After starting off scorching hot versus Arizona State last week, USC managed to hold on to a 31-26 victory to secure bowl eligibility. Quarterback Kedon Slovis had a record-breaking first quarter, lighting up the ASU defense for a team high 297 yards in the opening period along with 4 passing TDs. After going up 28-7 by the end of the first and looking like a convincing blowout win on the road was in the works, the Trojans fell into a familiar pattern — taking their foot of the gas and only generating 3 points in the remaining 3 quarters. A combination of sloppy play punctuated by penalties and an atrocious special teams performance kept ASU in the game and put them in position to win the game at the end. USC and perpetually on the hot seat Head Coach Clay Helton look to put together a solid 4 quarter performance against a Golden Bears team that is finally getting healthy after a 4-game skid fueled by injuries. Coming off an impressive bounce back 33-20 win against Washington State, Cal saw the return of backup quarterback Devon Modster and a healthier offensive line revitalize their team. Here are some key players to watch for both squads Saturday night.
In recent weeks true freshman Drake London has established himself as a reliable option over the middle for Kedon Slovis. The chemistry between the two has been evident, as Slovis has often looked for the big body of the 6’5” London as a safety valve on curl and slant routes. London has made the most of these opportunities, breaking tackles and completing contested catches over smaller receivers. In many ways, London has resembled a pseudo-tight end for the Trojans, something that makes sense considering his size and his part as a member of the USC basketball team as well.
The numbers have reflected this newfound connection, with London going for 166 yards on 14 receptions with 2 TDs over the last 3 games. With starting senior wideout Tyler Vaughns listed as questionable for the Cal game, London’s role in the offense stands to grow if Vaughns is unable to go. The Golden Bear’s secondary was hyped as one of the better groups in college football prior to the beginning of the season, and while it has not quite produced as expected the talent of their corners and safeties is still undeniable. Matching up with the extremely talented USC receivers, London needs to do his part so that Cal can not commit multiple defenders to Michael Pittman and Amon-Ra St. Brown all game.
An obvious pick since senior linebacker Evan Weaver is the star of this Cal team, the impact of the consensus first team mid-season All-American can not be understated. Weaver has been a tackling machine for the Golden Bears, racking up an incomprehensible 3 20+ tackle games in this season alone. He is currently leading the nation in total tackles (137) and solo tackles (75), a testament to his ability to fly all over the field and seemingly be everywhere on the defense at all times. Perhaps the favorite for Pac-12 defensive player of the year honors, USC has to be constantly aware of his presence at all times because of his ability to blow up a play with a key tackle.
If Weaver and the rest of the linebacker corp is able to shut down the run and apply pressure on Slovis or take away his underneath reads, Cal could render the USC offense one-dimensional. As good as the Trojan receivers and passing game have been, once defenses have been able to take away the run and force Slovis to throw the ball exclusively issues with turnovers have become apparent. Weaver could make a huge impact doing exactly those things.
Redshirt freshman Justin Dedich will make his first career start at center in replacement of the injured Brett Neilon. Neilon sprained his calf in the third quarter versus ASU and is likely done for the season as a result. Neilon has been one of the big components of an improved offensive line unit from a year ago, and his loss is a major one for this Trojan squad. Fortunately, Dedich is a talented lineman who appears to have the poise and mindset to step up after being thrown into the fire. He entered the game in replacement of the injured Neilon for the remainder of the ASU game, and his first series in led to the only points in the second half as the Trojans scored a field goal on the drive (make of that what you will).
Dedich has the pedigree to succeed at the position, as he was ranked the number 1 center in his 2018 recruiting class. Coming into the season, it was a tight competition with Neilon for the starting job — but Neilon’s experience eventually allowed him to secure his starting position. That being said, the coaching staff expressed their confidence in Dedich heading into the Cal game. Once again, establishing the run game will be key because of the strength of the Cal’s secondary. Dedich will need to establish chemistry quickly with the rest of his fellow lineman to create holes for Kenan Christon (and hopefully Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepaei) to take pressure off of the passing game.
It was not long ago that Cal was 4-0 and ranked 15th nationally as the Pac-12’s final undefeated team. Since then they lost 4 games in a row, including an embarrassing 35-0 blowout to Utah before beating Washington State last week. While other injuries and factors contributed to that stark decline, one of the most significant was the loss of starting quarterback Chase Garbers to an upper body injury against Arizona State in September. Garbers was firing on all cylinders prior to his injury, completing 68-of-115 passes (59.1%) for 952 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions — contributing to a solid 148.15 QBR in the 4 games that he played.
He is also a threat in the run game, with Garbers putting his athleticism on display against North Texas by rushing for 70 yards on 18 carries. Coach Justin Wilcox announced that Garbers would be making his return and starting against USC. Garbers start at quarterback is likely the biggest X-factor in the game, as it is not clear how rust could affect him in his first game back. It goes without saying that if Garbers is able to play at the same level he was at prior to injury, this Cal offense becomes several times more potent than it has been in recent games. While Devon Modster performed admirably in relief of Garbers, particularly in the Washington State game where he had 4 total TDs and 230 yards passing, Garbers is the guy for Cal and he will get to show why against a talented but mistake-prone USC defense.