The USC Trojans’ offense to date has been quite underwhelming, particularly for a team with an offensive-minded head coach. Even before the injury to QB JT Daniels, the USC offense hasn’t had the same firepower that fans grew accustomed to under Clay Helton. With that said, the regression this year perhaps should have been expected. Sam Darnold moved onto the NFL and at long last Ronald Jones is no longer a threat whom the California Golden Bears need to be concerned with. (Starting RB Stephen Carr is also doubtful for the Cal game nursing a high ankle sprain.) For most programs, losing your starting quarterback and running back might be enough to give some level of leniency to a coaching staff. That is never the case of USC. When four- and five-star talent rotates in and out of your program like a McRib in October, the expectation is almost always win now.
The Trojans currently find themselves ranked 43rd overall in S&P+ and 43rd in off. S&P+. Considering one of those games comes without future star JT Daniels at the helm, the Trojans haven’t been all that bad by most standards. Before their loss to Utah, there were signs that the Trojans were going to start their usual October roll after beating Washington State, Arizona, and Colorado consecutively. The Utah game was a resounding stop to that movement and the Daniels injury left the Trojans going to their backup quarterback in their eventual loss to Arizona State.
While advanced stats are favorable for the Trojans, taking a took at their team statistics paint a far less rosy picture. The Trojans rank 75th in points per game, 98th in rushing yards per game, and 62nd in passing yards per contest. As almost is always the case, the Trojans had a nice match-up against Oregon State to figure themselves out before Cal rolls into town this Saturday.
How do you replace a four-year starter and top-three overall NFL draft pick? Find the best passing high school quarterback in California and get him to come play as a freshman. The first-year journey for Daniels hasn’t been as historic as Sam Darnold’s rise to fame, but he has shown flashes throughout the 2018 season. You can make a strong case that Darnold inherited a very good Trojans team with several upperclassmen who were waiting for the right spark for the offense. Daniels came into a much younger team looking to rebuild after losing NFL-caliber talent like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Robert Woods, Ronald Jones, and Adoree’ Jackson over the last several years. Daniels inherits the likes of Tyler Vaughns (who has played extremely well his first two years) along with Michael Pittman Jr. as the upperclassmen receivers for Daniels. (Pittman was diagnosed with a Bone bruise in his shoulder this week and looks highly unlikely to suit up this Saturday.) His high school teammate (Amon-Ra St. Brown) has been a huge target, playing a very similar role to what Kanawai Noa has been for Cal except St. Brown is a true freshman. St. Brown looks like a future star and the combination of Daniels and him should be one that will appropriately haunt Cal fans for several years to come.
Match-up to watch: Cal’s defensive line vs USC’s offensive line
How can the Trojans walk away victorious on Saturday? Win the battle in the trenches and churn up yards on the ground. For the last few years, Cal has faced an uphill battle against a Trojan offensive line that has almost always outclassed Cal in regards to both height and weight.
This is a match-up that is strikingly similar to when Cal played UCLA and was facing a bigger offensive line for the first time this season. Where Cal failed against UCLA, they succeeded against Washington, leaving this game as another glimpse into just how strong this defense can be. Cal will be forced to send at least four defensive lineman frequently against the Trojans, leaving the secondary to win the one-on-one match-ups that we have seen Cal previously lose against the athletic, fast, and dominant Trojan receivers. This year, the match-up for the secondary is as gettable as it has been in a long while. If the Bears can pressure Daniels, they should be able to disrupt enough of his passing lanes to throw off the USC passing attack. Camryn Bynum, Elijah Hicks, Traveon Beck, Ashtyn Davis, and Jaylinn Hawkins all have shown the ability to lock down any passing attack they have faced so far this year, including the nation’s best passing offense last week. The Bears’ success on Saturday depends on Alex Funches, Chris Palmer, and Rusty Becker disrupting the pocket as often as possible while staying stout against the USC rushing attack.
If that happens, Saturday can become a very winnable football game for the Bears in a place where wins have been MIA over the last decade.