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Cal Football

USC Preview: Trojans Ailing

September 21, 2017

Having gone unbeaten through what by Pac-12 standards is a challenging non-conference schedule, Cal embarks on the a most difficult stretch. 

The Bears face four ranked teams in succession and the. gauntlet begins at home Saturday afternoon with No. 5 USC, which is probably the toughest task of all.

The Trojans, after pulling even with Texas in the final seconds, beat the Longhorns in double overtime last week to run their record to 3-0 and extend their winning streak to 13 games. The week before that they manhandled Stanford.

All is not perfect, however, as the Trojans have sustained a considerable number of injuries. Eight starters have been limited in practice this week, with some already declared out. 

Because of scholarship limits, USC can no longer stockpile talent the way coaches John McKay and John Robinson used to years ago. Still, the Trojans can probably weather so many injuries as well or better than anyone.

"Our twos are stepping up,” coach Clay Helton told the L.A. media this week. "Now if we had a couple more injuries in this game then I’m going to get worried. But I think we have adequate numbers and I have a lot of faith in the guys that have stepped up, especially in that last game."

A detailed look at USC


USC started becoming USC again when, after losing two of the first three games last year, Helton made freshman Sam Darnold (pictured above) the No. 1 quarterback. The Trojans barely lost Darnold's debut to Utah and have done nothing but win since.

"Sam Darnold is as good as there is at his position," Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said. "He is arguably the best player in the country."

Now a seasoned veteran as a sophomore, Darnold is second in the conference in passing yardage, averaging 334 yards per game.

Opponents rave about him, and the USC press release has an extensive list of effusive comments. Some samples:

"He's the best quarterback I've seen at anticipating since Andrew Luck." -- David Shaw Stanford head coach.

"The thing that was interessting to me was how hard it was to get him down when you got there. Guys would get to the quarterback and he would make them miss and extend the play." -- Colorado linebacker Derek McCartney.

"He has a chance to be the best USC has ever seen. He's that good." -- Former USC quarterback and current broadcaster Sean Salisbury. 

"He has some good in his gizzard." -- Legendary ABC announcer Keith Jackson (who else?).

If he has a weakness it is carelessness with the ball. Never hesitant to take a chance, Darnold has thrown six interceptions in three games. But Helton will take that as part of the price you pay with having a riverboat gambler as a QB.

USC has a pair of talented running backs in junior Ronald Jones (107.3 yards per game, fourth in the conference) and freshman Stephen Carr (72.0, eighth). Jones has been a limited participant in practice this week, although he is expected to play.

"Both are extremely explosive, you've got to hold your breathe when they have the ball in their hands because they can take it the distance," Helton said. "Where I've been impressed with Stephen is his catching the ability out of the backfield. ... Ronald was one who had to develop those skills and has helped us a bunch in that area, too.

"They are two similar backs. Ronald is ahead in pass protection because he's been here for three years where Stephen has been here for three games." 

Most of their production came in the first two games. Texas stacked the box and held the Trojans to just 78 total rushing yards. 

The offensive line has not been immune from injuries, with tackles Chuma Edoga and Nathan Smith hobbled. That might partially explain the problems the running attack had against the Longhorns. Center Nico Falah and guard Viana Talamaivao are experienced and talented.

Wide receiver is another position where injuries have had an impact. However Deontey Burnett has been healthy and he leads the Trojans with 24 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns.

"The way he gets open," Darnold said, "he kind of demands the ball."

Four wide receivers missed some practice time this week. Sophomore Michael Pittman, who has been out with an ankle injury might return for this one, but Stephen Mitchell, Keyshawn (Pie) Johnson and Joseph Lewis are questionable. Jalen Green and freshman Velus Jones are more than adequate replacements.

Tyler Petite is a capable tight end, with eight receptions in the three games.


This is where the injuries have really been felt. Five of the 11 players who started against Stanford were out in the second half against Texas. 

Almong those in sick bay are lineman Rasheem Green, cornerback Ajene Harris and linebackers John Houston and Porter Gustin, who has three sacks. That is a whole lot of talent.

There was some good news, outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who left the Texas game with a sprained knee, returned to practice Wednesday and will probably play on Saturday. Helton has called Nwosu the Trojans most valuable defender, and he has been credited with seven pass breakup this year, second most in the Pac-12. Cameron Smith, who like Nwosu had nine tackles against Texas has stayed healthy.

But as the defenders fell last week, replacements surfaced. Sophomore Connor Murphy filled in for Gustin and drew praise from the coaching staff. Versatile Christian Rector, who has played on the line in multiple roles and also seen time at linebacker, stepped in for Green and forced a crucial fumble.

The secondary is young and athletic and stabilized by junior cornerback Iman Marshall.

No matter who is on the field, the Trojans have a unique defensive style, orchestrated by defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who once held the same job at Cal.

"They play a lot of four down front, nickel defense and a lot of man coverage. They make it tough on people," Wilcox said. "They are flying around and they do a heckuva job," Wilcox said. "They definitely change it up. Coach Pendergast is an excellent coach. They don't sit and play one thing all the time. They do a good job of changing things up and make you earn it."

Special teams

The story of the game last week was walk-on freshman Chase McGrath, who kicked a 31-yard field goal as time ran out to tie the game, then won it in the second overtime when he nailed a 43-yarder in the second overtime.

A few months ago, McGrath did not figure to get many chances. But then Matt Boermeester, the hero of the Rose Bowl victory on Jan. 1, was expelled from school and Michael Brown, a freshman on scholarship, tore his ACL against Stanford. 

That left it up to McGrath, who came through, and might have earned himself a scholarship. "I've got to find one," Helton said.

Reid Budrovich averages 42.5 yards per kick, and it should be an interesting duel with Dylan Klumph.

USC does not have its usual dynamic punt and kick returners. Cal has been burned often enough over the years by the Trojans in that department.


An intriguing suplot to this matchup is the history between the two head coaches. Helton and Wilcox were USC assistants under Steve Sarkisian in 2015. Sarkisian was fired midway in the season and Helton was named interim head coach. Prior to the Trojans appearance in the Holiday Bowl, Helton, who by then had been named to the job permananently, fired Wilcox. The Cal coach says he harbors no hard feelings.

"Clay didn't hire me to USC. I went down there with Coach Sarkisian," he said on the Pac-12 coaches conference call this week. "We went through some things as a program. We didn't do a good enough job on defense, which falls on me. I totally understand. That's our profession, these things happen. It's not always the most fun, but that's the way it is."

The oddsmakers believe that whatever animus might motivate Wilcox, it isn't worth 17 points. That's by how much the Trojans are favored Saturday.

The Bears, who have been good at generating turnovers, will probably need a lot of them, along with a little luck, to keep it close.


Discussion from...

USC Preview: Trojans Ailing

4,361 Views | 4 Replies | Last: 6 yr ago by Nofado
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Beat $C !!!!!!

Go Bears!!!!!
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Yeah, reading the LA papers this week, you'd think that all the Trojan starters were out - not so. In fact, today I read that "most" are probable for the game except for the poor guy who had screws in his toe that came loose. Many were simply held out until yesterday - which kind of makes me wonder, how do you get "ready" for a game with one day of prepping??. I don't know, but it doesn't matter since the Bears will be!!
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I'm not falling for it either. Sandbagging won't work. They're a tough team and unfortunately have plenty of depth.
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Wow I hope they recover soon.... after Saturday.
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