USC vs. Cal Gameday Preview: Matchups, Injuries, Lineups and Links


USC vs. Cal

LA Coliseum | Los Angeles, Calif.6:00 PM Pacific | ESPNAll-time Series: USC leads 66-30-5)Last meeting: USC 62, Cal 28 in 2013

The LA Coliseum gets the college football spotlight on Thursday night, with USC vs. Cal playing in primetime on ESPN. It’s not only a meeting between two traditional Pac-12 rivals within the state of California, but it’s a battle of two teams desperate to put find the punctuation on their respective seasons.

For the Trojans, who enter the game with a 6-3 record, a once-promising season can be salvaged by finishing the year strong against their rivals Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame.

For the Bears, nothing would complete their remarkable turn around under coach Sonny Dykes more than a bowl bid in his second season. One more win makes that a reality, with USC, Stanford and BYU standing in their way.

Which team will find itself on track to fulfill their goals?

Can USC overcome the mental test of not looking past an opponent they should beat, with UCLA waiting in the wings?

Can Cal find a way to somehow beat the Trojans for the first time in 11 years?

Perhaps more importantly, will fans be able to find parking and arrive on time for an early midweek kickoff in downtown Los Angeles?

The answers all await, with eyeballs aplenty.

It’s Thursday Night Football at the Coliseum. It’s USC. It’s Cal. A nation’s watching.


In our USC vs. Cal preview podcast, Michael Castillo hosts and is joined by Reign of Troy editor Alicia de Artola, Trenise Ferreira and staffer Josh Webb to talk about the Trojans matchup with the Cougars, in addition to predictions of the game could play out.

Gameday Links:

USC Injury Report:

  • Out for the season: Kenny Bigelow (knee), Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (academics), Jabari Ruffin (knee), Jordan Austin (hip), Chris Willson (foot), Christian Tober (collarbone), Tre Madden (toe), Lamar Dawson (knee), Chad Wheeler (knee)
  • Out: Josh Shaw (ankles/suspended), Jordan Simmons (knee), J.R. Tavai (knee)
  • Questionable: John Plattenburg (leg)
  • Probable: Ajene Harris (hamstring)
  • Will play: Su’a Cravens (knee), Soma Vainuku (hamstring)

Bookmark our Injury Report and News Ticker to stay up to date on USC injury news.

Cal Injury Report:

  • Out for the season: Griffin Platt (knee)
  • Probable: Kenny Lawler (ankle), Trevor Davis (neck)

For more on the Bears’ injuries, visit California Golden Blogs.

When Cal has the ball…

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that the Cal Bears love to move the football with their Bear Raid offense, and the Trojans’ defense is content to allow passing yards for the sake of tightening up both in the red zone and on third downs.

The Bears are 32nd nationally in available yardage obtained and in Pac-12 play alone, rank second in the conference in total yardage, just a half yard fewer than the playoff-contending Oregon Ducks.

USC’s defense is giving up a robust 303 yards passing yards per game in their seven conference games. Though somewhat remarkably, boast an incredible 39 percent red zone touchdown rate in those games. On third downs, they’re limiting conversions to just a 36.4 percent clip.

On Thursday night, it’ll come down to how efficient the Bears can be offensively when in the critical parts of the field, and on pivotal downs.

Good thing for the Bears, they’ve been remarkably efficient all season, which is a big reason why they’re 5-4, and a couple of plays away from being 7-2 and just outside of the playoff race.

Seriously, as crazy as that sounds.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the game, Cal ranks second in the conference in red zone efficiency and third down conversions, and have gotten tremendous quarterback play out of true sophomore Jared Goff. The 6-foot-4 NorCal native has completed 62.6 percent of his passes to go along with a 27 to 4 touchdowns to interceptions ratio.

The most impressive tidbit might be that in his last 285 pass attempts, Goff has only been intercepted once. That came in the dying seconds against UCLA on a desperation drive.

Not to mention that he’s got an arsenal of receivers that rival anyone in the country, all of which are eager to get involved. Cal has six receivers with at least 300 receiving yards, more than any other team in the conference. For comparison’s sake, USC only has two.

Stephen Anderson, Bryce Treggs, Chris Harper and Kenny Lawler lead the way in the Bears’ receiving corps, all with between 11 receptions of each other.

That depth and balance within the rotation prevents defenses from zoning in on any singular receiver with double teams, unlike ASU with Jaelen Strong or UCLA with Jordan Payton.

On the ground, the Bears have shown a commitment to establishing a running game, and much more so than Air Raid brethren Washington State.

Cal is out-gaining the traditional ground-and-pound Stanford Cardinal in rushing so far this season in conference play. That’s not exactly where you would expect a passing attack of the Bears’ ilk to be.

Daniel Lasco is coming off of a big game at Oregon State two weeks ago in which he had 188 yards and three touchdowns, giving him just under 800 yards the year.

That balance could be concerning for the Trojans.

Despite having the Air Raid, Cal has the potential to be the most balanced team USC has faced since Stanford way back in Week 2, and may have the most potent threat of a two-way attack that the Trojans have faced all season.

Part of that is because the Trojans have prided themselves defensively on forcing teams to be one dimensional, typically through the air.

ASU came into the Coliseum averaging 262 rushing yards per game, but gained just 31 yards before abandoning it. Arizona played USC with a dinged up backfield and passed the ball 72 times. Washington State attempted 66.

So it goes without saying that defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will likely try to sell out against the run to stop the pass as they’ve done, forcing the Bears to stick to throwing underneath routes ahead of the sticks.

Both Washington and UCLA have effectively been able to do just that to Cal, which has in turn reduced red zone entries and therefore kept the Bears off the scoreboard.

If the Trojans can do that, they should have a manageable game on their hands. If not, look out. USC has just the right amount of injuries on defense and loose schematics to enable Cal to be successful if they’re given enough rope.

Projected Starting Lineups

Cal Offense:LT #64 Steven MooreLG #66 Chris BorrayoC #58 Chris AdcockRG #71 Alejandro CrosthwaiteRT #73 Jordan RigsbeeQB #16 Jared GoffRB #2 Daniel LascoFB #44 Lucus GingoldWR #6 Chris HarperWR #89 Stephen AndersonWR #1 Bryce TreggsWR #3 Maurice Harris OR #4 Kenny Lawler

USC Defense:DT #90 Claude Pelon OR #52 Delvon SimmonsNT #99 Antwaun WoodsDE #94 Leonard WilliamsRE #47 Scott FelixSOLB #21 Su’a CravensMILB #10 Hayes PullardWILB #56 Anthony SaraoCB #13 Kevon SeymourFS #27 Gerald BowmanSS #22 Leon McQuay IIICB #4 Chris Hawkins

When USC has the ball…

The Trojans’ offense has had plenty of trouble with consistency so far this season. None truer that the last game out against Washington State.

Despite scoring five offensive touchdowns, USC failed to put together a sustained drive until late in the third quarter on what was a well below average Cougar defense.

Cody Kessler had another solid stat line, Nelson Agholor had a career-best afternoon in terms of total yardage and JuJu Smith caught three touchdowns. But they lacked a rhythm for most the game, which allowed WSU to dictate the tempo.

That ultimately didn’t cost the Trojans as the Cougars were without starting quarterback Connor Halliday and struggled to string together first downs themselves. But against the Cal Bears, USC will need to find a way to keep their defense off the field by extending drives.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Luckily for the Trojans, they might have just found the cure for those woes. It’s called the Cal defense.

The Bears deploy a traditional 4-3, and it’s safe to say that it hasn’t been too successful this season. They rank dead last in the Pac-12 in total defense, giving up an insane 582.8 yards per game in conference play.

Moreover, an astounding 47.6 percent of plays have been successful for opponents. That’s good for a national ranking of 117th. Not good, considering that means opponents are constantly finding themselves in manageable situations on second and third down.

That plays into USC’s hand, as the Trojans have been successful on third down this season, converting 45 percent of the time.

Part of the defensive struggles come from the Bears not being able to establish any sort of pass rush.

They’ve recorded just four sacks over the last seven games and have gotten to the quarterback on just 3.2 percent of long-yardage downs. According to Football Outsiders, they rank 124th nationally in adjusted sack rate, which bodes well for Kessler’s chances to partake in Movember while sitting in the pocket.

Any way you slice it, in a league with nearly a dozen quality quarterbacks, that lack of a pass rush not going to cut it when you struggle to defend the pass. And the result has been some awful performances.

In a three-game stretch in early October, Washington State, Washington and UCLA combined to complete 72.3 percent of their pass attempts to go along with a 11 to 1 touchdowns to interceptions ratio. That includes the most absurd passing performance in a losing effort ever recorded, as Connor Halliday threw for 743 yards —nearly half a mile.

Kessler won’t throw for that distance tonight in the Coliseum, but given his ability to protect the football and have success when given time in the pocket, it’s not a stretch that he could put up more crooked numbers.

Currently, the redshirt junior ranks eighth nationally in touchdown passes with 25, and has the fourth-best passer rating at 168.2. To put that in perspective, the school record for the highest passing efficiency rating is 164.6 by Mark Sanchez in 2008.

Joining Kessler as a Trojan that is likely to have a successful night against Cal is running back Buck Allen, who had amassed at least 100 yards from scrimmage in 14 of 15 games since taking over as USC’s No. 1 running back midway through last season.

Allen had 192 all-purposes yards and three touchdowns against the Bears last season, and is on pace to lead the Pac-12 in rushing.

Against the run, Cal has been pretty hit and miss, averaging 160 yards per game in Pac-12 play. However they are trending downward, and rapidly. The Bears’ last three opponents –UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State– have averaged 5.59 yards per carry.

For Allen, who has seen his torrid early season pace recede steadily over the last three weeks, that could be a welcome sign to get out of his touchdown slump. The Floridan hasn’t rushed for a score since the middle of October against Colorado.

Either way, whether it be through the air or on the ground, the Trojans should find themselves in the end zone often tonight. If not, something will have gone incredibly wrong.

Projected Starting Lineups

USC Offense:WR #9 JuJu SmithWR #15 Nelson AgholorTE #82 Randall TelferRT #73 Zach BannerRG #60 Viane TalamaivaoC #75 Max TuerkLG #62 Khaliel RodgersLT #50 Toa LobendahnWR #1 Darreus RogersQB #6 Cody KesslerFB #38 Jahleel PinnerTB #37 Javorius Allen

Cal Defense:DE #33 Noah WesterfieldDT #90 Mustafa JalilDT #54 Austin ClarkDE #97 Tony MekariSLB #7 Jalen JeffersonMLB #47 Hardy NickersonWLB #8 Michael BartonCB #3 Cameron WalkerFS #21 Stefan McClureCB #37 Cedric Dozier

Who will win today's game between USC and Cal?

View Results

More from Reign of Troy