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Previewing Cal Football with California Golden Blogs

Cal has lost 11 in a row against USC. Will that change this year? What needs to change for Cal after a disappointing loss at UCLA?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Cal hasn't had luck against USC in a long time. In fact, they haven't beaten the Trojans since the triple overtime 34-31 victory for the Bears in 2003. We talked with three writers from California Golden Blogs about Saturday's contest.

1) Sonny Dykes said after the UCLA game that his team had a great week of practice and they came into the game ready. Then the game happened. Is Dykes a good coach and how much longer does he have with the team if they don’t get back to the winning ways?

Piotr T. Le: I think we did not expect UCLA to come-out this fast with these adjustments. This was a surprise to an over-confidence Cal team which falls on coaching. I think he has a post-Goff season before him at the least.

Nick Kranz: The first question is hard to answer. Sonny Dykes is probably a good coach. I think anybody that can turn a 1-11 program into a program disappointed at being 5-2 in two years is at least a decent head coach. The question Cal fans are asking at the moment is what Dykes' ceiling as a head coach is. Is he a guy that can occasionally compete for a conference title? Will his offense succeed against high-end competition? What happens when he doesn't have Jared Goff? Because we are only now starting to see what he can do when not burdened with a massive rebuild, we don't have answers to those questions yet.

He's not getting fired any time soon, and rightfully so. If Cal were in the business of firing coaches every time they didn't win the Pac-12 north we'd have a new head coach every year. The question for this season is whether or not to offer an extension. The answer to that question will probably be yes. The terms? That's a much more complicated question.

boomtho: I agree with pretty much everything Nick said. Dykes has accomplished too much in his career, both at LA Tech and early in this rebuilding effort at Cal, to not be at least a decent coach. He also, during his Cal career, appears to made pretty decent hires and decisions, the disastrous Andy Buh hire notwithstanding (to his credit, he moved on from him after one year).

Dykes is not on the hot seat, but as a recent (surprisingly inflammatory) CGB post pointed out, the question of an extension probably looms after this year. If Dykes can finish the year with one win over the USC-Oregon-Stanford trio, plus OSU, to finish at 7-5, he probably gets a pretty decent extension. If we only beat OSU, maybe he gets a short one. If we lose out... I still don't see him getting fired, though the lack of an extension would be a pretty damning sign of him being on a very hot seat.
2) Jared Goff is good, really good. What makes Goff so good and how do you think he will do in the pros?
Piotr T. Le: Pocket presence. This is one skill that QB coaches struggle in teaching the most. Goff has the arm and mind to get the ball out and in the right place, however it is his ability to shuffle with very deliberate, minimal, and correct directions in the pocket while keeping his eyes down the field that make him an exceptional QB.
Nick Kranz: The quick answer is accuracy and decision making. He's a very, very accurate passer, and he's given a high degree of decision making responsibility within the offense. Teams that blitz him tend to pay because he can so quickly identify his hot route and make an accurate throw even under duress. Part of the reason Cal has struggled in the last two games is because Utah and UCLA didn'tblitz Goff, got pressure anyway, and made his reads much more difficult by having 8 or 9 guys in coverage.
boomtho: The simple answer is because he has nearly every tool you'd want your favorite NFL team's QB to have.
boomtho: First off, he's smart, and shows a very mature ability to read the defense and work through progressions. Everyone claims the Bear Raid is a "simple" offense that takes a lot of the burden off the QB, but I don't think that's quite fair. Goff often has a read/pass option on many plays, and he also often cycles through multiple progressions to find the most open receiver. He is even showing improvement in his ability to look safeties off before rifling a pass down field.
Second, he's got good arm strength and consistently makes "NFL" throws. By that, I mean he's not going to rip a 60 yard throw off the run like Aaron Rodgers, but he's got good enough arm strength to deliver the ball on time down field, especially to the corners or sideline of the field. More impressive than his arm strength is his touch and accuracy, though.
Third, he has gotten SO much better at using his feet in the pocket to step into throws, evade pressure, and extend plays. Again, he's not a mobile quarterback, so he doesn't have the physical tools of say a Marcus Mariotta or Colin Kaepernick. His agility is more like Eli Manning or Matt Ryan, players that can move around in the pocket, sidestep pressure, and then step into deliver a great ball.
Last, by all accounts, he's a standup guy and a good leader (Kenny Lawler was effusive in his praise of Goff after the UW game). Knowing that, the NFL will probably find a way to spin him into being "too good", like the nonsense quotes that scouts put out about Mariotta.
I think his NFL future, like most QB's, will depend heavily on the situation in which he lands. If he ends up in Chicago with good skill position players and some presumed stability at HC, I think he'll do quite well. If he ends up on a team with a revolving door at HC and a weak OL, I think he will be in the slightly-below-average to slightly-above-average range.
3) It’s been a long time since Cal beat USC, what needs to happen for the Bears to win?
Piotr T. Le: We need to put a complete game together. USC is dripping with raw talent that correctly harnesses can challenge the best teams. We do not have the physical or athletic talent and thus need to make up in other parts of the game. One point = the WRs need to do their job and get open and the DBs cannot let JuJu and Adoree’ juke their ankles off. I don’t mimd Kessler getting a high completion % as long as we can contain explosive plays and funnel the WRs in the middle. They need to hit and hit hard. And Tre Madden? If we can keep him under 4 ypc I will be happy. 
Nick Kranz: Well, it would help if USC came out flat against Cal for the first time in more than a decade. USC has played down to pretty much every other team in the conference over that time span, but never against Cal. But if both teams come out playing solid football, then Cal's fate will be decided in the trenches. Can Cal's d line get a little pressure on Kessler, and not let USC run rampant on the ground? Can Cal's offensive line give Goff time when USC rushes only 3 or 4, forcing USC to blitz and opening up wide receivers down the field? If yes, then it will probably be a close game. If not, Cal/USC will probably look a lot like Cal/UCLA.
boomtho: Cal needs to actually keep the game close through the first half, unlike last year. On defense, Cal needs to tackle, tackle, tackle - last year, Agholor made our defenders look silly, and I'm very scared that Juju Smith-Schuster will do the same. On offense, Cal needs to handle the USC pressure and give Goff more than 2 seconds to actually make something happen. Coaching wise, I think Dykes will need to not waste timeouts (as he sometimes does, especially at odd times) and probably be a bit aggressive on 4th down. A little luck wouldn't hurt as well!
4) Who are players on offense and defense that Trojan fans may not know about but should?
Piotr T. Le: I think the biggest one is Stephen Anderson our WR/TE. The surest hands on the team and the physical size to get the nasty yards in the middle
Nick Kranz: I'm guessing USC fans know about Kenny Lawler already, so I'll go with running back Khalfani Muhammad. Cal has been going with a running back by committee approach because Daniel Lasco's hip injury has limited him all season. Muhammad is a track star who has finally started translating his athletic ability into on-field production, and he's been Cal's most productive back over the last few weeks in limited carries. I'm betting he gets more looks this week, and if he finds space he can chew up yardage quickly.
On defense? Kyle Kragen is the key man - he's Cal's most productive lineman by far, and if anybody is going to be making plays in the backfield it would be him. His production rushing the quarterback and stopping runs is crucial for Cal's defense. If you don't hear his name, it probably means USC is scoring many points.
boomtho: Since Nick mentioned Khalfani Muhammad, I'll mention Stephen Anderson. Last year, Anderson was Mr. 3rd down - I don't recall the numbers, but a very high percentage of his catches went for 1st down conversions. He's had a quiet start to the year, but he's the kind of 'under the radar 'player that could thrive while Lawler and Treggs draw more attention.
5) Cal is 5-2 but on a two-game losing streak, can this team turn it around and finish in the top of the Pac-12 North?
Piotr T. Le: It can but I do not see that happening. Stanford is rolling through teams thus it would take a Stanford loss and a win during the Big Game for us to clench the tiebreaker.
Nick Kranz: No, but that's because Stanford is going to win the North even if Cal pulls a huge Big Game upset. I have zero faith in any of Stanford's other Pac-12 opponents even playing the Cardinal tough, let alone winning. Frankly, I'm rather frustrated with USC, who like usual lost to Stanford but have their act together in time for Cal. 
boomtho: Like Nick, I think that ship has sailed, like so many before it. I think Cal has a decent chance to finish top 2 in the North... but that would require Cal sustaining a level of play that we have not been able to consistently this year. 
6) Score prediction.
Piotr T. Le: I defer.
Nick Kranz: USC 41, Cal 31
boomtho: USC 48, Cal 24... let me explain. I matriculated at Cal in 2007, so not only have I never seen Cal beat USC, even the upperclassmen I met as a freshman hadn't seen that victory. I'll believe Cal can actually beat USC probably 1 week after we actually do.
7) Bonus question: When I tell you Aaron Rodgers and the USC goal-line stand game, what do you think of?
Nick Kranz: Partly, I think of how annoyed I was with Cal's special teams, which did more to lose that game for Cal than anybody else. Partly, I think about how Cal was so close to a national title game appearance, which was unbelievable then and even more inconceivable now. But mostly I'm reminded of the single best college football game I have ever watched in terms of talent on the field playing at its best. Those two teams were stacked with pro talent, and they both brought their absolute A games to the field that day. It's the best I've ever seen Cal play in a loss.
boomtho: I think "man, I missed the best of Cal football, even the losses." And then I get angry at Mack Brown.

Thanks for the answers and as always, you can find all of your Cal news at California Golden Blogs' website here.