Bowl ineligible Cal, USC to battle in season finale

photo of Cal football
Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

Two weeks ago, USC lost to rival UCLA in embarrassing fashion. The Bruins scored nine touchdowns at an abnormally crowded Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a stadium that once hosted a national championship contending Trojan teams and Heisman winners. The blowout loss was another indication of just how far the once-mighty had fallen.

And then, just one week later, the Trojans were back on top of the world. Former Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley unexpectedly announced that he was leaving Norman to pursue a new opportunity as the head coach of USC. It is expected that the most talented recruits will once again flock to Downtown Los Angeles and, indeed, they’ve already started to do just that. 

If 4-7 Cal wasn’t already in a bad place, they will be Saturday at 8 p.m. when the entire college football universe turns to Berkeley to see the beginning of a new era for USC football. The buzz surrounding the Trojans right now could very well make the difference in this game, as USC’s players will want to put on a show for their new-but-not-yet-active head coach. 

That said, a few weaknesses that have plagued current head coach Donte Williams’ team this season, including its pass and run defenses, will provide Cal with a fighting chance to pull off a win. 

USC currently ranks 98th in the country in total defense and has allowed 97 points over the course of its last two games. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s defense gives up an average of nearly 250 passing yards per game and almost 175 rushing yards per game.

Injuries aren’t helping. Both junior outside linebacker Drake Jackson, the Trojans’ sacks and tackles for loss leader, and redshirt senior defensive lineman Nick Figueroa have played through injuries in recent weeks but have not been as productive as they once were. 

Fifth-year quarterback Chase Garbers, who threw two interceptions against UCLA last week and uncharacteristically rushed for just 20 yards, will have the chance to take advantage of a reeling USC defense. Poor offensive line play let Garbers and the running game down last Saturday, especially in the second half. With Jackson and Figueroa playing at less than 100%, Garbers may have more time to make plays.   

Inconsistent quarterback play this season is not unique to Cal — it’s also set the Trojans back. Freshman Jaxson Dart and junior Kedon Slovis have shared snaps all year, but neither player has emerged as the clear leader of the offense. Both have struggled with interceptions — Slovis has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-to-8 while Dart’s is 8-to-5. Dart has started in each of the last two games after Slovis suffered a lower leg injury prior to the UCLA game, and Dart will presumably start again against Cal. 

USC’s proclivity for throwing interceptions may help Cal turn the page on its poor defensive performance in last week’s 42-14 loss to UCLA, which head coach Justin Wilcox attributed in part to losing one-on-one matchups.  

“(UCLA’s) speed on offense gave us some issues,” Wilcox said. “Tackling gave us some issues. We didn’t win very many one-on-ones, whether it was tackling or pass rush. We didn’t make very many plays on Saturday night on defense.”

Running back Vavae Malepeai, USC’s second-leading rusher this year to the injured senior Keaontay Ingram could present an issue for Cal’s defense, which failed to stop UCLA star running back Zach Charbonnet from racking up 106 yards. 

USC’s 4-7 record makes the Trojans seem far less daunting this year than in others. But rest assured — they’ll run out onto the field at Memorial Stadium rearing to start off this new era for USC with a bang. 

For Cal, Saturday’s game will be all about pride. Fifth-year senior safety Elijah Hicks said the Bears are ready to rain on USC’s parade. 

“It’s always good to get a win, especially against those guys,” Hicks said. “We didn’t get to play them last year. It’s going to feel good to be able to end it on a win, especially at home on Senior Night. We’re definitely turned up, ready to whoop on them.”

William Cooke covers football. Contact him at [email protected].