• John Skinner

Inside dirt heading into Cal

Win out and win the South- Though it has been a rocky season with fans and media members calling for a coaching change, the Trojans (5-4) current reality is that victories over UCLA and Cal will most likely lead to a Pac-12 South division championship and the opportunity to probably play a team (Washington State) they already beat for the Pac-12 championship. ASU and Utah own the tie-breaker over the Trojans, but they both have to play Oregon and ASU also has to play a resurgent Arizona team. Utah has lost their QB for the season and their top running back is out this week as well.

Helton is not really on a hot-seat- As we have been stating since the Texas debacle, Clay Helton’s job security through this year is safe. Multiple, well-informed sources reached out after last week’s Skinny and stated that even losses in the final three games would not cost him his job. In fact, any improvement next season would lead to another year at the helm and then at that point, his buy-out decreases significantly.

Obviously, if the year ends poorly and a sub-par recruiting class is looming, boosters with deep pockets can influence some sort of change, but even then, the school’s current political situation would make that unlikely. As one source stated, “don’t waste your time writing about coaching candidates this year, it’s not going to happen.”

Communication issues between the staff and players needs to be addressed- Multiple players and staff members within the program have privately stated that how the coaches communicate and relay information to the players is something they need to really improve heading into next season. At various times, players and even coaches themselves are finding out important information from text messages and/or the media. What appears to be a strength of Helton’s in recruiting (communication) is not necessarily the case and that is starting to concern potential recruits when hearing this from current players. Apparently Helton is aware of this and is seeing some of it with his own eyes in terms of how new OL coach Tim Drevno is coaching compared to Neil Calloway’s gruff, old-school style, as players appear to be responding to Drenvo on a higher level. Helton will also need to do some serious self-evaluating when it comes to his own style in terms of demanding excellence while also being able to properly toe-the-line of showing appreciation to his players personally and not just in the media.

Cal’s defense is the real deal- The Cal defense will be the best defense SC faces in Pac-12 play this year. Cal comes into this week’s game at 5-4, but have put in their two best performances of the year over the past two weeks with a victory over Washington (12-10) and a narrow loss to #8 Washington State (19-13). Cal Head Coach Justin Wilcox and Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter do a fantastic job of disguising coverages and frustrating opposing QB’s. In last year’s game with the Trojans, they frustrated Sam Darnold and they were in the game through three quarters before turning the ball over multiple times and allowing the Trojans to pull away. The Cal defense is extremely confident and cannot wait to face a true freshman quarterback. They will do everything they can to physically beat up the offensive line and bait the Trojans into sloppy play. It is imperative the SC offense keeps penalties and turnovers to a minimum if they want to avoid there second-straight home loss.

Could Sears save the day against Cal? Would he even get the chance? - J.T. Daniels struggled mightily at Utah (6-16, 89 yards, 2 Int, QBR 5.4) and the Cal game could very well trend in that direction, especially with stud WR Michael Pittman expected to miss the game. However, back-up QB Jack Sears proved he can be a viable option with his performance against ASU and he would give the Cal defense a completely different look with his mobility and speed. The Cal defense has had issues with mobile QB’s, so one would think this would figure into the game plan. However, a source within the team stated “Daniels is Helton’s guy. It is not going to happen unless J.T. legitimately gets hurt. They want this to be J.T’s team. I would be shocked if Helton pulled J.T.”

Can Cal score?- Offensively Cal is having trouble putting points on the board and features one of the worst offenses in the country. Plus, injuries to their wide receivers had them move a tight-end to receiver this week. The QB play of Chase Garbers has been inconsistent at best and they like to use Brandon Mcllwain at times as a mobile change of pace option. However, Wilcox has come under fire lately for the use of a two QB system and it appears will mainly see Garbers this week. The key to the Cal offense is running back Patrick Laird who has rushed for 700 yards while also having 38 receptions for 251 yards. In total, he has scored eight touchdowns this year. Despite the Trojans extremely thin secondary, they should pull out a victory if they score more than 21 points.

Was Oregon State progress or just a bad opponent- Despite what you heard in the media, the play-calling changes and relieving Callaway of his coaching duties were already being thought of well-before the Oregon State game. However, politically speaking, it made the most sense to make the changes before playing your worst opponent, thus creating some manufactured momentum heading into the final stretch of the season. Oregon State (2-7) is an improving program but they do not come close to the Trojans in terms of talent. From that perspective, we truly will not know if the offense has shown any improvement until tonight’s game against Cal. However, the Trojans did make some nice offensive changes with Daniels taking the ball under center on multiple occasions and going with a hybrid-like I-formation with Malapei and Ware. The offensive line appeared more aggressive and gained much needed confidence. The key is whether they can maintain that confidence against a solid defense.

Secondary is banged up and a huge priority in recruiting- Currently, Greg Johnson and Isaac Taylor-Stuart are ruled out tonight and Iman “Biggie” Marshall (sprained ankle) and Olaijah Griffin (shoulder) are question marks. They are expecting to play but won’t be close to 100%. Preparing for a worst case scenario, freshman Linebacker Raymond Scott practiced at slot corner this week. You will most likely see Marshall or Griffin start at one corner spot and Jonathan Lockett and Isiah Langley. Look for Dominic Davis to get some opportunities as well.

During the summer a source close to the program and heavily involved in high school recruiting, told me the cornerback recruiting must be a priority, and even then the Trojans might have issues at the position. SC must land “at least two prolific defensive backs that have the ability to play significantly as true freshman.” Overall, SC must land at least four defensive back in this year’s class, along with possibly bringing in a talented graduate transfer. The concern is that Defensive Backs coach Ronnie Bradford is rumored to be looking to get back to coaching in the NFL after this season.

Biggie’s All-American type season- One of Coach Bradford’s success stories is the improvement of Biggie Marshall. According to Pro Football Focus' (PFF) detailed data, Biggie Marshall has only given up 15 completions on the season for just over 130 yards. Most of them have been underneath for short gains. He’s only given up 19 yards after the catch the whole season (he allowed188 YAC last year). The three longest plays he’s allowed have been for 29, 28 and 18 yards. Marshall has given up only 5.9 yards per completion on the others (and 9.7 YPC overall). According to PFF, he’s only allowed 0.44 yards per cover snap this season -- second best in the country. His phenomenal improvement is definitely one of this seasons success stories.

Chris Brown gives the Offensive line a top PFF grade!- For the first time all-season, the Trojans had an offensive lineman with an overall grade of above 80 per Pro Football Focus metrics. Senior OL Chris Brown finished with an 86.5 overall grade, the best grade for an offensive guard in the country last week. USC's starting five offensive line have produced just two run blocking grades of at least 80.0 this season and Brown has both of them. An 85+ grade is considered an NFL level performance.

Aca’Cedric Ware dominates at Oregon State- Though RB Stephen Carr seems to have the most overall upside, Senior Aca’Cedric Ware has been the most consistent running back this season and took advantage of his carries against a poor Oregon State defense, amassing 205 yards and three TD’s last week. He also picked up a 85.2 PFF grade!

Extensive Game Preview- Here is Tom Haire’s extensive game preview via uscfootball.com

Betting Info- The Trojans are a 5 point favorite and the over/under is only 45. The Trojans are 3-6 against the spread (ATS) while Cal is 4-4-1 ATS. The Trojans are 7-2 ATS over their last nine meetings. However, Cal is 5-1 ATS over their last six road games and 5-0 ATS in their last five games in the month of November. The total has gone under in Cal’s last five games while it has gone under in four of SC’s last five. The total for this game is extremely low but with SC struggling all year against good defenses and Cal having trouble all year putting points on the board, the under looks enticing.

Big hoops game at Galen on Sunday- As part of the SEC/Pac-12 challenge, The Men’s basketball team (1-0) will play against Vanderbilt (1-0) at 6 pm on Sunday. This game will showcase two teams that will be battling for NCAA tourney births at the end of the season. Vanderbilt has two five-star studs in freshman guard Darius Garland and 6’10 forward Simi Shittu. This should be a great game to watch and it will be fun to see Garland match up with Trojan five-star recruit Kevin Porter Jr. who appears to be the most talented freshman since OJ Mayo. The Trojans are still dealing with injury issues but as long as Nik Rakocevic stays out of foul trouble, they should be in position to win a close one tomorrow night.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits-

*SC QB Coach Bryan Ellis said he has urged J.T. Daniels this week to “trust your eyes, trust what you see,” stressing the need to adjust to changing coverages. “Whatever you see pre-snap is not what you’re going to get post-snap,” Ellis said.

*WR Michael Pittman is out this week with a bone bruise on his shoulder. He is planning to be back next week vs. UCLA. Pittman leads USC with 550 receiving yards and six touchdowns. In the month of October, Pittman was on fire catching 15 passes for 341 yards and five touchdowns in three games. Clay Helton said Tuesday that Amon-Ra St. Brown will start in Pittman's place outside, with Devon Williams and Josh Imatorbhebhe rotating in behind St. Brown.

*RB Stephen Carr is also out for the Cal game. Look for the true freshman Marqueese Stepp, a strong bruising type runner to get a few carries, especially in short yardage situations. Due to the new NCAA redshirt rules, Stepp can appear in two more games and still be considered a redshirt this season.

*Redshirt sophomore quarterback Matt Fink is out with broken ribs and redshirt sophomore backup quarterback Holden Thomas is also injured, leaving the team with Jack Sears as the only back-up. It is a good thing Sears didn’t transfer.

*Since committing a season-high 18 and 13 penalties in games against Arizona and Colorado earlier this season, the Trojans have averaged five penalties per game, including six at Oregon State.