If you turn back the clock just a few weeks it is hard to imagine too many folks out there saw this prime time matchup coming. The undefeated Golden Bears and undefeated Trojans will face off in Berkeley in a game that has implications in the college football playoff for both teams. That’s right, I said both teams because just as recently as this week Pat Forde mentioned Cal as deserving consideration for the college football playoff. HYPE ALERT!
Let’s briefly return to reality and take a look at the task the Bears face this week. The USC offense is loaded with talent, spear headed by Sam Darnold who took college football by storm last season. Darnold entered his sophomore year with many pundits considering him the top prospect in college football, surpassing super saiyan Lamar Jackson. Catch his tape against Penn State in the Rose Bowl last year below:
The best part about this tape is that he started off struggling, throwing passes far short of receivers or air mailing his wideouts on simple curl routes. He then collects himself and proceeds to throw for 450+ yards and five touchdowns leading USC to a thrilling Rose Bowl victory. Quite a performance for a freshman quarterback in a game that most Cal fans dream of one day attending.
By all means, the USC offense will be the Bears toughest test of the season and this comes one week after facing the nations top ranked pass offense. Freshman running back Stephen Carr is averaging 8 yards per carry and Ronald Jones II returns to Berkeley after going for over 200 yards last season against Cal. In perhaps one of the most USC things ever, the Trojans lost a star in JuJu Smith-Schuster and immediately replaced him with Deontay Burnett who has yet to go for less than 120 yards receiving in each game this year. As it often is with the Trojans, replacing talent is rarely an issue.
2017 Season to Date
The 2017 version of the USC offense has relied on Darnold to lead the team and much like the box score indicates, it’s been a mixed bag. What makes Darnold so dangerous is his accuracy outside of the pocket and when he makes throws like his first touchdown pass against Texas it’s hard to argue that he should ever second guess throwing the ball.
That throw is Sam Darnold at his best, buying time in the pocket, stepping into his protection and delivering a picture perfect pass where only his receiver can get it. However when you look at his six interceptions on the early season, you start to understand that Darnold is susceptible to making risky decisions that can come back to bite the Trojans. For a revamped Cal defense unafraid of sending extra players at the quarterback, Darnold’s early mistakes should breed confidence.
As it often is with USC teams, it sadly isn’t just Darnold you have to worry about come Saturday. The Trojans are stacked with blue chip talent and dynamic players, some familiar to Cal fans along with new faces we will inevitably come to loathe.
Enter Stephen Carr, a true freshman who reminds most USC fans of a young Reggie Bush. Head to minute 2:12 below to see why:
Carr puts on one of the best side steps you will see and burns every single player on the football field in a matter of seconds. That is a Western Michigan defense that is only months away from going 13-1 with P.J. Fleck at the helm. The tandem of Jones II and Carr is a nightmare matchup in isolation and then when you have to add Darnold’s passing ability into the mix, it is nearly an unfair advantage.
What to Expect Come Saturday
By most accounts, the Trojans had to replace the most talent on their offensive line after an offseason that saw their two all pac-12 tackles move on. However so far this year the Trojans lineman have thrived helping generate over 600 yards on the ground through three games (a ridiculous 5.2 yards per carry). Yet it is that inexperience upfront that Tim DeRuyter and the more experienced Cal defense must take advantage of. If the Bears can start forcing Darnold out of the pocket and into a couple mistakes, the Bears should be able to keep this game close. The Mississippi game showed us the various looks Cal is willing to throw at a particular offense and this coming Saturday should be no different.
If there was ever a negative to Cal starting 3-0, it might be that the Trojans are far less likely to overlook this game than they would have been if Cal was perhaps 1-2. For Cal fans that’s more than fine as the Bears defense shut down one of the most prolific offenses in the SEC last week and look to prove themselves against a top 10 opponent this weekend. The Bears best shot at winning on Saturday is by repeating what the Texas defense accomplished last week, making Sam Darnold look a little bit more human.