Clay Helton and the banged-up Trojans head to Berkeley to face an improved Bears team
It’s that time of year again when the USC Trojans and California Golden Bears meet for the Weekender. The Trojans are coming off a dramatic, thrilling, and costly double-overtime victory against the Texas Longhorns. There is clearly something magical in the air when the Trojans and Longhorns meet, perhaps they should be required to play once a year for all of our sakes.
For their part, the Bears are coming off a victory over Ole Miss. They enter the game 3-0, like USC, but Cal’s season has been something of a curiosity so far. The Bears opened their year by winning a thrilling matchup against North Carolina. Then Cal came home and played a game against FCS opponent Weber State that was very much a struggle, but then followed that up with an impressive performance against the Rebels. There is clearly some work to be done, but one has to like the early returns of the Justin Wilcox tenure.
The Bears haven’t beaten the Trojans since 2003, something Wilcox, who served as USC”s defensive coordinator from 2014-15, will probably remind his team of all week. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter also has some experience when it comes to losing to the Trojans, going 0-2 during his time as head coach at Fresno State. Cal will be fired up, which means USC better come to Berkeley prepared to play.
The Trojans are off to a fast start and the prospect of having to play 12 straight games without a bye is already starting to have an impact. Fresh off of back-to-back physical contests against Stanford and Texas, injuries, such those to linebacker Porter Gustin, are starting to rear their head.
Cal may not be considered a contender in the Pac-12 North, but that doesn’t mean this game will be any less entertaining. DeRuyter believes in teams playing “fast, physical, and fanatical,” and that usually leads to good times on the field. USC has its sights squarely on getting into the College Football Playoff and can ill afford any loss, but especially to a team it should beat. The Bears are looking to show the rest of the conference and the country that they are a team to be reckoned with once again. The Trojans took care of business against Stanford two weeks ago and survived Texas last Saturday. Now they have to show they are mentally tough and focused enough to avoid a letdown against a team that is no match for them, at least on paper.
USC at Cal
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: USC -16
Three Things to Watch
1. Avoid a post-Texas hangover
The Trojans played a tough game against the Longhorns, needing double overtime to secure the victory. Texas also bullied USC for much of the game, as the Trojans were unable to run the ball and instead relied on quarterback Sam Darnold (above, right) to win the game on the strength of his 397 passing yards and three touchdowns.
The defense will most likely be without linebacker Porter Gustin, who made a miraculous recovery from toe surgery just prior to last week’s game and was extremely productive (three sacks) for the one half he played. However, the toe seems to be an issue again as well as the reports that he may have torn his biceps. He is considered doubtful for Saturday and is just one of the Trojans’ walking wounded. Others injured or nursing some sort of ailment include DT Rasheem Green, RB Ronald Jones II, LB Uchenna Nwosu, WR Steven Mitchell, and CB Ajene Harris. The injuries are already testing USC’s depth, so how the replacements for these key players perform in expanded roles will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game. Expect Cal to attack or try to exploit any weaknesses the coaching staff identifies because of all shuffling taking place with the Trojans’ personnel.
2. Darnold needs to limit his mistakes
Through three games of the 2017 season, Darnold has six interceptions after tossing seven all of last season. Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter thrives on mistakes and he schemes his 3-4 alignment with the goal of creating turnovers. From 2012-15, Fresno State averaged nearly 25 takeaways when DeRuyter’s fingerprints were all over the Bulldogs’ defense.
Cal can beat USC if the offense is working with a short field. Darnold has to make smarter decisions when he decides to throw so as not give the Golden Bears scoring opportunities the offense didn’t earn from moving the ball down the field. With DeRuyter calling the shots, you Cal defenders are coming for the ball. It’s up to Darnold and the rest of the Trojans to make sure they keep both hands on it.
3. Offensive line must control the line of scrimmage
The Trojans are 39th in the nation in rushing despite gaining just 71 yards on the ground against Texas. USC averaged less than two yards per carry despite running it 37 times. Prior to this, the Trojans had piled up 529 rushing yards in their first two games. The goal is to get back to that type of production on the ground if anything to help take pressure off of the Darnold.
Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr are two extremely talented running backs and the tandem is one of the best in the nation. Cal has made considerable strides against the run in the early going, holding teams to 137.3 rushing yards per game, but the Bears still give up plenty of yards through the air. They enter this game ranked near the bottom (126 out of 130 FBS teams) in passing defense at 338.3 yards per game. While this bodes well for Darnold, USC still needs to establish some semblance of a running game. If the Trojans struggle to run the ball once more, DeRuyter will be able to turn the pressure up on Darnold and allow his secondary opportunities to get that key interception.
Cal hasn’t beaten USC in more than a decade. Justin Wilcox would no doubt love to be the man that helps break this streak, especially given his ties to the Trojans. But while the Golden Bears appear to be vastly improved as a team, there’s still a significant gap between Cal and USC.
The Trojans struggled in their win over Texas, but they showed the moxie of a team ready to compete for a national title. Now they need to take the next step and beat the Bears handily. Injuries to key players could keep this game closer than expected, but if USC wants to be a champion once again, the Men of Troy need to show it in games like this. A win is a win no matter the final margin, but a convincing victory here would do wonders for the team’s psyche moving forward and potentially reestablish some goodwill with the poll voters.
Prediction: USC 24, Cal 20
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California.