Trojans pivot focus to undefeated Bears


Jo Danielle Esteban | Daily Trojan

Following their thrilling double-overtime victory over Texas, the Trojans don’t have much time to relax as they prepare to go up to Northern California and play Cal on Saturday. After opening the season with three straight home wins, the Trojans will be tested with their first road game of the 2017 season.

Coming in Clutch

Although its national ranking has slipped from No. 4 to No. 5, USC survived the upset in a nail-biting game.

Head coach Clay Helton praised some underclassmen for their clutch performances that helped the Trojans leave the Coliseum with the win. With a steep learning curve, Helton acknowledged that everyone adjusts to the college game differently.

“You can always tell when you look at them in the huddle,” Helton said. “You look at their eyes and you can tell, ‘That guy’s ready, that guy’s ready and there’s the big deer in the headlights.’”

With preparation and constant repetition, Helton received production out of younger players when it mattered the most. After being stopped on the ground for most of the game, freshman running back Stephen Carr made a crucial 21-yard catch in the final seconds of the fourth quarter off a jump throw by redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. Freshman walk-on kicker Chase McGrath, who missed his first field goal attempt, hit the tying and winning field goals later in the game.

Helton also praised redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tyler Vaughns for his performance on Saturday. After being quiet in the first two games, Vaughns had four catches for 25 yards and played crucial snaps in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Scouting the Bears

Cal, which has also started the season 3-0, is coming off a 27-16 win against Ole Miss. The Trojans will see a familiar face on the opposite sideline of California Memorial Stadium. Justin Wilcox, a former USC defensive coordinator, has exceeded expectations after being hired as Cal’s head coach this year.

“We’re very impressed with their team,” Helton said. “A lot of credit goes to Justin Wilcox and his staff. They’ve got their team playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of effort right now.”

On offense, the Bears are led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers. Bowers has completed 60 percent of his passes so far this season while throwing for five touchdowns.

“I think the kid does a really nice job in their run/pass option game, which is a big part of their system, and he also has some accuracy vertically,” Helton said.

Cal lost their starting running back, senior Tre Watson, early in the season after an unspecified right leg injury. Junior Patrick Laird has stepped up for the Bears in his place, averaging 7.5 yards per carry.

On the other side of the ball, the Bears are led by a tough front seven. It appears that Wilcox’s hire has helped shore up the Bears’ defense, which has only given up 22 points a game. Their defense is led by senior Devante Downs, who recorded 14 tackles in the Bears’ win over the Rebels. Given Cal’s much-improved defensive unit, the Trojans will be tested in their first road game. After struggling running the ball, the Trojans leaned on the right arm of Darnold to pull out the win. But on Saturday, the Trojans will try to return to their identity of balance on offense by establishing the run game.

Injuries

The Trojans came out of the double-overtime battle on Saturday with a win, but got banged up in the process. Junior linebacker Porter Gustin (shoulder), redshirt junior cornerback Ajene Harris (knee), senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (knee), junior defensive tackle Rasheem Green (ankle), redshirt senior receiver Steven Mitchell (groin) and freshman receiver Joseph Lewis IV all missed practice on Tuesday. Junior running back Ronald Jones II, redshirt sophomore linebacker John Houston Jr. and junior offensive tackle Chuma Edoga were all limited.

Despite the lengthy injury list, Helton says he’s not too concerned, citing depth all over the field that can fill in until starters get healthy. The Trojans’ injury situation is something to monitor closely, especially because their bye week doesn’t come until the end of the regular season schedule.