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USC vs. Cal Game Preview: A pivotal contest for the Trojans who remain in the hunt for the Pac-12 South

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After holding on to a win against Oregon State, USC faces a tough challenge versus Cal in a game that has a lot riding for the Trojans.

California v USC Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

USC will look to stay on the win column Saturday night at the Coliseum when the Cal Golden Bears and former Trojans defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox roll to town for a key conference game. The Trojans picked up a much-needed moral boosting victory up in Corvallis against Oregon State last week and will certainly need to keep that momentum going into their showdown against the Golden Bears if they hope to keep their aspirations for a second-consecutive Pac-12 championship alive.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Oregon State Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

In the first game with head coach Clay Helton handling the play calling, the Trojans’ offense looked a lot more productive. Granted, they were facing an Oregon State defense that is ranked 128th in the country in points against. This week against a more competitive defense in Cal, Helton & Co. will have their work cut out. The Golden Bears are 21st in the nation in total team defense.

Against Oregon State, freshman quarterback JT Daniels completed 14 of his 26 attempts for 177 yards and one touchdown in his first game back since suffering a concussion against Utah. A majority of Daniels’ pass completions were to short intermediate routes although he did complete a 41-yard touchdown pass to freshman Devon Williams. It was a pretty quiet night for the Mater Dei product but it was quite the opposite for running back Aca’Cedric Ware, who rushed for a career-high 205 yards. There’s no question that USC will lean heavily on Ware once again, especially since Cal is giving up an average of 175.7 yards on the ground per game.

It’ll be far from a walk in the park against Wilcox’s unit but if the Trojans can pick up from where they left off against the Beavers, chances are good they’ll be able to score at least 20 points against a Cal team that held Washington and Washington State to less than that total.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Oregon State Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

While it was far from an enlightening performance by USC’s defense last Saturday against Oregon State, the Trojans did rebound late in the second half after allowing a 21-point lead to slip away. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s unit did hold the Beavers’ feature back and Harbor City native Jermar Jefferson to 58 yards on 18 rush attempts but got exposed at times in the secondary.

Fifth year senior quarterback Jake Luton threw for 301 yards against USC. He flirted with another big comeback in the second quarter, bringing the Beavers back from a 21-point deficit and had them knocking on the door until Ware opened the game up with his 62-yard touchdown run in the third. Having senior linebacker Cam Smith back certainly helped the defense and overall it looked like a more complete unit, even though Porter Gustin, the Trojans’ best pass rusher, is done for the season.

Fortunately for USC’s defense, it gets to face one of the worst offensive teams in the Pac-12 in Cal. No longer are the Golden Bears the high-powered offense they used to be when quarterback Jared Goff and former coach Sonny Dykes were running things up in Berkeley. They’re quite the opposite nowadays.

Cal’s offense is only averaging 23.8 points per game (tied for 108th in the nation) and is 91st in the country when throwing the ball, averaging 205.7 yards per game. It’s quarterback situation is shaky to say the least, with freshman Chase Garbers handling most of the passing attempts and sophomore Brandon McIlwain in behind center for running plays.

The one major cause for concern for Trojans fans is the depth Cal has at the wide receiver position. Considering that USC’s secondary has been shredded all year, there’s a good chance the Trojans will have a hard time limiting Golden Bears pass catchers such as Vic Wharton III and Patrick Laird, who although he is a running back is probably one of the best at catching passes out of the backfield in the conference.

However, the Trojans are 70-30-5 against Cal and have not lost to the Golden Bears since that back-and-forth game up in Berkeley in 2003, when USC went on to win a share of the national title.