Stan Szeto - USA Today Sports
It's been fourteen long years since the Bears took down a top 5 ranked USC program, and Cal will have another shot at the Trojans Saturday, looking for an upset to rival the 34-31 3OT victory in 2003, Justin Wilcox's first season as Cal's linebackers coach.
It's the first stop of the Wilcox Revenge Tour, as the USC game begins a stretch against teams he coached and played for, in the Trojans, Oregon, and Washington. It's also set to be the biggest challenge for the Bears this year so far, as USC is the most talented team across the board that Cal has faced and Wilcox called SC quarterback Sam Darnold "arguably the best player in the country." A team that has won with defense will be challenged yet again.
What's known now is that Cal is resilient, a team that adjusts well in the second half, and is starting to get pressure more consistently from a wide array of sources.
Three Things We Know:
Devante Downs is the lynchpin of the defense
Our Nam Le has been beating the Downs drum for four year now, to the point that it has become a running joke, but Downs had always showed the explosiveness and talent that's on full display at the moment. When the new coaching staff got here, Downs has been used as an explosive blitzer up the middle, collapsing the pocket like a cannonball running through a ship. Pro Football Focus noted that Downs got seven pressures on his 14 pass rush attempts, and Downs ended Ole Miss's hopes with a devastating sack up the middle, coming through the A-gap to take out Shea Patterson.
That confidence has upped his game in other areas as he's the team leader in tackles, interceptions, sacks, tackles for loss, and tied for the lead in QB hurries, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries. He's been everywhere on his way to winning Pac-12 defensive player of the week twice in three weeks, and he'll be called on to have a monster game against USC.
Cal may be a Fourth Quarter team
Through three games, Cal has outscored opponents 40-6 in the final frame. There have been many 'fourth quarter's ours' chants in Memorial Stadium over the years, and a couple mentions of winning the second half during some down years, but this Cal team is holding teams down when it matters, with defense and taking advantage of mistakes.
It's a credit to the coaching staff for adjusting, like they did against Ole Miss, shifting to a nickel, and dropping back more in coverage to avoid more coverage breakdowns, along with bringing the four man rush with multiple linebackers at the fourth man. Guys are in the right position, and that's been ingrained to the point where the knowledge and muscle memory is still there when they've been tired.
Offensive Consistency Still Needed, though OL is solidifying
The biggest problem coming out of Saturday is the need for more offensive consistency. Multiple passes were dropped. 3rd and 1 from the 2 was not converted. Ross Bowers threw a bad interception in the redzone. There were many good things that presented themselves, as the offense did miss having Demetris Robertson, out with an undisclosed injury. Kanawai Noa became a monster 3rd and 4th down threat, highlighted by one of the best catches you'll see this year. Brandon Singleton filled in with four catches on mainly slants, getting solid yardage. Vic Enwere had a monster 4th and 1 run, sprung by a spine compressing block by Malik McMorris. These things have to become a bit more commonplace, as the Bears continue to see the schedule difficulty crank up.
What good came from it is seeing the offensive line come together with different pieces late, as Gentle Williams and Ryan Gibson were manning the guard spots by the end for the Bears. Both held up, as the Cal line only allowed one sack and Jake Curhan was chosen as the offensive player of the game. It's a young group, but Steve Greatwood has been getting them going every game.
Can the Bears stymie Darnold like they did with Patterson?
Sam Darnold is a better quarterback than Shea Patterson. It's not just the tangible results, but Darnold is comfortable in a more complex offense than Patterson, one that can more readily take advantage of defenses. That being said, the Ole Miss receiver group is probably more talented than USC's, but the Trojans have a ton of talent as well. The Bears will need to do what they did over the final 43 minutes of the Ole Miss game to Darnold, which means getting pressure and forcing the clock to count down faster in Darnold's head to force turnovers. USC has a lot of talent on the line, so the Bears are going to need to get creative up front.
Stopping the Run Game
The Bears had enough success stopping the run their first three games, but USC brings a couple running backs in Ronald Jones and true freshmen Stephen Carr that have been superb for the Trojans, as USC out Stanford-ed the Cardinal in their matchup. Slowing the USC backs is probably the biggest goal for the game, as the Bears have shown, at least against Ole Miss, that they can ramp up QB pressure when a team becomes one dimensional. To do that, they have to take away a dimension.
One Bold Prediction
Three Forced Turnovers
That seems to be the number for the Bears, who are already halfway to their turnovers forced mark from a year ago. Darnold has thrown six interceptions already, and the Cal defense is hungry for more. Two interceptions and a fumble recovery, forced by Quentin Tartabull, is the prediction for Saturday.