Let’s just tell it how it is: The Pac-12 isn’t that good this year. In a strange twist of fate, the Pac-12 South has a three-way tie for first place at this moment — USC, Arizona and Utah are all sitting on top with a precarious 4-3 conference record. The Pac-12 North is headed by both Washington schools, with a bundle of mixed-up records to round out the bottom, Cal among them.
This weekend, among the Pac-12 mush, USC (5-4, 4-3) is eager to break free of its proverbial pack, and Cal (5-4, 2-4) will be seeking to ascend its own ranks. Who wins won’t have an effect on the national rankings, but it could shake up the conference standings — and right now, it’s either team’s game.
The Bears are particularly hungry for a win after their near — but ultimately squandered — upset of No. 8 Washington State in Pullman last weekend.
“We need to be better everywhere,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “We’ve got to block, and we’ve got to run, and we’ve got to catch and get open and all of those things.”
That near win was almost pulled off thanks to a supreme defensive effort, but it was frittered away by a shaky offense. That’s been the story for Cal nearly all season, and the only way the team is going to be able to generate more wins is to flip half of that script. If that doesn’t happen soon, that story will be the sole plot of the 2018 campaign.
The Bears defense has already proven that it can dampen the efforts of top-notch offenses, and the storyline will likely be the same against USC. The Trojans are uncharacteristically a low-scoring team this season, averaging 28 points per game. Quarterback J.T. Daniels has a clear favoritism for wide receiver Michael Pitman Jr., who has scored six touchdowns so far this season thanks to his size and speed. Cal’s secondary, though, which has dealt with receivers like Pitman before, should be able to do it again.
The running back position is where the Trojans’ offense can be really lethal. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin likes to utilize both Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai, who have combined for 13 of USC’s 16 rushing touchdowns. With fellow tailback Stephen Carr listed as doubtful for Saturday’s matchup, Ware is particularly dangerous and has quick feet that often find pockets in the defense to break free.
“We’re challenging our guys to expect them to try to run the football at us,” said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “We’ve got to be stout against the run. Most weeks we have been, but this is another challenge.”
What this game will likely come down to, however, is the Bears’ offense. Cal is in a noticeable slump, scoring just a single offensive touchdown in its last two contests. While the defense was able to carry the Bears against Washington, it wasn’t so fortunate against Washington State’s late heroics from the arm and mustache of Gardner Minshew. Now, if they can’t get the ball in the end zone, they’ll likely face a fate similar to last weekend’s.
It’s not that Cal is having trouble moving the ball downfield — indeed, over the last few weeks the Bears have displayed the ability to put together slow, methodical drives.
It’s the red zone that’s been causing problems for a team that is a touchdown or two away from already being bowl-eligible.
“We’ve got to execute more at practice,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Garbers. “I think we’ve been working on that, and these past few weeks have been successful at practice and we’ve just got to translate it over to the game.”
The Bears have got to get grittier in those final few plays, taking a “by any means necessary” approach in punching the ball into the end zone. Notably, they also need to protect the ball more — particularly when it comes to committing turnovers on pivotal drives, which have the potential to change the trajectory of an entire game. If they can do that, they might just be able to take down the Trojans for the first time since 2003.
“We just have to be up to the task in terms of knowing that we’re going to be up against very good physical matchup, whether it’s size or speed, on every snap offensively,” said Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin.