With the weather cooling down on campus ahead of homecoming weekend, the Trojan football team took to the field on Wednesday to prepare for Saturday’s game against Cal.
The Bears sit at second-to-last in the Pac-12 North, but the team has fared well against highly ranked opponents in the last two weeks, squeaking out a 12-10 win over Washington and losing by six to Washington State.
Head coach Clay Helton said that the team has been playing “high-level football,” making the homecoming game as important of a matchup as any other for the team, which must win out to have a shot at the Pac-12 championship game.
After a decent outing against Oregon State, freshman quarterback JT Daniels will need to be prepared to return to form against Cal.
The Bears bring a defensive scheme that Helton described as “a nightmare” for quarterbacks, and the freshman is spending all week preparing to adapt to it.
Fresh off his rest week after suffering a concussion, Daniels threw for 177 yards and one touchdown last week. He didn’t throw a single interception, but his accuracy was barely above 50 percent, a weakness that could be exploited by the disruptive Cal defense.
Another major concern in the passing game is the continued absence of wide receiver Michael Pittman. The junior leads the team in receiving yards, but has been questionable in practice throughout the week.
Helton said that he is still uncertain for Saturday. As a result, freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown will start, joining the starting receiver corps of redshirt sophomores Tyler Vaughns and Velus Jones Jr.
The key for the Trojans’ attack, Helton said, will therefore have to rest on a balance between Daniels and the running attack, led by senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware. Helton compared Ware to Justin Davis, a former USC running back now playing with the Rams who was known for his grit and work ethic.
Helton added that Ware’s strength comes from his commitment to the everyday grind and on a team in desperate need of a culture shock, that level of intensity in weekly practices has been vital for providing energy on Saturdays on the field.
Last week against Oregon State, he ran for 205 yards and three touchdowns. According to Helton that performance might be repeated against the Cal.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Matt Fink continues to nurse three broken ribs, and redshirt sophomore backup quarterback Holden Thomas is also injured, leaving the team with only one backup at the position.
Sophomore running back Stephen Carr is still recovering from a high ankle sprain and most likely will not see the field on Saturday, along with Pittman. The team will also lose wide receiver Randal Grimes for the year; the sophomore will redshirt to focus on academics after sitting out since the Arizona State game.
Both lines are continuing to struggle with health issues, with redshirt junior Clayton Bradley out on the offensive side and junior Caleb Tremblay continuing to sit out on the defensive side. Senior cornerback Iman Marshall is also doubtful with several leg injuries following the Oregon State game, but he was present at practice, jogging around the field in sweats and his practice jersey.
However, Wednesday saw the return of linebackers junior Connor Murphy and redshirt junior John Houston, and freshman cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart. Houston and Taylor-Stuart were both heavily taped up after sitting out for weeks with injuries, but their return is promising for the USC defense as it looks to continue to reload in the coming weeks.