Can Cal football beat USC?


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The last time the Cal football team knocked off USC, Aaron Rodgers was taking snaps under center and taking his play calls from Jeff Tedford. On the other side of Memorial Stadium, Pete Carroll was at the reins of the Trojans. His offense was led by Matt Leinart. I probably wasn’t watching that particular game in 2003 — a game that went into triple overtime before the Bears won, 34-31. I was an 11-year-old Washingtonian, I sported a mullet, and my standard-definition television was larger than my refrigerator. In other words, a decade is a long time ago.

In the 10 meetings since Cal last beat USC, the Bears are 0-10, and they have been outscored by 200 points.

On Thursday, when Cal takes on USC in Los Angeles, it will be a heavy underdog again. Bovada has the Trojans as a 14.5-point favorite. Yet for some reason, I can’t shake the feeling that the Bears have a realistic shot at pulling out a win and ending their 10-game losing streak to the Trojans.

Yeah, I know the Bears’ defense is No. 125 in total yards. I know the Trojans’ defense is No. 68 using that same metric. I am aware that Cal’s defense, on average, gives up nearly 40 points per game. I am aware that USC’s defense only gives up roughly 23.

But Cal’s offense scores nearly 42 points per game. Even when quarterback Jared Goff struggled two weeks ago against Oregon State, when he only completed just a notch above 50 percent of his passes, the Bears nearly dropped 50. Running back Daniel Lasco is averaging more than five yards per carry this season. Unlike Sonny Dykes’ inaugural season as Cal’s head coach, this season’s Bears are balanced and dangerous when they have the football. If the Bears end their losing streak to USC on Thursday, it will probably be because both Goff and Lasco played to their full potential.

Then again, USC’s offense is not too shabby. It averages about 35 points per game. And when considering the kind of defense the Trojans are facing Thursday, 35 points seems like the floor and not the ceiling.

OK, so Cal will need to counter by generating some turnovers. Unfortunately for defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, his defense has only created 13 takeaways this season, and USC is one of the best at holding on to the football — they have only turned the ball over eight times in nine games. On average, USC ends up with one more takeaway than giveaway. On average, Cal winds up with the same amount of takeaways and giveaways. So scratch that theory.

I got it. Cal will win because, believe it or not, the teams are not really too far apart in terms of playing ability. In nine games, USC has only won one more game than Cal has in that same span. Unfortunately, after nine games, the Bears’ point differential is only +18. Their best win? Oregon State, which is 4-5. After nine games, USC’s point differential is +111. Their best win? Arizona, which is currently No. 14 in the latest college football playoff rankings. Cal has not beat a team with a record above .500.

OK, I’m out of theories. And, thanks to writing this column, I’ve shaken the feeling that Cal will beat USC. In all likelihood — unless Aaron Rodgers is somehow granted another game of college eligibility and can magically play safety like Ed Reed — the Trojans will win because they’re a much better football team.

Here’s the good news: By now, after a decade, Cal fans have got to be used it. Here’s the bad news: A lot has changed this past decade. On Thursday, Cal fans will have to watch their team lose in high definition.

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.

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