After snapping a two game losing streak at home to No. 3 Utah, the Trojans travel north to face NFL prospect Jared Goff and the Cal Golden Bears.
The Trojans improved to 4-3 with last week’s win, while the Bears have lost their last two games after beginning the season undefeated, dropping to 5-2.
The game will come down to a battle of the quarterbacks. USC is led by redshirt senior Cody Kessler while the Bears are led by Goff, a true junior.
Both are three year starters. Goff is 10th in the nation in passing yards per game with 323.6 and is tied for ninth in touchdown passes with 20. Kessler is 18th with 297.4 yards and tied for 11th with 18 touchdowns, respectively.
“It’s going to be very competitive obviously … but at the end of the day, I’ve known Jared for a while now,” Kessler said. “We’re good friends. We’re going to be buddies no matter what happens.”
Goff has completed 65.5 percent of his passes this season, throwing for 2,265 yards this season. Though Goff already has 20 touchdown passes this season, he has also thrown nine interceptions.
Five of those interceptions came in Cal’s first loss of the season when they fell 30-24. They went on to lose the following game to UCLA.
Despite Goff’s five interceptions, he kept his team in the game through the final drive, and the Bears almost went 6-0 before Josh Rosen and the Bruins handed them their first beatdown of the season.
Goff began the season as a Heisman hopeful and an NFL prospect, and though he is no longer in the running for the Heisman, he is still a top quarterback prospect.
“Unbelievable anticipatory thrower, in my opinion,” interim head coach Clay Helton said. “You can tell he’s been around that receiving corps for a while. They’re on the same page. He throws guys open. He has no fear. He is able to fit balls into tight windows. There’s two NFL quarterbacks on that field Saturday. It should be fun.”
Goff’s 20 touchdown passes are not only a result of his arm strength, but also of the talent at wide receiver.
Junior wide receiver Kenny Lawler has nine touchdowns on 39 receptions and 497 yards. His 6-foot-3 frame makes him a favorite in the red zone. Lawler is one of four Cal receivers with at least 400 yards this season.
Goff will face a Trojan defense that is coming off a record performance against No. 3 Utah. Freshman linebacker Cameron Smith intercepted Utah quarterback Travis Wilson three times.
Goff is typically an accurate passer with a lot of poise, but as he demonstrated against Utah, can get rattled and start making bad reads. The key for the defense will be to force Cal to run the ball and make Goff a non-factor.
After playing mainly on offense against Utah, sophomore cornerback Adoree’ Jackson will switch back to defense against Cal.
“It will be a game-to-game plan in terms of how we use him,” Helton said. “Last week was more of a run-oriented offense we faced, but this week is a passing offense, so I anticipate him playing more on defense this weekend.”
On offense, Kessler will rely on his experience to lead his team past Cal. Though Goff’s 6-foot-5 stature and his arm strength make him a better quarterback on paper, Kessler’s poise in the pocket makes up for what he lacks in height.
Kessler leads an offense that has been greatly depleted by injury, especially on the offensive line and its wide receving corps.
Sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is fifth in the nation in receptions with 128.7 yards per game and has five games with over 100 yards.
There isn’t a lot of depth behind him, however, as junior Isaac Whitney is out indefinitely with a broken collarbone and Steven Mitchell Jr. is ruled as questionable with an ankle injury. Darreus Rogers has been upgraded to probable after recovering from a hamstring injury.
Kessler will need Smith-Schuster to continue making big plays and picking up yards after the catch, and he’ll need the run game to continue to be unstoppable. Justin Davis and Tre Madden have been a dangerous one-two punch on the ground to complement Kessler and Smith-Schuster in the air.
If the Trojans click the way they did against Utah, the Goff and the Bears will have their hands full. Cal is a solid team, however, and will be eager to snap a two game losing streak at home.
Kick off is set for 12:30 p.m. at the California Memorial Stadium. It will be aired live on FOX.