What will be the key to stopping Sam Darnold?
Andrew Wild: They have to goad Darnold into turning the ball over. He hasn’t been stingy with turnovers this year, and the Bears have done a great job in that area. If they don’t force turnovers, then I don’t know that the defense can hold up in coverage through four quarters. The other aspect is that Darnold has tended to start slow and then pull off big plays in the second half, while Cal has tended to clamp down in the second half. If they let Darnold beat himself early and make second half adjustments like they have recently, they can pull this win off.
Vikram Muller: Cal’s secondary has not shown too much promise defending the deep ball this season. It should start by focusing there. USC will likely run the ball a lot, riding its powerful offensive line. If Cal has to commit too many people to defending the run, its secondary will get burned by Darnold time and again.
Austin Isaacsohn: The strength of USC’s passing offense is built on the playmaking ability of those who run with the ball. Smoke screens, halfback screens and quick slants make this offense somewhat predictable, albeit damn hard to stop. The Trojans also love to force the defense to crowd the box by smashing runs inside or to the edges out of a pistol set. For Cal, the keys are definitely to stop the run game with as few bodies as possible and keep enough defensive backs and linebackers on the field to swarm the screens coming their way.
What can Cal learn from Texas’s almost-win over USC?
AW: The Trojans’ heralded dual running back monster attack can be stopped. Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr only combined for 27 carries for 75 yards after looking like stars early in the year. And it’s not like the Longhorns have a vaunted defense; they got embarrassed by Maryland in week one, and it was their run defense that did them in. The Bears’ best hope is to make the Trojans one-dimensional with the pass game, which is admittedly a strange thing to say when they have a Heisman favorite behind center.
VM: Belief. Not only against Texas, but also against Western Michigan, the Trojans showed signs of weakness. They surrendered 31 points to the Broncos, a Mid-American Conference team with a new head coach. Texas, also with a head coach, was able to push the defending Rose Bowl champions to double OT. Cal is arguably better than both of those two Trojan opponents, and it should give USC a fight at Memorial Stadium. That being said, it’s unlikely that USC plays the same way in week four that they did earlier this season, and it’s important to remember the dominant victory over Stanford in week two.
AI: Darnold may try to go deep on them. While the Texas game was full of short passes — by my count, only 10 of the 49 passes Darnold threw that game traveled 10 yards or more in the air — Darnold moves his team up the field by picking the right spots and using extreme accuracy. Texas was giving up the shorter routes, trying not to get burned on the back end. And the Bears have struggled all year defending the deep stuff. There aren’t too many USC deep routes on tape, and the Trojans could be saving them for the Pac-12 opener against a leaky backline that is last in the conference in defending the pass.
Can the Bears continue to force turnovers at the same level?
AW: Doing so at the same rate will be difficult, but I think the Bears have it in them to continue dominating turnover differential. The defenders have really committed to punching the ball out with good form whenever possible and have shown consistently great reflexes on tip plays. Guys are just on the tips of their toes at all points, seemingly, and that, combined with an aggressive presence, is key.
VM: Darnold threw quite a few picks late last season after being named the full-time starter, and he has thrown six in three games this season. The Bears’ front seven have done a good job getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and forcing errant throws — most recently a pass by Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson went directly into the hands of Cameron Goode. The USC offensive line, however, should hold up better than anything Cal has faced in the box this season, so the Bears will probably need to rely on poor passes more than heavy pressure to continue forcing turnovers.
AI: I don’t see it being the same level, but I also don’t foresee a catastrophic drop off. While it’s unlikely they’ll maintain their spot as the No. 1 turnover-forcing defense, you can tell the coaching staff is instilling a takeaway mentality in this unit, and that’s not going to go away when they’re playing a better offense. In fact, I could see them going for the turnovers even more when they know they’re outmatched. And while this could be the best team the Bears play all year, Darnold has thrown two interceptions in every single game thus far. It should be a good back-and-forth.
Is Patrick Laird’s reduced effectiveness in his first start expected to continue?
AW: I’ve made this point before, but Cal’s offensive line has not made the same strides in run blocking as it has in pass protecting. I don’t know that it’s possible for any featured back to put up big yards per carry in this kind of situation. His speed will always make him a candidate for big plays, but I think a lot of those will come as a receiver.
VM: Laird has made a name for himself for big runs turning the corner, but with the quick secondary led by Iman Marshall, this may be more difficult for him against the Trojans. As Laird’s name becomes more well-known, so too will his routes, and opposition will prepare for him more. It seems rather unlikely that Laird has a field day against USC.
AI: Almost definitely. Teams will begin to realize that stopping Laird is step one to stopping this offense, because of how important his being in a rhythm is to moving the chains. After the loss of Tre Watson, Laird is the only player on this offense who needs to be significantly game-planned against. He won’t be sneaking up on anyone anymore.