1. What makes Jared Goff such an effective quarterback, especially compared to his freshman season with Cal?
boomtho: There have been a few factors that have contributed to Goff's continued rise as a Pac12 QB. First, he's got a year of experience under his belt in the Bear Raid. He looks much more comfortable making progressions, knows when to check down, and is getting a better sense of how to audible run/pass based on what the defense is showing. He's also improved his strength significantly which has helped him shed multiple would-be sacks this year, as well as showing a bit more agility in the pocket.
Still, while we all knew Goff was a stud this year, it has probably been the non-Goff improvements that have helped our offense the most. First, our OL, while not world-beaters, has improved from 'awful' to 'average.' They're probably a bit better in run blocking than pass protection at this point, but Goff is no longer running for his life every game. The run game has improved a ton as well, both due to the OL and the huge leap lead RB Daniel Laso has taken this year. All our RB's (but Lasco in particular) look much more comfortable in the offense this year, and we've seen much more purposeful cuts and less east-west running to nowhere.
atomsareenough: Well, I'd say he was pretty effective last year even as a freshman, considering that his line wasn't protecting him, he had no run game, and we were always behind, so teams could overplay the pass. He's gotten stronger though, more accurate, better pocket awareness, great touch, just overall a more consistent passer, more mature. The line has improved a lot as well, and now we can run the football, so there's less pressure on Goff to make everything happen with his arm. Having a bevy of talented receivers also helps him look good, but he's really got all the tools you'd want from a QB. We're very excited for his future.
2. Where do you rank Cal's wide receiving corp among the Pac-12s elite?
boomtho: Before the Wazzu game, I think we said that Cal had the deepest WR corps in the Pac12, which the CougCenter commenters pretty strongly disagreed with. I'm going to double down on that position - Cal has the deepest WR corp in the Pac-12, even despite some of our recent injuries. At full strength we go legitimately 8 deep: Treggs, Harper, Lawler and Davis (the deep threats), Anderson (underneath / Mr First Down), Ray Hudson, Darius Powe, and Mo Harris. We've been a bit hobble recently (Davis and Harper both took scary hits against UCLA) but are starting to get some guys back, as it sounds like Lawler (ankle) and Davis will play this week.
atomsareenough: Honestly, at the top. I don't think any other team in the conference has the same type of depth at WR that Cal does. Arizona, Wazzu, and USC have some very talented receivers as well, but nobody has a complete 2-deep like ours.
3. Cal has emphasized feeding Daniel Lasco the football in the running game. How much of that should we expect against USC?
boomtho: I would expect us to continue that trend, at least early on. Dykes, all the way back to his LA Tech days, has always wanted a 50-50 run/pass balance. People seemed to forget or ignore that last year, not realizing that we were passing so much because a) we couldn't run the ball at all and b) we were down so often.
The problem is obviously that Cal has had basically on success running on USC in the past few years. We have a better run game now than last year, but even when we had studs like Best and Vereen we didn't get much going on the ground against USC. This could be a key battle that decides how successful Cal can be on offense.
atomsareenough: Unless Cal falls behind early (which is definitely possible), I'd expect a pretty balanced attack from the Bears. The Bear Raid is supposed to be a balanced offense, as it was at Louisiana Tech, and the effectiveness of the run game has really allowed the system to flourish this year.
4. What did Cal do so well that allowed them to almost beat UCLA and Arizona?
boomtho: Against UCLA, I honestly think we didn't play great. What stood out was how opportunistic we were at capitalizing off of UCLA turnovers (they had 3 vs our 1). We actually gained 200 fewer yards than UCLA but had a shot to win largely because we capitalized and were able to make a few defensive stops in the 3rd quarter. Arizona was a different story - I thought we played fantastic and were very unlucky to lose. Cal's D stifled the Wildcat running game (they averaged 3.3 yards per carry), did a decent job getting after Solomon (not really able to get him down, unfortunately) and didn't miss tackles... until the 4th.
atomsareenough: We sustained drives, and finished them off consistently with TDs. Against UCLA we forced some turnovers. The defense was pretty solid for 3 quarters against the Wildcats (it was 31-13 Cal heading into the 4th).
5. Cal's defense has allowed its fair share of deep passes this year. How will Cal try to slow down Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith in the passing game?
boomtho: Cal's D is really in a tough spot. We are one of the worst (if not the absolute worst) teams in the country at creating pressure, no matter if we bring 3 or 6. That leaves our secondary trying to cover for perhaps 3+ seconds which is really a recipe for disaster. Art Kaufman has shown a nice balance of trying to scheme pressure while not overcomplicating the defense, so I'd expect that to continue. (that being said, I think Cal will be more opportunistic when they blitz rather than bringing constant pressure). More often than not, I expect Cal to drop into pretty vanilla 3 or 4 man rushes and try to contain the USC receivers without letting them get over the top. Not a sexy strategy, I know, but Cal is so limited personnel wise (our current safety is a walk-on who replaced our previous walk-on safety when he tore his ACL!) that there aren't any better options I can see.
atomsareenough: While it's true that we've allowed our share of deep passes, we're still so much better about that than we were last year, when we had our share plus about 5 other teams' shares. Anyway, I expect that Kaufman will deploy some deep safety looks to provide help and hopefully avoid getting beat over the top too badly. The problem for Cal on defense though has been a lack of a pass rush. Even if the coverage is solid, Kessler will have the time to hit his checkdown, so the Bears will have to wrap up and tackle. That's been an issue at times as well, but it's been better of late.
6. How many fans will travel down for the game and do you feel Cal thinks they have a punchers chance against USC on Thursday night?
boomtho: I haven't been to a game at the Coliseum since 2008, but I think there will be a decent Cal contingent there given how many alums we have in the LA area. I think the fans and the team both believe they have a legit chance to beat the Trojans and end this horrible streak. Looking back at our match ups, this is probably the best chance we've thought we've had coming into the game since 2009, or perhaps even 2007.
atomsareenough: No clue about the number, but I expect a vocal Cal contingent. I do think we have a puncher's chance, certainly. We've been in every game this year, except for a strange hiccup against Washington. I'd say we probably have a 30-40% chance of winning this one. I know the last 10 years have been all USC, but every year is different.
7. How surprised is this fan base that Cal could make a Bowl Game this year after suffering through so many injuries, and losses, last season?
boomtho: Well, I don't think we can actually make a Rose Bowl (is that even mathematically still possible?) but I think the fan base is thrilled at how far we've come this year. When CGB ran a preseason poll, I think the expected win range was 3-4, so in one respect we've already beaten expectations. On top of the wins, we've look a lot more competitive than last year, pushing very highly ranked teams (Arizona and UCLA) to the very last plays of the game. If I had to venture a guess, the most optimistic fans may have been in the 7-8 win range, so the fact that total is still in play is pretty awesome.
atomsareenough: I'm probably the exception, but I'm not that surprised. We were probably talented enough to win 3-4 games last year, but the injuries and turmoil really hurt, and the team just packed it in a bit by the end of the season. With guys returning from injury, and another year of development with the new staff, I was expecting anywhere between 3-6 wins this year, though 3 would have been a bit of a disappointment. So, I'm glad to see that we're on track, and hopefully in position to exceed my most optimistic expectation. I'm sure that most of the fan base is pretty shocked though, as doom and gloom has been a way of life for Cal fans.
8. Your thoughts on this game and your final score prediction?
boomtho: Even though I only started school in 2007, I've seen too many absolute hammerings at the hands of the Trojans to feel optimism about this game. I'd say USC wins 41-31, with Cal fighting till the end but falling short.
atomsareenough: Hopeful prediction: Cal 45, USC 38
Realistic prediction: USC 41, Cal 35.