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Know the Opponent: Cal Golden Bears

by Garry Paskwietz

How often does a team lose the top draft choice in the NFL and you can claim their offense hasn’t really missed a beat the following year? That’s certainly the case this year with the California Golden Bears, who watched Jared Goff depart for the LA Rams yet they have plugged in grad transfer Davis Webb and kept on producing.

That’s the first thing that jumps out to you about this Cal team, they are throwing the ball around the yard with all the abandon we’ve seen from Sonny Dykes in his four years with the Bears. Webb is one of two key additions to the Cal offense in 2016, the other is offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who has earned a status as a rising coordinator for the work he did in recent years at Texas A&M.

Webb had plenty of starting experience at Texas Tech, where he earned the job for part of his true freshman season and the first 8 games of his sophomore year as well, but ankle and shoulder issues sent him to the sideline and the door opened for Patrick Mahomes to get the job. Webb then looked to take advantage of the grad transfer rule after sitting behind Mahomes as a junior, and he originally committed to Colorado before eventually changing his mind and enrolling at Cal.

The experienced Webb offered an important piece for Dykes to put into his offensive system after losing Goff and the top six receivers from 2015. Webb had thrown for over 5,500 yards and 46 touchdowns in his time at Texas Tech so he was getting a veteran player in a 6-5, 220 frame. And with Spavital, who came from the same Mike Leach-Kliff Kingsbury coaching tree as Dykes, it was the ability to match a play caller with a quarterback who had a lot of familiarity with what he wanted to do.

The results have been impressive so far. Webb has thrown for over 300 yards in 6 of the 7 Cal games, and his 27 TD passes rank #2 in the nation. He’s also done a good job of spreading the ball around to a surprisingly good group of skill players, considering what was lost last year. The Bears are running the ball well led by Khalfani Muhammad, who is averaging 6.7 yards per carry while operating behind an offensive line that features 4 of 5 starters return from last year. The receiver spot was replenished with the addition of Idaho State transfer Chad Hansen (who is 3rd in the nation in catches with 9.8 per game) along with a pair of true freshmen in Melquise Stovall (one-time USC commit) and Demetris Robertson.

USC coach Clay Helton noted that the Bears are more balanced than in past years in terms of pass vs run plays, and they also run a lot of plays. They average 87 offensive plays a game and recently set an FBS record with 118 plays in a single game. Helton said defensive substitutions for the Trojans will be critical in this game.

When it comes to defense for Cal, well, this is where things get interesting. This is not a good Bears defense, they rank in the bottom 10 in the nation in total defense, run defense and scoring defense. Granted, those numbers are partly skewed based upon the style of play, just as their offensive numbers are, but it still shows that there is opportunity for the USC offense to put up some numbers.

On paper, the Cal victories over Oregon, Texas and Utah look pretty good (and the Trojans would dearly love to have the W over the Utes right now) but there’s a reason the oddsmakers have put the Trojans as a 14-point favorite. If USC can come out and continue to play with the same kind of energy that we’ve seen in recent games then they should come out of this rare Thursday night game with the win, and prepare for a November stretch that should be as exciting as any finishing month in recent USC memory.

Garry Paskwietz
Garry Paskwietz

A 1988 graduate of USC with a degree in Sports Information. Worked in sports marketing for LA Lakers and Miller Brewing Company. Began covering the Trojans in 1996 with the Trojan Football Fax. Founded WeAreSC in November 1998 with stints at Scout and ESPN. Emmy-winner while covering high school football at Fox Sports West.

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