USC (5-4, 4-3) vs. California (5-4, 2-4)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Coliseum. TV: ESPN. 1110, 99.1.
USC defensive front vs. Cal running game. This may seem counter-intuitive, given the immense challenge in front of the USC offense against California’s fierce defense, but the key to the game is how dominant the Trojans’ defense can be against a one-dimensional Golden Bears offense. California is 89th nationally in passing offense and is totally dependent on dual-threat quarterbacks Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain and running back Patrick Laird to move the ball. It’s perfect timing for USC, with a banged-up secondary that may not have the services of All-America candidate Iman Marshall because of a sprained foot/ankle, to go against an offense that should not test the Trojans down field. It’s going to be an uphill battle for USC’s offense. But if the defense can do its part, selling out to stopping the run and getting the Golden Bears in enough third-and-longs to get off the field, JT Daniels and Co. will break through eventually.
USC (380.2 ypg/28.3 ppg): The Trojans will be without wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (shoulder) and running back Stephen Carr (high ankle sprain), testing their depth at the skill positions. USC will need big games from Tyler Vaughns and Amon-ra St. Brown, as well as promising freshman Devon Williams, on the outside. Barring another injury, the Trojans should be just fine at tailback with Aca’Cedric Ware, who has rushed for 627 yards and six touchdowns on 7.0 yards per carry, and Vavae Malepeai, who is coming off his first 100-yard rushing game last week.
California (381.3 ypg/23.6 ppg): Not many teams lean on their tailback like the Golden Bears depend on Laird, who averages 22 touches per game. He has racked up 951 total yards and eight total touchdowns, even though opposing defenses know what’s coming, and will provide a tough test for USC middle linebackers Cameron Smith and John Houston Jr.
USC (388.1 ypg/27.9 ppg): The Trojans have created only seven turnovers in nine games. For USC to finish the season strong, that number will need to approach 15 by season’s end. Creating takeaways partly comes down to luck, but there’s more to it than that. The Trojans have to start making those game-changing plays to help the offense.
California (323.2 ypg/21.9 ppg): California head coach Justin Wilcox, who was USC’s defensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015, is a familiar foe for USC coach Clay Helton. Wilcox’s scheme will keep the Trojans guessing all night and is a “nightmare for quarterbacks,” Helton said.
Helton said speedster Dominic Davis is likely to take Carr’s place as a kickoff return man along with Velus Jones Jr.
USC has not lost in November (8-0) with Helton as permanent head coach.
Cornerbacks Marshall (sprained foot/ankle) and Olaijah Griffin (shoulder) are game-time decisions. Marshall practiced Thursday, and Griffin practiced the entire week.