Cal, No. 5 USC battle to remain undefeated

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The nonconference schedule is over, and Cal football is starting Pac-12 play in a big way at home Saturday. No. 5 USC is coming to Memorial Stadium led by Heisman candidate quarterback Sam Darnold, and it’s bringing a lot of baggage for the Bears to deal with.

Cal has opened the season at an impressive 3-0 with wins over UNC and Ole Miss, but the Trojans have trumped the Bears for 13 consecutive years, and only three of those games were within one possession. Turning around such a dismal streak against a team with national championship hopes on the mind is a daunting task to say the least, but Cal head coach Justin Wilcox sure hasn’t backed down from those opportunities in his debut season.

“We really focus on ourselves each week and have a lot of respect for each opponent,” Wilcox said. “We’ll have to be better than we were a week ago this weekend, and our focus is on our preparation … (USC) is a well-coached, really talented team. They’ll be a great challenge for us, I know our guys will be excited to play.”

USC is coming off a narrow win against University of Texas that certainly had it looking vulnerable. It’s been that kind of season so far for USC coach Clay Helton’s squad. The Trojans started off the year with an 18-point victory against Western Michigan University, but that game was tied in the fourth quarter, and Darnold threw two interceptions without a touchdown. In week two, they blew Stanford out of the water, which seemed big at the time — but it appeared far less important after the Cardinal lost to San Diego State University last week.

The Longhorns hadn’t been impressive heading into their matchup with the Trojans. New head coach Tom Herman was already being ridiculed, especially after they surrendered a shocking 51 points to Maryland in an embarrassing week one loss. So, to say the least, holding on for a double-overtime win only thanks to a game-tying field goal with no time left on the clock was not the plan for USC. Its offense once again looked prone to stalling out, they failed to score in the first quarter, and they were shutout in the second half until the aforementioned field goal.

“We’ve got to make tremendous improvement,” said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter.

“We’re playing by far the best offense we’ve seen to date. Guys are excited about the opportunity.”

Darnold was electric in overtime, but if USC continues to start slow, that won’t be enough. Against a Cal defense that has done an excellent job of forcing turnovers and clamping down in the second half, Darnold will have to be on his game, getting behind early could be lethal.

“(Darnold)’s got tremendous arm strength (and) great mobility,” DeRuyter said. “Anytime you’ve got a quarterback who’s multi-dimensional, it’s difficult. You’ve got to account for him in the run game, you’ve got to account for him extending plays, and they’ve got some really explosive receivers.”

Last week’s freshman cornerback duo of Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks was electric, looking like an utterly locked unit after some miscommunication in the first quarter. Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson seemed to be attempting to pick on Bynum, as most good quarterbacks would do to an inexperienced corner, but Bynum held up against every type of look, and was a huge part of Cal’s defensive shutout in the second half of its win.

Without speedy wide receiver Demetris Robertson, scratched shortly before game time because of injury, quarterback Ross Bowers finally seemed to get on the same page with more of his targets. Vic Wharton III was already clearly Bowers’ favored toy, but he found Kanawai Noa for a few big first downs, and Brandon Singleton put up an impressive four receptions for 45 yards after having only 3 yards coming into the game. If the Trojans get into any sort of offensive swing, the Bears are going to need every receiver that can contribute.

Andrew Wild is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.