Cal plays USC tonight at the Coliseum – it’s been 12 years since the Bears have bested the Trojans and this week’s contest may be made even more difficult given the short rest for Cal following their OT win against Oregon and USC’s nearly two weeks of preparation for the Bear’s visit. While a win at the coliseum would certainly be historic - it’s also firmly within the Bears reach, as this team has already made some historic strides this year. Wins over multiple ranked teams and protecting Memorial to stay undefeated at home have both been impressive. The Bears also ended a losing streak against a Pac 12 power with last week’s double OT win against the floundering Ducks. The precedent has definitely been set for breaking these negative streaks Cal fans have been forced to bear in recent years. As important as last week’s win was, if the Bears can find a way to put together a win tonight it will be even more significant.
This week we’ll take a quick look at USC and go through what the Bears need to do to pull off an upset win on the road.
Although the season started terribly for the Trojans, they’ve made a huge turnaround thanks largely to replacing Max Browne with RS Freshman Sam Darnold at QB. After starting 1-3, the Trojans have railed off 3 straight victories and are right back in the race for the Pac 12 south title. The Trojans are hitting their stride down the stretch and come off the bye week fairly healthy – human highlight reel Juju Smith Schuster is expected back and their only notable holdout is running back Justin Davis. This makes for a tough matchup for the Bears who have only had six days to prepare and are still a bit banged up.
Against USC’s Offense – Contain the QB, create pressure.
Offensively, USC presents some unique challenges. First, Sam Darnold’s mobility makes him dangerous – the Bears are going to have to worry about him extending plays with his feet. With a bunch of athletes at WR and Smith Schuster expected to return, keeping the ball in Darnold’s hands and keeping him upright will undoubtedly be top priority for the Trojans. While the Trojans do like to grind it out on the ground they have lost some depth – with Justin Davis out Ronald Jones Jr. will shoulder most of the RB workload, but he seems to be going through a bit of a sophomore slump. He’s only got 285 yards on the season, but he’s shown explosive potential in the past.
The Bears need to do a couple of things to slow the Trojan offense. First, they have to make sure Ronald Jones doesn’t have a break out game tonight. If they keep him contained and slow the ground attack they can focus on creating pressure on Darnold to slow down the passing attack. If the Bears can make Darnold uncomfortable and not allow him to escape the pocket they can definitely get a few stops. As we’ve seen this season, a few stops is all the Bears really need to compete.
Against USC’s Defense – Establish the run, win outside.
If the Bears defense can get a few stops, the offense will have to win the fight against a talented SC defense to win. The USC defense has bounced back well after some early hiccups and the young secondary and defensive line seem to be settling in. The D-line still looks like the most vulnerable unit on the team, although Sophomore DE Gustin Porter has been a disruptive force off the edge. The most challenging unit for the Bears in tonight’s matchup may be USC’s young secondary – Adoree Jackson and Iman Marshall are hard-nosed corners who have given receivers fits. They are backed up by hard hitting ballhawks at the safety positions – Chris Hawkins, John Plattenburg and Marvell Tell can all stop the run and play the pass.
With Chad Hansen uncertain (and probably still not fully healthy if he does play) the young receivers are going to have to help Davis Webb out big time. The Trojans are going to bring pressure, and although their D- line is not experienced they still have some big athletes and competent edge rushers. Webb is likely going to have to make some quick throws in tight windows to beat the rush and the young receivers are going to have to make plays. If the Cal offensive line can win upfront, hopefully Tre Watson and Khalfani Muhammad can get the ground game going to keep the defense honest. Winning these tough matchups will be a big test for the Bears but are almost certainly necessary to secure a victory tonight.
A win tonight would be huge for the program. The fan base is ready to see success against its traditional rivals and this is definitely a down year for the Trojans. The Bears are on short rest and on the road, but the argument can still be made that this is the best chance that Cal has seen in years to beat USC. It will take each man winning his matchup with the type of resiliency the team showed against Oregon Last week - I look forward to seeing if they can get it done tonight.