The Novel: USC

Trace Travers, Publisher
Golden Bear Report

John Hefti - USA Today Sports

I. Intro

Justin Wilcox, I’m mad at you.

No, I’m furious. Furious, and disappointed too.

See, at halftime, I sat baking on the bleachers I know too well, feeling something I have rarely felt when facing down a Los Angeles team in crimson and yellow – that we were both capable of ending the streak this year, and somehow underperforming at the same time.

If you had told me that we would be tied 13-13 going into the third quarter against SC, I would have taken it before the game, and anyone would. Then, watching what actually unfolded and finding a strong case we could have won it?

Yeah. I’m mad. You ruined my ability to be okay with the results, because we weren’t supposed to be here yet – teams that are rebuilding under dramatic scheme shifts shouldn’t be ready to put a scare into the no. 5 team in the country, let alone walk away feeling like they let the game get away from them.

But you don’t care. Through the first four games of your tenure, you’ve proven that much. To you, no team is treated as untoppleable, gambling lines to be ignored -- we’ve been underdogs in three of four games. You haven’t blinked, preferring to stay tightlipped at press conferences and simply continuing to work away, and that work has started to make us feel hopeful again here in Berkeley.

The fact that I am sitting here, typing on my BART ride home, devastated for a 15th straight year, is a testament to the path you have this program on at the moment, because no one was expecting the game to be close enough today to really even be emotionally invested in the first place.

This is so new, as a feeling – to have security and confidence in the head of the program, and play beyond our current station.

Thank you.

II. Other thoughts

This was a weird loss in the sense that it burned more the further away I got from it, which makes very little sense, but is honestly how I felt. It’s not the most painful loss I’ve ever experienced while having to write this column, though. So there’s that.

Apparently I am misremembering the 2015 game, in which the Bears actually outplayed SC for YPP and had several chances to win late, only to whiff on a defensive stop. For whatever reason, this one felt as close as we’ve gotten – even closer than that 2015 one -- despite the score, which is odd, but may just be how I feel due to recency bias.

I think the Bears win next week in Autzen. In years past, a loss like this could become something that unravels the season, but I’ve seen enough to feel that we’ll be ready to rebound against a team that is gettable. It’s always murky and nebulous to try to read into body language, but the team sounds like they mean it…and I really believe them.

It is of utmost importance we win one out of the next three games. Falling below .500 would be devastating, and the team has played consistently well enough to feel like we can steal one.

Don’t ask me which one. I don’t know. Let’s just start with Oregon, since Washington’s almost assuredly a loss.

Thank you if you came through to say hello at any of the home games I was at this year. As always, I appreciate your readership, your audience, and I consider you all my family. That should do it as far as my attendance to CMS in 2017, though – I have Seattle for UW, UCLA, and Stanford left to go.

III. Offense (Grade: Troll)

I’m going to get it out of the way with quickly. You turn the ball over six times, you get an F. Period.

Pair that with 4.9 YPP – a number that would rank 106th in the country out of 130 teams – and it’s definitely not a passing mark.

I’m gonna put off talking about the quarterbacking for as long as possible, so let’s begin with my opinion that Beau Baldwin panicked. This was something we discussed at length on Twitter after the game, but there’s a strong case to be made we should have leaned on the run more when the game was tied, or even earlier than that. (The stats say that we were very close in R:P ratio at that point and that it was not effective, but my initial feeling was the ratio needed to skew more heavily to the left. There are some arguments throwing would have been the better strategy just by looking at YPP, but that one forgets that USC would anticipate and adjust as such, not to mention the undue stress on a quarterback that has strong limitations as a playmaker right now.)

I am not saying we should have kept running because I expected to get a big run or to start gashing for chunks – although the holes were opening early on – but rather, that the threat and commitment needed to continue, even if it was just for a little at a time. Once SC no longer respected or felt like we were going to run at all, they were able to cling even tighter to the receivers on the outside.

Once we gave up on the run going down 10, at that point, it was definitely over. Running the ball more up to that point would have shortened the clock – standard underdog strategy. Again, two, three yards at a time, more aggressively deployed might have been able to help steady things, particularly after some of the turnovers.

The receivers really need D Rob back. No disrespect to Veasy, Kanawai or Wharton intended, but without D Rob, there is no serious vertical element on the offense, and also one less person who can threaten in one on one mathups.

They broke out everything to try to compensate for D Rob’s absence, to their credit – Melquise Stovall played for the first time all year, as did Jeremiah Hawkins, which is the team using all the remaining weapons at their disposal. Both guys were largely quiet in their debuts, though. I would keep my eye on this in the weeks to come. Stovall played on the outside, with Noa occupying the spot he normally would have. Thought we might run more stack and bunch formation stuff, to be honest.

A lot of five wide, spread looks this week were used with the intention of letting Bowers pick his matchup and get the ball out quickly. That plan made sense, except only two guys were winning, and the ability to hit those two guys was very inconsistent.

That pass attempt by Wharton was coming at some point this year – they’ve used that motion a lot the last few weeks with the intention of doing it at some point. Didn’t fool SC, though. Props for trying. I like the mentality behind the call, although in the stands, it felt kind of obvious from the way he carried it – he was running at like, three-quarters speed before he pulled up.

Noa and Wharton played well enough, but Wharton’s comment about needing to make Chad Hansen type plays was pretty revealing to me – he shouldn’t have to make Chad Hansen plays at all. It’s the quarterback’s job to consistently get his guys the ball in positions to succeed, and at the moment, Ross isn’t doing that. His accuracy, I write a lot about, but his predictability is too. That’s why there are so many hands in the passing lanes. At the moment, teams have well scouted out the route combinations he prefers – double slant, drags with basic timing windows, etc – and he’s not moving them with his eyes.

Using Laird as a pass catcher didn’t do much against an athletic defense like USC’s, where he was swarmed immediately. Could have gotten more value from he and Enwere – who might have gotten dinged up? – in between the tackles, though. Clark and Echols made their debuts in the second half and didn’t do much. Still not ready to play.

deep breath

Okay. It is absolutely unconsciable how poor Sonny Dykes’ quarterback recruiting and development went after half-way lucking into Jared Goff. We have been spoiled to watch him and Davis Webb the last two years, and Ross is dealing with a new line himself, but the fact still remains that knowing this day would one day come, all we have ready is an average – at best – starting quarterback at the moment. Saturday he was far from even that. We throw a bunch of short passes – 60+% each week! -- and he hovered around 50% completion again.

A few of the turnovers simply came from trying to do too much, and the playcalling, in which they asked him to throw 50 times, didn’t help. Rewatching for charting is going to be brutal, with too many missed opportunities, period. That’ll come later this week.

I would have considered benching him after the third interception, to be honest. Not because there’s anyone better behind him – I don’t think there is – but rather, just to send a message.

I do still think he’s going to be the starter next year, because it’s exceptionally rare for an incumbent quarterback to get beat out by returning talent. In this case, the contenders would be Brandon McIlwain, Chase Garbers, and the incoming JT Shrout. If there’s a better signalcaller between them, then sure, play that guy.

During the game I received a message from someone who knows offensive linemen far better than me, alerting me to the fact that Mike Saffell was a) playing at right guard behind Gibson, and b) that he would be All Conference level in two years. File that one away.

IV. Defense (Exceeds Expectations)

We outgained USC. We forced two turnovers, held Sam Darnold to below 250, picked him off once – and very nearly twice more – without getting blown up by Tyler Petite, Stephen Carr, or Deontay Burnett. That’s a win. Nothing to hang your head about on this side of the ball.

SC’s final two scores came on short fields, including one at the four yard line. Sometimes, 30 points isn’t actually 30 points, and if you can get multiple FGs plus the turnovers we managed to produce, most weeks, you’re going to win, provided the offense does its job. Alas.

Cool look: two down linemen with Chinedu Udeogu and James Looney, defensive ends, rather than any tackles. This allowed Cal to get more speed onto the field, as the Trojans were getting zero push up the middle at all. They only really ran outside zone, sweeps, and tried to get cuts outside. We flowed really well to the ball.

Shouts out to the defensive line that did a great job holding up inside against a big USC group. Against the outside runs, you expect them to break a few tackles based on talent alone. That there weren’t many is a compliment to how well they played as a whole.

That being said, we still don’t have a complete two deep on defense, particularly in the front seven. You can argue that we do in the secondary, where every guy played pretty well.

This time, I will be using my Devante Downs space to say it’s sad we’ll only get one year of this.

Darnold never totally looked comfortable back there. That’s a plus. Having Saffle return – whenever that is – will help turn more of those pressures into flat out sacks. The Trojans compensated by using Darnold in rollouts and throwing to tight ends in the flats, which we did pretty acceptably on.

The secondary is going to be so good. Heavy doses of Hicks, Drayden, and Bynum only this week, with Beck playing a handful of snaps. Didn’t see Marloshawn or Darius often, if at all, and they still kept SC quiet. Incredible. Hicks, by the way, has been a target of teams early this year, and I didn’t think he was getting beat or anything bad this week. Tells you a lot about Bynum too, though.

Hawkins and Tartabull will make a really nice combo in the years to come. Looked effective in both phases against run and pass, and another year of seasoning will only help.

V. Unofficial Advanced Stats

Cal-USC Advanced Stats







Yards Per Play




Explosiveness % (% or runs 10+ yards; passes 20+ yards)

9 - 6 pass, 3 run - on 85 plays (10.5%)

5 - 5 run - on 76 plays (6.6%)

3rd Downs


6 of 19

6 of 15

Avg. Yards to Go



Short Yardage

Power success rate (% of runs with 2 or fewer yards on 3rd and 4th down that were successful)

3 of 5- McMorris 1 of 2; Enwere 2 of 3

1 of 2 - Ware, YES, NO

Field Position

Avg. Starting F.P. | Plays in opponent territory

Own 30 | 50 of 85 (58.8%)

Own 43 | 49 of 76 (64.4%)

Points per trip inside 40

13:34 1Q - 3
4:30 1Q - 7

1:59 2Q - 3

15:00 3Q - 0

3:50 4Q – 7

20 on 5 trips – 4

10:39 1Q - 0 (4th failed)
7:33 1Q - 3

14:25 2Q - 7
9:04 2Q - 0 (INT)
4:53 2Q - 3

8:41 3Q - 0
3:01 3Q - 3

13:53 4Q - 7
12:45 4Q – 7

30 on 9 trips – 3.33


Havoc (percentage of disruptive plays – TFL, picks, PDs, FFs, sacks – divided by total plays. 2015 Cal's was 13.8%, and ranked 100th in the country; TCU was 15.4% and 64th among the 128 FBS teams )

5 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PD, 1 FF - 11 Havoc plays on 76 (14.4%)

6 TFL, 4 INT, 5 PD, 2 FF - 17 Havoc plays on 85 snaps (20%)

Yards per play – Some of this was juiced due to the kneeldowns and garbage time touchdown drive. I recognize that, and so what you should take away is not that we ended up ahead in this statistic, but that we were basically dead-even with them regardless, despite being in the first year of a rebuild. When the staff gets their own preferred talent in there, you have to feel good that the streak can end under Justin Wilcox. Perhaps as soon as next year. See you in the Coliseum.

Explosiveness – As stated above, this is a little juiced as a statistic, but what we worried about last week remains true. Cal doesn’t have enough gamebreakers at the moment with D Rob out, but did an outstanding job making sure theirs didn’t get loose. Keeping Sam Darnold quiet down the field and Stephen Carr to a mere 4.1 YPC? Have to be thrilled there.

3rd Down – Cal third downs continue to be a problem, which is also a first down problem. Bowers and the rest of the offense are extremely inconsistent picking up early yards on the ground and missing the easy opportunities in the air. At least to me, the playcalling is full of free yards as is, but Bowers’ accuracy struggles are a big factor in that, completions included. We’re talking about the difference between leading a guy on the right shoulder on a crossing route, etc. Small things. I’m not yet sure how much better this is going to get this year.

Points per trip inside 40 – I’m honestly stunned that we came out ahead in this statistic, which speaks to how well the defense played despite being repeatedly put up against the wall by their brethren. The turnovers killed any more chances of Cal getting trips inside the 40, and until those last two TDs, which were both gifted, we could have pointed clearly to

Havoc – Didn’t expect Havoc to be particularly high on the Cal side, since USC is incredibly talented across the board with skill players, which makes it tough to find actual losses – if you can minimize gains, that can be enough, and there was consistent pressure on Darnold too. The real problem is flat out handing the Trojans some Havoc opportunities, some of which were unforced. Few teams can match up with teams of USC’s caliber and still win after giving the ball away six times. That we were this close after going -4 in turnovers tells you how remarkable this performance was, period.

VI. Special Teams (Poor)

At some point, you have to start wondering what’s wrong with Matt Anderson. That point is now.

Though the missed field goal didn’t factor into the equation at all, it’s kind of hard not to think it would have changed the calculus a bit had Cal taken the lead.

Return game was semi-effective this time, with one good field position drive by way of Ashtyn Davis, and largely blanketing the work by Ajene Harris and Velus Jones on the other side.

Didn’t get any more punts from Klumph due to turnovers.

VII. Closing

Two teams enter next Saturday at Autzen, both young, under new staffs, and capable of inconsistency as much as brilliance, dreaming of making noise in a division still open with opportunity. Each will stare at the sideline across from them and see themselves reflected in the other.

But this North ain’t big enough for the each of us, brother.

They’re going to have to take it from you. Sorry about it.

California don’t scare.

What to Read Next