It’s Christmas in September folks! The U$C Trojans and their objectively terrible band head to Berkeley on September 23rd to take on our beloved Bears. Let’s take a trip down memory lane if you will...
Two falls ago, the Steve Sarkisian implosion (I apologize if you can already sense the joy I had in writing that) was in full effect. As that situation unraveled, the Trojans shifted over to Clay Helton as their head coach. As a Cal fan, the Kiffin/Sarkisian era was one of the more enjoyable stretches as finally our southern rival was dealing with laughable shenanigans after what felt like a decade of dominance. The Bears had a good shot at winning the 2015 matchup in Berkeley and if it weren’t for two botched fourth-down plays by our defense, Jared Goff would have gotten the ball down six with a decent amount of time on the clock. Our minds however were left to wonder, what if?
When exactly was the last time Cal beat U$C? 2003 in Berkeley, a top-ten moment in my life and most likely many other Cal fans in attendance. Since that moment, U$C has dominated Cal like few other teams have.
In the chart above (Cal is gold, U$C red) you’ll notice that Cal’s dominance in this rivalry begins far closer to 1915 than it does to 2017. Cal has gone over a decade losing to the Trojans and outside of the 2015 game, the Dykes era felt far from close to ending that streak.
The Trojans visit Berkeley this year after pulling off one of the most exciting victories in Rose Bowl history. Sam Darnold is poised to continue the tradition of excellent USC quarterbacks (who undoubtedly will fail in the NFL) and pace the Trojans towards a top-five finish this upcoming season. The Trojans have lost some significant weapons on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, yet as it often is with U$C, they are loaded with younger talent.
All is not lost for the Bears. The Berkeley match-up is one that could easily qualify as a “trap game” for the Trojans. They face revamped Texas the week before and head to Washington State immediately following their trip to the Bay Area. The Bears can make some noise on the ground and Tre Watson would love to upset the Trojans given his southern California roots.
U$C Players to Watch
Sam Darnold and the U$C offense
Clay Helton’s best move last season came when he replaced Max Browne with Sam Darnold. Darnold transformed the Trojans offense for the rest of the season and was a critical piece in their torrid run to the Rose Bowl. He is now a redshirt sophomore with a full season of experience under his belt. Helton proved his worth as an offensive signal caller and the worst part (for Cal fans) is that their is still room for improvement.
In 2016, the Trojans were able to establish an efficiency level that is more frequently seen in Air Raid–style offenses, similar to what we saw with Dykes the last three seasons. However, U$C recruits far better athletes than Cal, Wazzu, or other Air Raid offenses. Pair that with an accurate and efficient quarterback like Darnold and you get the Rose Bowl performance against Penn State. Unfortunately for every team in the Pac-12, that was the first iteration of this offense—expect it to be even better year two.
Ronald Jones, Running Back
18 carries, 223 yards, and 1 touchdown. Ronald Jones killed the Bears last year and that doesn’t include his touchdown reception. The Trojans are having to replace both starting tackles this year, but Jones is a playmaker whom all Cal fans should have eyes on. The Cal defense will be greatly improved compared to last season and the battle in the trenches will determine just how much the Trojans have to lean on Darnold come September.
Iman Marshall, Cornerback
Iman takes the reins from Adoree Jackson, who departed this offseason to the NFL, and the Trojans will not lose any production at their corner position. In 2016, Marshall racked up 51 tackles, three interceptions, and 11 passes defended (second on the team only to Jackson). Marshall figures to be the leader for the Trojans in the secondary, which is a key position for a Clancy Pendergast–led defense. By far the most intriguing match-up will be how he handles the explosive Demetris Robertson as Marshall is most likely going to find himself with that assignment all game long.
What to expect against Cal
The first Pac-12 match-up of the year is always a good indicator for a first-year head coach and this game will be somewhat of a homecoming for Justin Wilcox as well. The Bears will be a much different team for USC this season and it would be hard to argue that any other victory would be as well-received as potentially beating the Trojans at home. Historically, U$C never dominates while visiting Berkeley, but has found a way to win each of the last million match-ups or so it seems.
If Cal can have success stopping Ronald Jones on the ground, Darnold has shown a willingness to turn the ball over in the air. The Bears have more than a few key weapons on offense to be able to keep pace with U$C, particularly with a hungry home crowd behind them. A very famous Harbaugh had his first key victory against U$C, so why not the Bears on a fortuitous September night in 2017?