Cal is looking to shake off a two-game losing skid in Pac-12 play, but to do that the Golden Bears will have to beat a team that has historically been dominant over them. USC makes the trip to Berkeley coming off a big win over Utah, and they bring plenty of fire on offense and defense. Can Cal come up the first win in the series in 12 years?
Series History: USC leads 66-25-4
The Trojans have held a decisive upper hand on Cal since the dawn of the in-state series, which dates back to 1922. Cal has won just two of the meetings between the two schools since 2000 and USC has won 11 straight meetings in the series. Most of the games have been dominant victories by USC, but Cal has put the Trojans on the edge a couple of times along the way. Last year USC won 38-30 after Cal scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to cut into a 38-16 lead.
USC Interim Head Coach: Clay Helton (2-1 all-time)
USC let go of head coach Steve Sarkisian a few weeks back as a result of Sarkisian’s off-field personal demons interfering with his ability to perform his job. With Sarkisian removed, the Trojans once again named Clay Helton as the interim head coach. This is Helton’s second time serving as USC’s interim head coach, as he did so for USC’s bowl game at the end of the 2013 season.
Helton has a way of connecting with the players and last week he showed what that change can do for the program as USC smacked Utah. In Helton’s first game as interim head coach, USC gave Notre Dame a tougher-than-expected battle in South Bend as well. Now Helton has an opportunity to coach USC into the Pac-12 South championship game.
USC at a Glance
USC was tabbed the preseason favorite at Pac-12 media days over the summer, but the reality was always that the Trojans still had something to prove. Sure, the talent is certainly on the roster, but Steve Sarkisian was a coach without a a proven track record of taking a program to the next level. That process failed for other reasons, but the Trojans are still in the mix for the Pac-12 South after taking care of Utah last week. The Trojans have already lost three games as well, including a pair of home games in Pac-12 play. Stanford came away with a 41-31 victory in Week 3 and Washington trumped USC a couple of games later.
Quarterback Cody Kessler is piling up some impressive numbers once again. Through seven games, Kessler has passed for 2,082 yards and 18 touchdowns with five interceptions. Kessler may not be quite the Heisman hopeful he could have been with some more wins this season, but he has shown the ability to throw the ball effectively this season, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. The Trojans have the Pac-12’s third top passing offense, behind Washington State and California, but the Trojans carry the second-highest team passer rating, behind only Stanford. Kessler’s top target is sophomore JuJu Smith-Schuster, who leads the Pac-12 with 901 yards, with eight touchdowns.
USC is also one of the more difficult teams in the Pac-12 for teams to score on, although Stanford and Notre Dame each put up over 40 points. The Trojans are third in the Pac-12 in defensive scoring average with opponents scoring an average of 21.7 points per game. Only Washington and Stanford, two teams with wins against USC, have better defensive scoring numbers.
As is typically the case for Cal, finding something through the air has to be the key to a win. Jarred Goff and company are taking on the seventh best passing defense in the Pac-12. The Trojans have allowed 237.7 passing yards per game but carry a respectable touchdown-interception ratio. USC has allowed eight passing touchdowns and has intercepted eight passes this season. Four of those interceptions came last week against Utah. If Cal can avoid throwing into dangerous spots and avoid turnovers, Cal may be able to get by USC for a rare win. It will be up to Cal’s defense to make some plays. USC does not give up many turnovers, with just seven this season, but Cal may have to make some plays happen on defense because slowing down the Trojans could be a problem.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.