I am the first to admit that I did not give the Bears much of a chance against the Rose Bowl-champion (...ugh..) Trojans prior to the start of the season. Yet, here we are. Cal is surging after a fulfilling, albeit flawed, victory over an SEC opponent, USC is reeling after an unexpected nail-biter against the Longhorns, and the fans in Berkeley want this more than ever.
Let’s take a look at the Southern California defense and how the Bears match up.
2017 Defensive Highlights (To-Date):
Previous Opponents: Western Michigan (49-31), Stanfurd (42-24), Texas (27-24, 2OT)
Total Yards Allowed: 1,065 (501 rush, 564 pass)
Sacks: 6 (45 yards)
Interceptions: 3 (37 yards)
The fact that USC needed two overtimes in last week’s win against Texas was not, on average, a direct result of poor defensive play. In fact, the defense effectively won the game for the Trojans following a goal line strip-fumble on UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
In looking at the team’s defensive progression over the course of the first quarter of the season, USC has been steadily yielding increasing passing yards while conversely reducing their opponents rush. Although this trend may also be aided by each team’s individual game plan, the defensive coaching staff in LA is clearly learning from their team’s previous performances. This may sound obvious, but a team that is truly learning from week to week and implementing changes in a statistically measurable manner is dangerous.
However, examining their last two performances against the Junior University and UT, USC is not impervious. The Trojans have a propensity to allow electric downfield plays both in the air and on the ground. Stanford and Texas both were able to hold SC at arms length due to key, high-yardage plays. UT punished them in the 4th quarter as they drove to take the lead with less than a minute to play and Stanford easily ran up the middle effectively in the first half of the game in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
USC is beatable. Their defense is not indestructible, and Cal will need to strike opportunistically if they are to stay undefeated in Justin Wilcox’s first year.
Keys to Cal Success
Ross, it is time to step up into the big leagues. Though his introduction in Chapel Hill was excellent for a first-time starter, Bowers had seemingly stalled in his games against Weber State and Ole Miss. His last two performances were not poor by any stretch, but they did lack the glimmer needed to strike down USC. UT’s Ehlinger was able to keep his team in the game longer than most expected by scrambling in key situations to avoid blindside pressure and reading the Trojans blitz combinations. Ross has been slightly hesitant to use his feet in his first three games (however his head-first jump along the sideline against Ole Miss a la Derek Carr was sweet), so this Saturday he will need to be willing to exit the pocket to create additional opportunities for the receivers.
Secondly, forget the history. There’s something about USC that has infiltrated the psyche of the Cal program as a whole for the past decade. However, with a new coaching regime comes a fresh perspective. We cannot let the flashiness of a top 5 ranked team get into our heads, especially one who has our number annually. The Bears executed well in the second half against an arguably more athletic Ole Miss team and stood victorious. They have the potential in them to stun the nation and beat the men of Troy, they just need to go out into Memorial Stadium and put in 60 minutes of quality football.
It is my theory (evidence is continuing to be collected) that highly ranked teams perform in a statistically predictable manner on defense. Barring unforeseen anomalies in the game, teams like USC will fall back into their proven sets and rely on the athletic abilities of their touted recruiting classes. Cal needs to innovate against the Trojans and show them a team they were not expecting to see. Ole Miss clearly underestimated us and paid (I’ll rant another time about the systemic undervaluing of west coast teams by the SEC). The Trojans may have the mindset that they can waltz into Berkeley and leave with a W, but the Wilcox Bears have no time for their assumptions.
What are your thoughts? Will the Bears finally conquer Troy?