Cal’s im­proved de­fense looks to end los­ing streak to USC

The Sacramento Bee - - Sports - BY DAN GREENSPAN

As South­ern Cal­i­for­nia piled up one vic­tory af­ter an­other in a 14-game win­ning streak against Cal­i­for­nia, de­fen­sive supremacy has al­ways been on the side of the Tro­jans.

But the Golden Bears have the far stur­dier de­fense go­ing into the Coli­seum on Satur­day, and with it comes their best chance at vic­tory since the two pro­grams emerged as the dom­i­nant forces in the

Pac-10 dur­ing the

mid-2000s.

Cal (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) is rein­vent­ing it­self as a team that re­lies on de­fense to win games in the sec­ond sea­son un­der coach Justin Wil­cox and de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Tim DeRuyter. The Gold Bears are al­low­ing 4.8 yards per play this sea­son, which is tied with Ken­tucky for 22nd among FBS teams.

“Scheme-wise, it is just a night­mare for a quar­ter­back,” USC coach Clay Hel­ton said. “They mix it up re­ally, re­ally well and they are very well taught.”

Cal is al­low­ing 21.9 points per game, nearly half of what the de­fense con­ceded in its fi­nal sea­son un­der coach Sonny Dykes in 2016. But that to­tal in­cludes six turnovers by Cal’s of­fense that have been re­turned for touch­downs, cir­cum­stances that have Wil­cox con­vinced his team can make a bowl game for the sec­ond time since 2012.

“We talk about fin­ish­ing all the time in ev­ery­thing we do,” Wil­cox said. “Just in how you do ev­ery­thing, whether it’s work­outs or prac­tice or meet­ings. It’s not about main­te­nance. It’s about we need to play our best foot­ball. We have yet to play our best game.”

For USC (5-4, 4-3), a re­turn visit to the Pac-12 ti­tle game is still in play with wins in its fi­nal two con­fer­ence games and help else­where to re­move pos­si­ble tiebreak­ers against Utah and Ari­zona State. USC will have to keep its run game rolling against a rush de­fense that ranks third in the Pac-12, al­low­ing 3.72 yards per carry.

Here are some other things to watch for when Cal and USC meet for the

106th time:

STILL RO­TAT­ING: Chase Gar­bers will start at quar­ter­back for Cal, but Wil­cox didn’t rule out con­tin­u­ing to use red­shirt sopho­more Bran­don McIl­wain in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. McIl­wain is sec­ond on the team in yards rush­ing

(402) and rush­ing touch­downs (4). How­ever, the trans­fer from South Carolina has thrown eight in­ter­cep­tions and lost four fum­bles. “It goes back to try­ing to cre­ate an­other play,” Wil­cox said. “We’re still de­vel­op­ing at that po­si­tion. Both of those guys had some plays in the game they’d love to have back.”

DE­PLETED DE­FENSE: USC has been cop­ing with lim­ited num­bers at safety for much of this sea­son, and now at­tri­tion has hit the cor­ner­backs. Se­nior Iman Mar­shall is a ga­me­time de­ci­sion be­cause of a sprained foot and an­kle, while red­shirt fresh­man Greg John­son will not play be­cause of a shoul­der in­jury. Se­nior Isa­iah Lan­g­ley and red­shirt se­nior Jonathan Lock­ett would start if Mar­shall is not avail­able.

TWO-WAY PLAY?: The Bears might not have weapons at wide re­ceiver that are ca­pa­ble of tak­ing ad­van­tage of USC’s sec­ondary in its cur­rent state. Cal had three re­ceivers trans­fer in the off­sea­son, and ju­niors Kanawai Noa, Jor­dan Dun­can and Bran­don Sin­gle­ton have missed time re­cently be­cause of in­juries. The sit­u­a­tion is so bad that Wil­cox has con­sid­ered us­ing safeties Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins on of­fense.

YOUNG KWAK AP

Chase Gar­bers will start at quar­ter­back for Cal, but coach Justin Wil­cox didn’t rule out con­tin­u­ing to use red­shirt sopho­more Bran­don McIl­wain in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions.

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