Fact or fiction: Cal’s offense will produce more than 350 total yards against the USC defense.
Shailin Singh: Fiction. Although Cal put up a whopping 426 yards against Washington State, USC boasts a more talented pass rush and has put up the second-most sacks in the Pac-12 with 25. This could give the Bears’ offensive line some trouble after having a strong game last weekend. If Beau Baldwin can take advantage of his personnel in the way he did against the Cougars, hitting 350 is possible, but I envision this game to be a low-scoring affair in which neither team tops 24 points.
Emily Ohman: Fact. While I don’t think that Cal will have as explosive an offensive showing as it did against Washington State, I believe the Bears’ average of 308.6 yards per game is more of a reflection of the plethora of offensive injuries suffered rather than talent level, or lack thereof. Having key players such as offensive lineman Michael Saffell and receiver Kekoa Crawford back on the field against Wazzu certainly benefited the Bears, and with a much healthier overall 12-man spread lining up under the lights against USC, I can’t see Cal being stifled by a Trojans defense that allows an average of 417.9 yards per game.
Josh Yuen: Fiction. The Bears managed just 207 yards in last year’s streak-ending win down at the Coliseum, and a similar script will need to be written again for Cal to clinch postseason eligibility. Aside from the wonderboy that is JT Daniels, USC is almost back to fully healthy offensively, which means that Cal’s defense is in for a daunting but manageable challenge. And regardless of who starts under center for the Bears, I’m hesitant to predict a repeat performance of last week’s 33-point “outburst.”
The Bears’ defense did an excellent job slowing down an air raid offense last week against the Cougars. What’s the biggest difference between last week’s opponent and this week’s?
SS: Lack of experience against this Trojans offense. When Cal’s defense faced USC last season, the team in red was running a completely different scheme. While they may face a lot of the same players, the Bears will see a playbook that touts few similarities from the last matchup, whereas Cal had faced Mike Leach’s air raid multiple times before last week. It does help to play against the same general offensive scheme two games in a row, but that also gives the Trojans some hints as to how Cal likes to defend the air raid.
EO: The Trojans have had a similarly injury-riddled season to the Bears, and, coincidentally, are also starting to see the return of many a game-changing player to the lineup. Having had to rely on their backup freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis since first stringer JT Daniels was injured in USC’s first game of the season, the Trojans’ backups in several offensive positions have had to carry the team almost in full and still pose a massive threat to their Pac-12 opponents. While Wazzu’s team was able to be taken at face value, if USC’s original starters are back in the mix, there’s no telling just how potent they might be.
JY: With all due respect to Washington State’s Easop Winston Jr. and Brandon Arconado, the wideouts down in Los Angeles are simply on another level. I’m talking about Tyler Vaughns, who had two touchdowns last year against Cal; Michael Pittman Jr., USC’s leading receiver; and Amon-Ra St. Brown, one of the top five most athletic receivers in the conference. The trio has combined for 18 touchdowns and nearly 2,500 yards through the air, despite dealing with rotating quarterbacks and a new offensive coordinator, albeit one of the best in the business. Add on the fact that USC’s run-pass balance is much more, well, balanced than that of Wazzu, and you soon realize why the Trojans remain a formidable opponent, even with four losses to their name.
Last week, both sides of the ball saw unheralded stars — Makai Polk, Josh Drayden and Gavin Reinwald — play their best games of the season. Who’s about to step up against USC on Saturday night?
SS: I expect outside linebacker Cameron Goode to make a couple of impact plays, whether that will be getting a third-down sack or forcing a fumble. He hasn’t been as explosive as many expected him to be after missing nearly all of last year with an injury, but this could be the game in which he comes alive. He is one of the Bears’ best pass rushers, and there would be no better time to shine than trying to earn your team a bowl game bid by destroying an opposing quarterback.
EO: Cal’s offense will need to rack up points wherever it can get the Bears in order to keep pace with the USC scoring machine. I think kicker Greg Thomas will have to come in clutch against the Trojans. Thomas had two kicks blocked last weekend against Washington State, and in what will likely be a close contest this weekend where every single point will weigh heavily, he’ll need to amp things up to bring Cal to victory.
JY: Since a pair of breakout games about a month ago, receiver Trevon Clark has just two catches for 12 receiving yards, despite ample playing time and several opportunities to execute home-run plays. Meanwhile, tailback Marcel Dancy has yet to find the end zone since a pair of scores in Cal’s big week two win over Washington. After Kekoa Crawford and DeShawn Collins asserted themselves nicely in the offensive game plan last week, I expect Clark and Dancy to enter the final home contest of 2019 with a chip on their shoulders.
Regardless of who starts under center, what will be Cal’s biggest key to success in moving the chains offensively?
SS: Beau Baldwin must continue to utilize his receivers in the way that best suits their play style. Guys like Makai Polk and Nikko Remigio have fantastic agility and can work wonders once the ball is in their hands. Using them on quick passes and screens would be ideal to let them earn yards after catching, whereas Baldwin should use downfield threats such as Trevon Clark and Kekoa Crawford to stretch the defense and gain chunk yardage on deep throws. In a similar vein, players such as Jordan Duncan are more of possession receivers who can make clutch catches in traffic and covert third or fourth downs when the game is on the line.
EO: Same as last week — play to the strengths of whoever is playing quarterback. Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin served up some fabulous schemes last weekend for quarterback Devon Modster that made use of his arm and accounted for the increased pocket presence thanks to a stronger, healthier offensive line. If Chase Garbers is in, Baldwin should revert back to his play-calling from the first four games of the season. The Bears, however, would be well advised not to treat this game the same as the last one, as USC will undoubtedly be a harder riddle to solve than Wazzu.
JY: As important as third and fourth down execution are, I’m more interested in seeing how the Bears’ offense fares on first down. Avoiding negative yardage by way of quick-developing plays was a sight for sore eyes last weekend, and I’m eager to see how Cal adjusts as USC undoubtedly prepares to force the Bears to throw the rock as much as possible. If the Bears pick up chunk yardage on first down, they’ll find enough red-zone trips to make this a game. If the Bears execute in the red zone, they’ll avoid having to utilize a rusty field goal unit that’s probably the only group that had a forgettable evening last Saturday night.
Bonus question: Who will you miss the most out of all the departing seniors?
SS: Jaylinn Hawkins. Maybe it’s because his name rhymes with mine, but more so because whenever Cal needs a game-changing impact play, he always seems to deliver.
EO: Evan Weaver. We’ll all miss having to count his tackles on two hands, and then two more hands … and, of course, his incredible promo videos.
JY: Ashtyn Davis. We’ll miss the flawless hurdling form on every one of his returns. Honorable mentions to Luc Bequette, Alex Netherda and, of course, Evan Weaver.
Shailin Singh, Emily Ohman and Josh Yuen are the 2019 football beat writers.