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USC vs. Cal Football: Scouting The California Golden Bears

Thursday's game should be quite the offensive showdown

Sophomore Jared Goff has developed into one of the best QB's in the nation.
Sophomore Jared Goff has developed into one of the best QB's in the nation.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

USC will not be facing the lowly Cal Bears of last season. The Trojans have their eyes set on their sixth win of conference play facing a California squad trying to pull off an impressive transformation from two-win squad to bowl team. Playing on a Thursday night may create some logistical challenges for fans and tailgaters but the Trojans and Golden Bears are expecting a slug fight between two programs trying to make statements on national television.


If the USC Trojans want to win for the 11th straight year over Cal they will have to maintain a great balance on offense between Doak Walker Award candidate Javorius Allen and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm finalist Cody Kessler. Last season, the Trojans only needed 170 yards passing from Kessler, benefiting greatly from a 256-yard rushing effort.

Heading into this game, Kessler has thrown 25 touchdowns to just two interceptions on the year. A lot of that has come against Colorado and Washington State, but Kessler has shown an innate ability to avoid the rush and go deep into his progressions to make plays downfield. Cal's defense meanwhile struggles against big-time passing quarterbacks, and I would expect head coach Steve Sarkisian to feature both JuJu Smith and Nelson Agholor.


If Cal wants to pull the upset, which based on their success this year wouldn't be all that surprising, the Bears will have to get an exemplary effort from their high-octane offense. Sonny Dykes' club has averaged over 500 yards of total offense per game, eclipsing the 30-point mark in all but one game this season.

The Golden Bears have the best wide receiving corps outside of Arizona in this conference, especially if you take into account that six wideouts have caught more than 20 passes this season. Sophomore Jared Goff has thrown 27 touchdowns to just four interceptions this season, emerging as one of the nation's most efficient passers.

Cal is 3-1 on the road this year with wins at Northwestern, Washington State and Oregon State. With a win at USC, the Bears will garner their fourth road win for the first time since the 2009 Bears were 4-2 away from Berkeley. What the Golden Bears have done well away from home, as of lately, is pound the football with tailback Daniel Lasco.

Leave it to the California Sports Information Department to put this team's accolades into perspective: Cal ranks in the top 20 nationally in eight offensive categories through the first nine games of the 2014 campaign - passing offense (4th, 361.0 ypg), scoring offense (8th, 41.9 ppg), total offense (11th, 509.1 ypg), first downs (12th, 235), fourth- down conversion percentage (T17th, 66.7%), team passing efficiency (18th, 154.54), red zone offense (T18th, 89.7%) and third-down conversion percent- age (19th, 47.5%).


1. Defending Chris Harper and Company

The Golden Bears top target, Chris Harper, is the active leader in touchdown passes (12) and is also the active career leader in receptions (143), receiving yards (1850) and yards per game (57.8 ypg). Basically put, USC will have to slow down Harper (among others) if they want to limit this potent passing attack. On offense, Cal does an excellent job of spreading the field with four and five wideout sets, which could really stretch thin USC's secondary.

Last season, Harper caught six passes but could only convert those opportunities into 21 yards. Josh Shaw took a bulk of the responsibility of defending Harper during the game, and the amount of depth Cal has on the field could make it very difficult for the Trojans to feature just Kevon Seymour in Harper's way.

But if USC can take away one of Cal's most reliable threats, they can make Jared Goff force tighter throws into more contested windows, which always favors the defense.

2. Establishing The Run Game

Both USC and Cal thrive off the play-action passing game and would love to see dominant performances from both Buck Allen and Daniel Lasco on Thursday night. The Golden Bears looked rather impressive against Oregon State thanks in large part to their starting tailback, who ranks seventh in the Pac-12 in rushing putting up 88.4 yards per game.

Lasco can really make things happen with the football in his hands, especially with his 6-foot, 215-pound frame making cuts left and right out in space. The junior tailback led the Golden Bears with 20 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown against Arizona's defense and just came off a season-high 188-yard performance against Oregon State.

"I've always been a tough-nosed, hard-working person, but it didn't pay off last year," Daniel Lasco said. "So I knew I needed to take it to the next level. I did extra workouts and conditioning. I do a lot of film prep now. I focus on the opponents more and the individual things." ---via

We all know the 100-yard accolades of Buck Allen by now, but keep in mind that USC loves to rush the ball over 60-percent of the time on first down. The Trojans want to feed Allen the ball early and often, which makes establishing a nice yards per carry average vital in the first quarter. Remember, Buck only needed six touches to rush for 135 yards in Memorial Stadium last season -- his real coming up party as an explosive offensive weapon.

3. Controlling Special Teams

In a conference that has witnessed the most special teams touchdowns of any in college football (19), the stress of gap assignment and fundamentals on the third unit will be crucial. USC dominated Cal in this department last season, cashing in on two special teams scores up in Memorial Stadium.

The Trojans have taken nice strides in the return game, fueled by the insertion of Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith as the primary options on the kick-return unit. What the Bears can counter with is a strong kickoff specialist in James Langford, who once booted eight kickoffs into the end zone against the Arizona Wildcats.

As we know from the Los Angeles Coliseum, the wind can definitely favor kicking towards the Peristyle end of the field. That means both teams will have plenty of opportunities to take some kicks back out for scores on the night. Cal would vastly benefit from playing well in this department, but the Bears can take pride in knowing Bryce Treggs is one of the most explosive athletes in the nation and could take one back to the house in no time at all.