• John Skinner

The dirt heading into Cal

Updated: Nov 16, 2019

Split Screen TV or IPAD is a must Saturday night for devout Trojan fans- Both the Trojan football and Men’s basketball teams will be playing at 8pm on Saturday night. While the football team faces the Cal Bears in Berkeley (televised FS1), the Men’s basketball team plays its first significant opponent of the season at Nevada (televised by CBSSN). This will be a big game for the Trojans in terms of building a solid NCAA tournament selection resume.

Isiah Pola-Mao grades out “ELITE” vs. ASU- Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao had his best game grade of the season Saturday, garnering an elite rating of 90.4 from Pro Football Focus. Pola-Mao has corrected his tackling issues from earlier in the season grading out at a high level for isolated tackling in five of the last six games. He also has three of USC’s six interceptions this season. Fellow Safety Talanoa Hufanga was sharp in his return from a shoulder injury with a superb 86.1 grade. *credit- Ryan Young at Trojan Sports.

Pittman’s decision to return paying off in a big way- WR Michael Pittman ranks 12th nationally 12th nationally in receptions per game (7.1) and 20th in receiving yards per game (93.8). He had a career-high 13 catches Saturday, but his 146 yards marked only his third-best total of the season. His 2019 output is already the second-best by a USC receiver in four seasons, with two regular-season games remaining. Overall, Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the fourth-best WR in the Pac-12 with a cumulative 79.8 grade and has an argument for being the most valuable receiver in the conference. He graded out with a superb 82.8 overall grade vs. ASU. He has definitely helped his NFL prospects by returning to the Trojans and not going to the NFL early.

The Kedon Slovis watch- The true freshman passed for a career-high 432 yards and 4 touchdowns despite missing about a quarter due to cramping in his calf. He accounted for 297 of those yards and all 4 TDs in the first quarter. As for the advanced stats, Slovis was excellent when working the middle of the field, completing 19 of 24 passes between the numbers for 283 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Overall, he was 7 of 11 for 243 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT on passes that traveled at least 10 yads. On snaps when he was not blitzed, he completed 21 of 27 passes for 356 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs. This is against the same defense that held Michigan State to 10 points earlier this year. *Ryan Young of Trojan Sports also provided this insight.

Injury report- RB Stephen Carr is expected to make his return after missing three games due to a hamstring injury. This will give the Trojans much needed RB depth for the first time in three games. Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu (back) and nickelback Greg Johnson (concussion) are also both set to return as well. However, LB Palaie Gaoteote (ankle/knee) did not practice Thursday and is not expected to play. RB Vavae Malepeai and WR Tyler Vaughns are both expected to miss the game but are listed as game time decisions. Center Brett Neilon is expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a calf injury and will be replaced by redshirt freshman Justin Dedich.

What you should know about Cal—

*QB Chase Garbers is cleared to play- Cal started the season 4-0, including a big win at Washington, before losing starting QB Chase Garbers. After losing Garbers, Cal went 1-4. Garbers is a significant upgrade over back-up Devon Modster thus increasing the difficulty of this game. Cal’s offense without Garbers only garnered 14.8 ppg while with Garbers it was 24.5 ppg. In fairness to Modster, he was 16-24 with three touchdowns and no interceptions last week against Washington State, so the Trojans may also see Modster, who is also a capable runner and mobile QB’s have been an issue for the Trojan defense.

*Cal will be prepared.- Head Coach Justin Wilcox has assembled a strong staff and many Pac-12 coaches have privately commented on how difficult they are to face from a defensive schematic standpoint.

*Defensive foundation- Cal had held opponents to an average of 13 points below their scoring average. They will try and entice Kedon Slovis into another multi-interception game with one of the best secondary’s in the conference (139 combined starts with 28 career interceptions), and stud linebackers Evan Weaver and Kuony Dung. Weaver leads the nation in tackles and forced fumbles. The good news for the Trojans is their secondary was less prolific the last two weeks against Utah and Washington State and neither of those schools possess the talent the Trojans do at Wide Receiver…though the Trojans may be without Tyler Vaughns (ankle).

*Depth is a problem- Cal doesn’t possess the depth of other top-tier teams in the conference and injuries have significantly hurt them. They are getting healthier but when they have to go to the bench, deeper teams have a significant advantage.

*Poor offensive production- The Golden Bears rank at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 and the nation in offensive production. The rushing offense is the best performer, ranking 9th in the conference and 109th nationally (125 ppg). They are last in scoring (19.1 ppg), passing yards, passing efficiency and sacks allowed. However, a majority of this was earned while Garbers was sidelined.

Keys to a Trojan Victory-

*Minimize turnovers- The Trojans should leave Berkeley with a win if they keep turnovers and unnecessary penalties (i.e.- unsportsmanlike conduct) to a minimum. Cal’s best shot at a victory is turning Trojan turnovers into points. Slovis has to play smart and would be wise to be more conservative this week.

*Defensive line dominance- Though Cal’s Center Michael Saffell has returned from injury to help stabilize the line, the Trojans have a significant advantage in the trenches and should stymie Cal’s poor offense and be able to force a few turnovers.

*Another strong 1st quarter- If the Trojans are able to gain a two score advantage early, it will be difficult for the Cal offense to mount a comeback provided the Trojans don’t turn the ball over.

The dreaded back-to-back road game- The second game of back-to-back road games at the college level are seen by the Vegas sharps as an opportunity to make money. It is difficult for these athletes to deal with the disruption of travel consecutive weeks when you consider everything they have going on. When you combine this with the Trojans recent road woes under Helton, it is something that must be considered when heading into this game.

On the flip side- In 2017, The Trojans had to travel to Arizona State after a road trip to Notre Dame and defeated the Sun Devils in convincing fashion 48-17…

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

Betting Guide- The Trojans opened as a 4.5 point favorite but the spread has since jumped to 6.5. The over/under of 48 has stayed steady. SC is 5-5 ATS on the year while Cal is 4-5 ATS. The total has gone over in five of SC’s last 7 as favorites…but the total has gone under in four of Cal’s last five games. Cal is 4-1 in their last five games as an underdog. SC is 2-3 on the road ATS this season.

Primer for the Nevada hoops game- Nevada has absolutely dominated the Mountain West Conference over the last three years and has three-straight NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the Elite 8 in 2017. However, a significant amount of the talent responsible for that run, as well as the head coach (Eric Mussleman), have departed the program. Former Bruin coach Steve Alford is the new man in charge and there is enough talent to make a run at a fourth straight trip to the NCAA tourney…but it is not the team it was the past three years.

They have started the season 2-1 but lost the only game they played against a power-5 opponent (home against Utah 79-74). Senior guards Jazz Johnson and Linsey Drew are the key returners and connected on over 45% of their 3’s last year and currently lead the team in scoring (Drew 20ppg/Johnson 17ppg). Fellow guard Jalen Harris, a 6’5 transfer from Louisiana Tech, is another player the Trojans will have to defend well as he scored 24 points in their victory over Texas-Arlington. Harris injured his foot early in the Utah game and that played a factor in the Utes pulling out the victory. This will be a good test for the Trojans to show their defensive prowess has significantly improved. SC has an advantage in the front court and will need freshman sensation Big O and Nick Rakocevic to play well to pull out a victory in a hostile environment.

SC hoops is improved but so is the Pac-12!- could see 5/6 teams make the NCAA tournament- After being ridiculed as a poor basketball conference (only two tournament teams in 2018, 2019), the Pac-12 appears to be back as a legitimate power thanks to multiple years of solid recruiting, grad transfers and programs developing solid depth. Currently, the conference is 28-2 to start the season including power-5 wins over (Illinois, Memphis Iowa State and Baylor). Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Arizona, USC, Utah and Arizona State are considered legit tourney contenders and UCLA has the talent to challenge as well if they buy-into new coach Mick Cronin’s style. The size and athleticism of most of the conference has significantly improved and though the Trojans are part of that improvement, the Pac-12 season is going to be a grind and their young talent will have to adjust quickly to have a chance to make an NCAA tourney run.

Final SC hoops note- The Trojans will have some growing pains while trying to mix a strong core of younger talent with the experienced players. They have gone from having depth issues last year to having 11 qualified players vying for playing time. It will not be easy for the coaching staff to settle on an 8/9 man rotation, and keeping those outside the rotation content will be a tall order. A strength of this team thus far is the continuity/chemistry/intensity and for the Trojans to make any type of Pac-12 title run, that must continue.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits-

**Quick non-sports note- The first rain of the year is expected to hit So Cal next week. I do not know what intensity is expected but either way, make sure your gutters are cleaned out and check around your property to make sure you are ready for the fall/winter season.

*The Athletic’s Antonio Morales summed up many Trojan fans feelings after the Arizona State game. “For 15 minutes, USC displayed how talented it is taking a 28-7 lead. For pretty much the next 45, it exhibited why it often frustrates its fan base limping home to a 31-26 victory. So it was just another chapter in the Clay Helton Experience. Good enough for a win, but still leaves the fans wanting more.”

*Cal beat the Trojans 15-14 last season.

*Kedon Slovis 297 yard 1st quarter vs. ASU was the most passing yards in a quarter in the past 15 years of college football.