Rejuvenated USC treks to Berkeley to take on Cal football

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When the USC football team takes the field at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, it will look almost nothing like the team it was just a month ago — one on the brink of complete implosion in the wake of secret player-only meetings and a head coach being fired in an LAX parking lot.

It’s a transformation Cal would love to emulate.

The Bears (1-8, 0-6 in the Pac-12) will play host to the Trojans (6-3, 3-2) on Saturday for their final home game of the 2013 season. They’ll meet a team that has posted a 3-1 record since firing head coach Lane Kiffin in late September.

“They’re just starting to play with a lot more confidence than they were early in the season,” said linebacker Dan Camporeale. “Kind of like we have in recent weeks as things have started to get better.”

Under Ed Orgeron, USC has rediscovered its defensive identity, having allowed just one offensive touchdown over the past two weeks.

And while the Cal offense began to show signs of life in putting up 28 points against Arizona — the squad’s highest total against a Pac-12 opponent this season — quarterback Jared Goff and company are faced with the task of handling a defensive line that ranks fourth in the country in sacks, having racked up 28 on the year, although 4.5 of those came from injured linebacker Morgan Breslin, who is out indefinitely with a hip injury.

“Jared’s been amazing all year with handling pressure,” said wide receiver Jackson Bouza. “He’s such a mature kid, and this week is no different than any other week. He’s going to handle it great.”

But how the offense fares against what will likely be the strongest pass rush it will face this year could be the least of the Bears’ worries. Instead, the prospects of Cal’s battered secondary trying to contain a newly potent USC offense seem less feasible.

In last week’s 31-14 win over Oregon State, Trojan quarterback Cody Kessler completed 17 of his 21 passes, hooking up with recently healthy wide receiver Marqise Lee five times for 105 yards and a touchdown.

“They’re playing especially well here in the last couple weeks,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “I think they’ve kind of found their identity a little bit. They seem like they’re very motivated.”

The Trojans look poised to continue posting impressive offensive numbers this weekend, as they face a defense that has yet to hold an opposing team to fewer than 30 points this year, surrendering an average of 42 per game. As such, Orgeron is in prime position to improve his record to 4-1, keeping his squad in the thick of the Pac-12 South title race.

“He’s done a nice job,” Dykes said. “It’s always difficult going through a coaching change, but sometimes it has a tendency to revitalize a team. They seem to be playing differently now.”

Meanwhile, the Bears hope to continue on their path to find anything to be excited about from the 2013 season. While the squad found itself in the rare position of being in a competitive game late in the fourth quarter last week, it couldn’t quite complete the comeback. The team is desperate for its first win over an FBS team in more than a year. With impending trips to Boulder and Stanford comprising the final games of the schedule, Saturday’s home tilt will provide one of the last chances at achieving any sort of bright spot in the season.

“Obviously, we’ve had a disappointing season, but our kids go out there, and they play hard every Saturday,” Dykes said.

But the Bears will need to do more than just play hard to come out ahead Saturday — a fact that has become apparent in six blowout losses this season. It will take something else to prevent No. 7.

Connor Byrne covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ctbyrne91.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Bears were 1-5 in the Pac-12. In fact, they are 0-6 in the Pac-12.