like Utah is no small feat and even more impressive when you consider the Trojans have been hampered by injuries along both lines. The three sacks the Trojans registered on paper isn't indicative of the pressure put on Utah QB Travis Wilson starting in the second quarter. After being allowed to dictate the pace during the first quarter, USC middle linebacker Cam Smith stepped up, grabbed three interceptions, and completely denied Utah the middle of the field the Utes had planned to attack.
The Golden Bears have an offense and a quarterback built to destroy any team determined to sit back and defend. Parking the bus will yield awful results in this game and the Trojans will need to generate some form of pass rush if they're going to win on the road. Goff is too good and his receiving corps is far too talented to be given time to run around against those younger Trojan defensive backs. The Trojans need to have a better game plan for Kenny Lawler than they did against the Irish's Will Fuller.
Bryce Treggs and Stephen Anderson are just as capable of ruining USC's night as Lawler, which is why Helton has said several times throughout the week that Adoree' Jackson would be getting more reps on defense throughout the week's practices. USC's ability to keep everything in front of them and to prevent Goff from throwing his guys open will go a long way in determining the outcome of this one. That starts and ends with a defense's ability to generate pressure.
Expect the Trojans to incorporate their speedier defenders this week as they are one of the few teams in the nation that can replace slower players on their team without giving up anything by way of power or technique. The Bears will try to work the numbers to get the personnel advantages they want, but the versatility found in USC's recruiting was meant for moments and games like these. The Trojans will be expected to put pressure on Goff and play defense, this isn't an either/or proposition like it would be for many other teams.
The Trojans have two weeks' worth of quality film from which to build a game plan for Cal. Utah and UCLA are different teams, but both of them gave USC a road map to victory over the Bears. The Trojans are smart enough to understand that Goff is going to grab his yards. Limiting the damage Cal is able to do with those yards is how the Trojans have beaten the Bears the last two years. Cal put up much more of a fight last year and this year's version is much better. USC should expect a tougher test.
Where the Trojans can ultimately separate themselves from the Golden Bears is in their ability to play a physical game and a finesse game. Cal's secondary was exposed by a true freshman last week and Kessler has the weapons and experience to produce a similar outing. The Trojans also have figured out a rushing attack that works well and their ability to mix that in with the pass is what will keep this Golden Bears defense on their heels for most of the game.
Halloween or not, the Trojans should find a way to come away the victor.
Prediction: USC 37, Cal 31
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for Reign Of Troy, USC’s FanSided affiliate. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.