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USC vs. Cal: Player Match-ups to Watch

USC’s loss to Arizona State should have ended any possibility of a meaningful end to the season. Still, with Arizona State and Utah stumbling, the Pac-12 South is wide open. These are the match-ups to determine whether USC stays in the Pac-12 South race.

NCAA Football: California at Southern California Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Smith vs. Patrick Laird

For those who don’t know, Patrick Laird is the Cal Golden Bears’ best running back. As a senior, he has 700 yards on 160 carries, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He is a reliable option on the ground and as a short and intermediate route-runner and pass-catcher. He has 38 receptions on the year for 251 yards. In total, he has scored an incredible eight touchdowns on the season.

With the Golden Bears’ uncertainty at quarterback, their offense often relies on Laird to make steady gains on the ground and as a check-down option through the air.

NCAA Football: California at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Smith is also a senior, a captain and leader of the team who was leading the team in tackles before he missed three games due to a hamstring injury. Without Smith, the defense performed admirably. When Marvell Tell banged up and Talanoa Hufanga out with a broken collarbone however, the USC Trojan defense really needs its leader to step up. Smith can cover as well as stop the run. As long as the USC defensive line holds up, Smith should be right in his wheelhouse against Laird.

Tyler Vaughns vs. Camryn Bynum

It’s a struggle determining who USC’s number one receiving option is week to week. Through the first couple of games, it looked like Amon-Ra St. Brown was the Trojans’ best player, let alone receiver. Through the middle of the season, Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman have emerged, with Vaughns as a crisp route-runner and deep threat and Pittman as a big target who can go up and get contested catches. Meanwhile, St. Brown has inexplicably seen his playing time decrease, splitting slot responsibilities with Velus Jones.

At this point, it is indisputable that Vaughns is the Trojans’ best receiver. He will go against the Golden Bears’ best cover corner, Camryn Bynum. Bynum has defended seven passes so far. Though he has no interceptions to his name, he and the Cal defense held the high-flying Cougar offense to just 19 points in Pullman. If USC is to win this game, its talented receiving core must create separation and win match-ups.

That starts with Vaughns against Bynum.

Ajene Harris vs. Kanawai Noa

Kanawai Noa only has 28 receptions on the season.

Still, he’s second on his team in yards with 326. Noa is an explosive receiver who earns his scholarship by making tough, contested catches over the middle of the field. He has great hands and route running, and is elusive after the catch.

NCAA Football: California at Brigham Young Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Ajene Harris has plated all over the defensive secondary since the unit has been racked with injuries. Against Cal, however, he should go back to covering the slot. And boy is he good at it.

With the exception of a few big plays. Harris has been exceptional in slot coverage. He is fast, quick, and has great quick twitch reactions. Noa may try to use his frame to be physical with Harris, and how Harris handles that will be a key match-up to watch.