1 last ride: Seeking bowl eligibility, Cal football hosts USC on senior night

Ireland Wagner/Staff

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For all of the NFL talent Cal football produced from 2003 to 2017, it really is a wonder that no Cal team during that stretch managed to win the annual showdown against USC. From DeSean Jackson’s glory days to the Keenan Allen years to the reign of Jared Goff, the Trojans always seemed to be a step ahead of the Bears.

Then Patrick Laird, Chase Garbers and Evan Weaver entered the fray. Not only did last year’s squad end the streak of 14 straight losses to the Trojans, but the Bears did it on the road while clinching their decisive sixth win of the year, denying USC its chance at bowl eligibility in the process.

Twelve months have passed since that fateful evening in Los Angeles and, somewhat surprisingly, not much has changed. USC head coach Clay Helton managed to retain his head coaching job, the Bears are dealing with another quarterback competition — albeit under much more positive circumstances — and once again, Cal is seeking that pivotal sixth win in its chase for bowl eligibility.

On top of the significance of senior night, with 13 Cal student-athletes playing their final game at California Memorial Stadium, all arrows point toward an emotional evening leading up to Saturday night’s 8 p.m. kickoff.

“It’s sad — last one at Memorial (Stadium), real bitter,” said redshirt senior safety Jaylinn Hawkins. “Just got to go out there and embrace every moment. Just take it in, live in the moment and make the best out of it — just get a win.”

While the Trojans have struggled their way to a 6-4 record, their season has been clouded by quarterback JT Daniels’ season-ending knee injury on opening night.

Daniels’ absence has allowed true freshman Kedon Slovis to steal the spotlight in 2019, and the USC offense has hardly missed a beat, even when Slovis himself was forced out with an injury early in the season.

“They’re explosive on offense and defensively, they’re very aggressive,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “They’re very skilled and talented across the board and they’ve got schemes.”

In his first collegiate season, Slovis has averaged 257.9 passing yards per contest, a mark that trails only Washington State’s Anthony Gordon and Oregon’s Justin Herbert in the Pac-12. Part of Slovis’ success can be attributed to the addition of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to Helton’s staff, whose “air raid” scheme has persevered through injuries under center and in the backfield.

With Harrell’s offense being implemented in 2019, Slovis’ weapons outside the hashes have been quite a force to be reckoned with. Collectively, wideouts Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman Jr. and Amon-Ra St. Brown have amassed nearly 2,400 receiving yards and accounted for 18 receiving touchdowns in 10 contests. In comparison, all of Cal’s receivers combined have for just 1,646 yards through the air in nine games.

“Offensively, you look at the receiver group, how skilled they are,” Wilcox said. “The quarterback is playing at a very high level. It’s a different scheme this year, but they do a really nice job with it.”

As the Cal defense prepares for yet another pass-heavy scheme, the offense enters this game fresh off arguably its best performance of the 2019 campaign. In last weekend’s 33-20 win over Washington State, quarterback Devon Modster accounted for a career-high four touchdowns as the Bears broke out for a season-high in points against the Cougars’ defense.

Saturday’s win also saw the return of receiver Kekoa Crawford and starting center Michael Saffell, who had been out since Sept. 21 and Oct. 5, respectively.

“It was so fun being back with the guys,” Saffell said. “We want to be a dominant unit, and we want to be able to run the ball. When we’re able to do that, the offensive line is having a good time and not forcing things, and that’s when we play our best.”

Saffell and the offense will go head-to-head with a defense that has been up and down throughout the year. While the Trojans’ valiant defensive effort was responsible for Utah’s lone loss of the season back on Sept. 20, USC also surrendered 56 points against Herbert and the Ducks just two weeks ago.

Regardless of who starts under center — either Modster or Chase Garbers, who was cleared this week for full contact — the Bears are eager to protect their quarterback for a second straight week and send out their seniors with one final home win.

“Last game was being able to identify blitzes and identify the movement,” Saffell said. “This game is now how talented can we be, how physical can we be with this big, talented defensive line that they’re going to bring at us.”

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.