Here we go again. Like clockwork, the Trojans lose a week or two before they face Cal, inevitably getting our hopes up before they remember that they're USC and their divine purpose is to stomp our beloved Golden Bears. This time they had the courtesy to lose twice in the leadup to our game, getting picked off by Washington at home before falling to Notre Dame at home. Hopes were tempered a little bit by their thrashing of Utah (and our rather weak showing against the Bruins), but still, there is the possibility that Sonny Dykes saw something in those tapes that could spring the Bears to a much-needed win. Will this finally be the year we capitalize on their weaknesses, or are the Trojans just setting up to do their "fire the coach and win seven more games anyway" schtick?
The Story so Far...
Because we all love to watch a train wreck (or what appears to be one until Clay Helton swoops in to save the day), we know USC's story pretty well by now. What seemed like an embarrassing 41-31 loss to Stanford was mitigated by the fact that the Cardinal offense turned out to be (ugh) much better than anyone thought. The Trojans then thrashed ASU before the true shocker, a loss at home to the Washington Huskies. The lead story was Cody Kessler's two interceptions, but the Trojans defense didn't help their cause by allowing Myles Gaskin to win the game on the ground. The story was largely the same against Notre Dame, as Kessler threw two picks and the defense couldn't do much about RB C.J. Prosise. USC had everything straightened out the next week though, sporting a balanced (and turnover-free) offense to go with a shutdown D. They held Davontae Booker to 62 yards rushing and shook QB Travis Wilson, forcing four interceptions.
The Trojans defense has been a little bit hard to predict. They've forced four turnovers in three of their four wins, but couldn't hold off Washington despite getting three takeaways. They looked vulnerable on the ground in their losses, but had no trouble with Booker last week. The statistics make them look squarely average: they rank 59th in yards per game, performing a bit better against the rush than the pass. Tony Franklin has to be wondering which version he'll be up against this week.
Starters: Sr #52 Delvon Simmons, Sr #99 Antwaun Woods, Sr #93 Greg Townsend Jr.
Losing first round pick DE Leonard Williams hurts a little bit less than expected when you're USC. They'll start three seniors on the line, all of whom saw meaningful action last year. Townsend and Simmons are the big threats to get into the backfield, owning four and three sacks respectively this season. Simmons, a Texas Tech transfer, was a big part of the Trojans' success in pressuring Travis Wilson last week, recording two sacks against the Utes. Claude Pelon has seen time at DE as well, but his injury against Washington has forced freshman Malik Dorton into the rotation. A few other underclassmen will be rotating in, but don't expect much talent drop-off considering the Trojans' depth.
Starters: Jr #21 Su'a Cravens, Jr #47 Scott Felix, Fr #35 Cameron Smith, Sr #56 Anthony Sarao
Defensive Coordinator (and Cal linebackers coach under Jeff Tedford) Justin Wilcox runs a defensive scheme similar to what the Bears saw against Washington State. It's a base 3-4, but a RUSH linebacker, in this case Scott Felix, often creeps up along the defensive line. The strategy has paid off for Felix, who shares the team lead in sacks with Townsend Jr. on the defensive line. On the other side is Cravens, who leads the team with 7.5 TFL including three sacks. When he's not crashing the backfield, he's creating havoc elsewhere, like last week when he picked off Travis Wilson in the end zone on the Utes' last play. As if one playmaking linebacker wasn't enough, the Trojans have a new threat in true freshman Cameron Smith. Last week's Pac-12 and national defensive player of the week, Smith stung the Utes with three interceptions. He took one of those back 54 yards for a score, and racked up 122 return yards overall. The freshman also leads the team in tackles with 62. Did I mention he's a freshman?
Starters: Fr #8 Iman Marshall, So #4 Chris Hawkins, So #24 John Plattenberg OR Jr #22 Leon McQuay, So #2 Adoree' Jackson OR Sr #13 Kevon Seymour
The natural place to start with the secondary is CB Adoree' Jackson, or should I say CB/WR/PR/KR Adoree' Jackson. He's played a lot more offense than defense since Helton took over as head coach, Helton has hinted that he'll be back on defense this week, where he'll share snaps with Kevon Seymour. True freshman Iman Marshall owns the other CB spot and currently leads the secondary in tackles. Hawkins and Plattenberg round out the relatively young secondary, although Leon McQuay got the start in Plattenberg's place last week.
The Bears certainly won't get a break after two tough losses. USC will bring some of the best pure athletes Cal has faced, which is bad news for an offense trying to regain its footing. I expect the linebackers to get good pressure on Goff, which makes it more important than ever for the Bears to establish the run game. Vic Enwere absolutely needs to have a big game, grinding out five- or six-yard carries if the Bears want to stay close. My prediction? Cal fans turn the game off and go back to setting up Halloween decorations by the fourth quarter.