With the end of the season nearing and barely a shot at a Pac-12 title or a major bowl, head coach Clay Helton and the Trojans will look to find an identity to hold onto heading towards the offseason.
The transfer of play-calling duties to Helton early last week signaled a major shift in the team’s direction. The team’s first effort under the full offensive direction of Helton resulted in a win last weekend against last place Oregon State, although the victory may have come with more trouble than initially expected.
They’ll face a tougher opponent in Cal with the same 5-4 record, coming off of a tough 19-13 loss to No. 8 ranked Washington State. This week’s matchup will establish whether or not this Trojan team has a direction moving forward.
USC offense vs. Cal defense
The defense, led by Bears head coach and former USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, is a stingy if inconsistent unit. At its best, the Cal defense is dominant, and recently that’s the way it has looked, holding Washington and Washington State to 10 and 19 points, respectively, in back-to-back weeks.
They’ve been especially impressive in pass coverage, with a secondary featuring redshirt sophomore cornerback Camryn Bynum and redshirt junior safety Ashtyn Davis that has held Washington quarterback Jake Browning and Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew to only two combined touchdowns while snagging three interceptions.
Junior linebacker Evan Weaver is also a force on the defensive side of the ball for the Bears, finding a way to involve himself on almost every snap — evidenced by his 94 tackles, two interceptions and six passes defended on the year.
“They’re doing a nice job of mixing up coverages and they hide their coverages extremely well,” Helton said.
This unit will provide Clay Helton with his first real offensive play-calling test as the Trojans come off their win against Oregon State. The game plan last week unleashed the run, spearheaded by senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware, who rushed for a career-high 205 yards and three touchdowns.
With the strength of the Bears’ pass defense and junior receiver Michael Pittman out this week with a shoulder injury, don’t be surprised to see the Trojans try to replicate that success on the ground once again.
Between Ware and redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai (sophomore Stephen Carr is out with an ankle injury), the Trojans will likely try to pound the ball down the throat of the Cal defense.
However, don’t expect them to shy away from taking big shots downfield in the passing game — that has been the bread and butter of USC’s offense this season. The emergence of freshman receiver Devon Williams last week after Pittman’s injury was huge. Between Williams’ play, redshirt sophomore receiver Tyler Vaughns and the re-emergence of a healthy freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, freshman quarterback JT Daniels will have plenty of options to stretch the field with.
“With [Pittman] out, [Williams] is going to garner reps again,” Helton said. “He is a huge target and an explosive weapon.”
Cal offense vs. USC defense
The Cal offense is much less imposing than the group they have on the other side of the ball. Ranked at No. 83, it is one of the least explosive in the country, one spot above that of USC.
Redshirt senior running back Patrick Laird is Cal’s biggest playmaker, with 950 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns on the season, but on 4.4 yards per carry. The run defense shut down the Pac-12’s leading rusher last week in Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson. The defense shouldn’t have much trouble containing the ground game if it stays disciplined in its lane assignments this week.
The fact that Cal’s passing offense won’t provide much to worry about will help USC. The Bears have thrown 13 interceptions to 12 touchdowns on the year, averaging only 205 passing yards per game. At quarterback, they’ve rotated redshirt freshman Chase Garbers and redshirt sophomore Brandon McIlwain, and it remains unclear who will receive a majority of the playing time Saturday. Between the two, Garbers may seem to be the more dangerous option. He’s been solid at avoiding turnovers and has shown a strong ability to run the ball when needed.
The Trojans are lucky to be playing an opponent so unspectacular through the air this week, as they could be missing their only consistent cornerback in senior Iman Marshall on Saturday. The secondary has struggled all year, with Marshall as one of its only bright spots. He has played the best season of his career, contributing five tackles against Oregon State. Marshall practiced on Thursday and will be a gametime decision. The matchup against the Cal offense will allow for the secondary to catch its breath and perhaps leave room for young playmakers to take a step forward.
“[Marshall] is having an All-American season, that’s my opinion,” Helton said. “I think when you look at him going up against some of the best wideouts in the country, he’s not only held his own but held them way below what they usually do. He’s been a major rock of that defense.”
Don’t be surprised to see freshman corner Olaijah Griffin get significant playing time with Marshall’s injury and recovery from a shoulder issue.
“This time of the year the games are critical,” Helton said. “This is one that can help us stay at the top of Pac-12 South and keep us on contention. I think everyone understands how valuable this game is.”
Prediction: 28-10, USC
Expect this to be the first game in a long time that the Trojans look good from start to finish. Defensively, they should have no problems limiting the mediocre Bears offense, despite their weaknesses.
Washington State managed to hold them to 10 points last week. The sledding won’t be as easy on the other side of the ball, as the Cal defense is no joke. But the time of possession battle will greatly favor USC and wear down the Bears as the game goes on. If the Trojans’ newfound run game can put on a performance anything similar to last week, it’ll put enough points on the board to put this game/match away handily.
Delanie Pence contributed to this report.