Jared Goff’s season could almost be split in two, just based on the statistics sheet.
In the first five games this season, the sophomore quarterback threw for 375 yards per game, racking up 22 touchdowns in that span. Cal went 4-1.
Then, Washington visited Memorial Stadium. Led by pass rushers such as Hau’oli Kikaha, the Huskies terrorized the Bears’ offensive line. Cal fumbled the football five times and lost three of them, and Goff had arguably his worst game of the season. Under pressure for most of the day, Goff failed to complete a touchdown pass. The Bears only scored seven points in a rout at home.
Since then, Goff hasn’t quite looked the same. In his last four games, he’s averaging just 311 yards per game and has only thrown for five touchdowns. His numbers, while not bad, no longer jump off the page, and Cal has gone just 1-3 in that span.
The decline is threefold. The first and most obvious reason is that the team – and the defenses – that Cal has faced in its last four games have been much better, on average, than the ones it faced in its first five. Injuries, also, have begun to catch up with the Bears, and the receiving corps has been the hardest hit. Trevor Davis, Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs have all missed some time, making Goff’s job that much harder. And, finally, there has just been some expected regression to the mean – it would be hard for Goff to maintain his early level of production, no matter whom he was throwing against or to.
But there’s still the thought of that Washington pass rush and how it shut down Cal’s offense. When the Bears play USC (6-3, 5-2) at 6 p.m. Thursday, they will face another talented pass rusher in Leonard Williams. Williams only has 4.5 sacks so far this season, but he’s had enough of an impact to still be named one of nine semifinalists for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which is awarded to the nation’s top defensive player. Williams is part of a defensive unit that ranks second in the Pac-12 in points allowed and fourth in yards allowed.
“You got to watch out for him,” said offensive lineman Chris Borrayo about Williams.
Goff agreed that USC’s defense presents a challenge.
“They’re really long and athletic, I think, is the best way to describe their defense,” Goff said.
On the other side of the ball, the Trojans are no slouch. They prefer to run it, having put the ball on the ground 55 percent of the time this season. Running back Javorius Allen leads the Trojans’ rushing attack and averages 5.73 yards per attempt.
“I think they’ve been productive running the football this year because they have a very good offensive line,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes.
But the Trojans are truly lethal when they throw the ball. Quarterback Cody Kessler has quietly put together one of the better seasons among passers in the Pac-12. He’s second in efficiency rating behind only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, and he’s had 25 touchdowns against just two interceptions. His 8.6 yards per attempt and 69.7 completion percentage both rank second in the conference.
“(USC is) an explosive team, a team runs the ball well and can also get the ball down the field in their passing game,” Dykes said.
This all does not bode well for a Cal defense whose struggles at stopping the pass have already been well documented. Cal’s defense does slightly better against the run, meaning that USC’s propensity for keeping the ball on the ground may actually help the Bears. But if Kessler gets into a groove and Williams gets to Goff, this game could get out of hand quickly.
The Bears have their work cut out for them, as the Trojans have beaten Cal 10 straight times in a streak that began in 2004. For Cal to break that streak, almost everything has to go right for them in Los Angeles on Thursday night.