By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com
The Obvious: Following a much needed bye, the well-rested USC Trojans (4-3, 3-2 Pac-12 South) will host the not-so-well-rested Cal Bears (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12 North) on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. PT/ESPN) in a Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum game that figures to light up the historic stadium’s scoreboard to the max.
The Not So Obvious: The Trojans have not played a game since October 15 when they waxed the Arizona Wildcats 48-14 in Tucson. Conversely, head coach Sonny Dykes’ Cal Bears are coming off on a very short turnaround, having outlasted the Oregon Ducks, 52-49, in double overtime last Friday night in Berkeley. It presents quite a contrast. Are the Trojans too well rested to function smoothly or are the Bears too fatigued from their recent schedule of consecutive overtime games?
The Obvious: The Trojans opened a 14-point favorite over Cal.
The Not So Obvious: The Trojan lead the series with California, which dates back to 1915, 67-30-5 (not including Troy’s 2005 victory that was vacated due to NCAA penalty; original record: 68-30-5). The Trojans have not lost to the Golden Bears since 2003. In Los Angeles-area games, the Trojans hold a 33-18-4 edge and have been victorious the last seven games in the Coliseum. Last season in Berkeley on Halloween, CB-WR-RET Adoree’ Jackson returned an interception for a touchdown, tailbacks Ronald Jones and Tre Madden ran for TDs and placekicker Alex Wood connected on a pair of field goals to lead the Men of Troy to a tough 27-21 victory over the Bears.
The Obvious: Thursday night’s Trojans/Cal game will be nationally televised live on the ESPN (7:30 p.m. PT).
The Not So Obvious: The ESPN broadcasters for Thursday night’s kickoff will be Mike Patrick (play-by-play), Ed Cunningham (analysis), and Dr. Jerry Punch (sidelines).
The Obvious: Thursday’s Trojans radio game broadcast of the USC/ Cal game will air live on ESPNLA 710 AM at 7:30 p.m. (PT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).
The Trojans four-hour ESPNLA 710 pregame (3:30 a.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show on Thursday will feature Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz, and WeAreSC contributor Jeremy Hogue.
The Not So Obvious: The Cal broadcast can be heard on flagship station KGO 810 AM with Joe Starkey (play-by-play), Mike Pawlawski (analyst), and Todd McKim (sideline).
Thursday’s game can also be heard on ESPN Radio with Bill Rosinki (play-by-play), David Norrie and Ian Fitzsimmons (analyst). The Pac-12 game can also be heard on Sirius XM satellite radio (channel 80) or on the Tuneln Radio app.
The Obvious: The Los Angeles weather on Thursday calls for cloudy with a high of 79, 53 percent humidity, and a low of 63 degrees.
The Not So Obvious: We’ll see whether the Trojans can keep pace with Cal’s high scoring “Bear Raid” offense, or have the Trojans improving defense manned up enough to keep the Bears offense in a manageable containment?
Offensively, although Trojans starting tailback Justin Davis is highly doubtful (high ankle sprain), we’ll see whether the Men of Troy can take full advantage of an extremely weak Bears defense. Cal has allowed 22 rushing touchdowns, the most in the nation. Adding to its rush defense woes is the knowledge that the Bears are giving up 270.7 rushing yards per game, which would seem like crosshairs for Trojan offensive coordinator Tee Martin’s game plan. For Trojan sophomore running backs Aca’Cedric Ware and Ronald Jones ll, they could play a huge role in how productive the offense can be. It figures that Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold, who has thrown 11 TD passes in the past three games and is the Trojans most productive running QB in 25 seasons, will keep fans on the edge of their seats, and we’ll see whether the Bears defense can control the Trojans dual-threat quarterback, which should be quite a strain on the men from Berkeley. One major key for the Trojans passing game will be whether the loss of slot receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. (ACL) and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s health (back) affect the passing game. JuJu says he’s fine and ready to go. Don’t be surprised by the production of Mitchell’s replacement, sophomore Deontay Burnett, who is close to matching his fallen buddy in explosiveness. Again, it will be intriguing to see whether the Trojans tight ends play a prominent role on Thursday night. We’ll see whether the Trojans offensive line can make some big dents in a Bears defense and help control the ball so that the Bears offense stays on the sidelines as long as possible.
Defensively, we’ll find out whether the Trojans defense has progressed as assumed, as the Bears present an extremely potent offense that will test the Cardinal and Gold on three levels of defense. The Golden Bears’ potent pass-happy offense ranks in the national Top 10 in passing offense (second, 370.3), total offense (545.3) and scoring offense (43.7). It remains to be seen whether the Trojans defense is ready for a quarterback the caliber of Cal’s Davis Webb, a Texas Tech transfer who replaced former No. 1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff. Webb has 300-yard outings in six of seven games this season and is second in the nation in passing TDs (27) and third in passing yards. Some still wonder whether the Trojans secondary, led by junior All-Pac-12 corner Adoree’ Jackson, is ready for receivers like former Idaho State starter Chad Hansen, who is third nationally in receptions. Cal has surprisingly found a ground game, and it’s led by senor speedster Khalfani Muhammad, who is 9th nationally in all-purpose running.
With Cal’s high powered offense, it will be imperative the Trojans get peak performances from junior placekicker Matt Boermeester and sophomore punter Chris Tilbey and kickoff and punt returner Adoree’ Jackson. In those three special teams performers, the Trojans may have the best trio of special teams skill players in the conference.
The bottom line to Thursday night’s game is whether the Trojans can outscore the Bears and whether the Cardinal and Gold defense is able to keep the Cal point damage to a minimum.
The Obvious: Trojans first-year head coach is Clay Helton is well aware that the Cal Bears can score points, thanks to a dynamic passing offense.
The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Bears, Helton said this week, “One of the things that really stands out is the number of skill players they have all over the field. From the wideouts, to the quarterback, to the running back, all are elite. It all starts with (quarterback) Davis Webb. You’re talking about a guy that has already thrown for 27 touchdowns and really brings a great sense of maturity to his game. They’ve given him some things that have enabled him to signal and call his own plays sometimes. He’s surrounded by an unbelievable receiving corps led by Chad Hansen. They’re a little more balanced than they have been. They’re 60 percent pass to 40 percent run. That was probably 80-20 last year. They’re running the ball effectively, about 170 yards per game. (Khalfani) Muhammad and (Tre) Watson are doing an unbelievable job. Muhammad is averaging 6.7 yards per carry.”
The Obvious: The head football coach for Cal is Sonny Dykes, now in his fourth season with the Golden Bears.
The Not So Obvious: Many of the Cal Bears players come from Southern California and are looking forward to Thursday night’s game, according to Sonny Dykes. The coach said earlier this week, “I’m sure it means something, and it should. This has been one of the top programs in college football and has great tradition. They’ve got a team full of future NFL players, and when you play those kinds of teams, you want to go out there and play your very best. If that doesn’t motivate you, I think there’s something wrong.”
The Obvious: After last season’s game, there were hostile feelings by the Cal players, and they are making it known that revenge is on their minds.
The Not So Obvious: According to Cal senior offensive left guard Chris Borrayo, who has been on the losing end of the past three games between the two teams, “I want to beat the crap out of USC. I don’t remember the score, but I remember the whipping we got my freshman year. Ever since then, the goal was to make sure we beat the crap out of them or die trying.
“It was a pretty nasty game my freshman year, and I don’t know if you guys understand this about USC: Class is not in their name. It’s something important to me and something very important to our team to know we’re going out there trying to win.”
The Obvious: The 2016 Trojans offense is averaging 28.3 points per game while the Cal defense is allowing 41.2 points per outing.
The Not So Obvious: The 2016 Cal offense is averaging 43.7 points per game while the Trojans defense is allowing 24.0 points per game.
The Obvious: It figures that the team with most productive and efficient quarterback will win the game on Thursday night.
The Not So Obvious: Against Oregon last Friday night, Cal senior quarterback Davis Webb completed 42-of-61 passes for 325 yards and five touchdown passes, along with a rushing touchdown. Webb now ranks fifth on the school’s single-season passing touchdown list with 27 in 2016. He now has six four-touchdown passing performances this season, the most in the nation. It was also the third time this season he has thrown five touchdown passes.
The Obvious: Although many see Cal as a passing team, but the Bears have two standout running backs in senior Khalfani Muhammad junior Tre Watson, who hails from local and state powerhouse Corona (Calif.) Centennial.
The Not So Obvious: In Cal’s last two games, Watson (154) and Muhammad (148) have each rushed for over 100 yards. The last time Cal had two rushers with back-to-back 100-yard performances was in 2004 – J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch against Washington and Stanford. Watson’s yardage was a career high and he also set a career high in all-purpose yardage with 261 yards. Watson also recorded his first career multi-receiving TD performance of his career against the Ducks. BTW, Muhammad is a graduate of local Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame High.
The Obvious: The Trojans have played 1,222 games in its history.
The Not So Obvious: Only twice—when Troy snapped No. 1-ranked California’s 38-game regular season unbeaten streak in 1951 at Berkeley and in 2012’s loss at Stanford—has the final score been a very football-like 21-14 (win or lose).
The Obvious: The Trojans have five players from Northern California on their roster.
The Not So Obvious: Those Trojans that have previously attended a Bay Area school include: ILB Michael Hutchings (De La Salle HS), SNP Zach Smith (Menlo School, TE Tyler Petite (Campolindo HS), CB Isaiah Langley (Football HS), and P Chris Tilbey (San Francisco City College).
The Obvious: And finally, it’s common knowledge that Trojans fans and those around the conference detest the late night Thursday games.
The Not So Obvious: This USC-California game will be just the fourth-ever non-Thanksgiving or non-bowl Thursday game the Trojans played in the Coliseum. The last time Troy played a home game on a Thursday was in 2015 against Washington (a 17-12 Trojan loss in early October). The Trojans also have had Thursday home games in 2014 against California (a 38-30 Trojan win in mid-November) and in 2013 against Arizona (a 38-31 Trojan win in mid-October). Before that, the Trojans last Thursday home game came in 1938 on Thanksgiving, a 42-7 victory over UCLA. Overall in Thursday games in the Coliseum, the Cardinal and Gold are 7-3-2 (wins in Thanksgiving Day games in 1919-26-30-38, a win in the 1925 Christmas Festival, versus Arizona in 2013 and versus California in 2014, losses on Thanksgiving in 1891 and 1916 and versus Washington in 2015 and ties on Thanksgiving in 1917 and 1936).