No. 5 USC faces former assistant at Cal

Sep 18, 2017 - 8:37 PM On the heels of a thrilling, double-overtime win over Texas, No. 5 USC will see a familiar face on its first road trip of the 2017 season.

The Trojans (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) return to conference play Saturday at Cal (3-0), which went undefeated in nonconference competition under first-year head coach Justin Wilcox. USC knows Wilcox well; he was defensive coordinator from 2014 through 2015 but was fired shortly after Clay Helton was named the Trojans' full-time replacement to Steve Sarkisian.

Wilcox's last game was the 2015 Pac-12 Championship, in which Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey racked up 461 all-purpose yards, 312 of which came on offense.

Despite the split, Helton offered high praise for his former USC colleague.

"Credit (Cal defensive coordinator Tim) DeRuyter, and credit Coach Wilcox. Those are two really good defensive coaches who know how to put a game plan together," Helton said.

"They're playing really good defensive ball. It will be a challenge for us. It takes a lot of confidence to go on the road and beat a North Carolina team, then bring Ole Miss home and win that game."

Before landing the Cal head coaching job in January, Wilcox oversaw the nation's No. 4-ranked scoring defense a season ago at Wisconsin. His influence on the Cal defense has been immediately evident. The Golden Bears have held their first three opponents to 22 points per game, an improvement of 20.6 points compared with 2016.

Cal held Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson to 26 of 44 passing in Week 3 and intercepted him three times. Patterson came into the contest as the nation's leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns.

Cal held Ole Miss scoreless in the second half, outscoring the Rebels 20-0 after trailing at intermission. Wilcox noted areas for improvement in the defense following the win, but praised the group's tenacity as a whole.

"They found some one-on-one (matchups) and they won a couple. We can continue to be better there in our technique and some of those things," Wilcox said in his post-game press conference. "But I keep going back to how the guys respond, and that's guts, grit and toughness."

Another win in the turnover battle is a must for Cal, which enjoys a 1.33 advantage in turnover margin through three games. The Golden Bears can get to USC for takeaways, if the first three weeks are any indication.

In last season's meeting against Cal, USC rolled up 398 rushing yards -- the most for any Trojans team since the Reggie Bush and LenDale White-led 2005 team accrued 430 against rival UCLA. A new staff at Cal presents new challenges, but USC will aim to rebound from last Saturday, when it managed just 71 yards on the ground.

Helton added the offensive line "didn't play its best" against Texas, but added, "I know that will improve this week."

USC quarterback Sam Darnold was picked off twice in Week 3; one was returned for a touchdown, the other set Texas up deep in Trojans' territory in the fourth quarter.

It's the second game this season in which Darnold has thrown multiple interceptions. If Wilcox and his defensive staff can devise a scheme to generate takeaways against a quarterback the Cal coach has seen in practice, the Golden Bears will have an opportunity to beat USC for the first time since 2003.

--DE Porter Gustin was a game-time decision in Week 3 following midweek toe surgery. He made two sacks in the first half, but spent the second half on the sidelines due to a biceps injury. Coach Clay Helton said the injury would not require surgery, but his status was unknown early this week. The toe injury also resurfaced, with a screw coming out of place. His timetable for return is uncertain, though Helton said his status for Week 4 is "50/50."

--DE Rasheem Green sustained a high ankle sprain, and his status is day-to-day.

--DB Ajene Harris, who recovered the fumble in the second overtime vs. Texas, is day-to-day with a knee hyperextension.

--LB John Houston did not play vs. Texas due to a neck injury and will be evaluated day-to-day.

--OL Chuma Edoga was sidelined vs. Texas with a wrist injury.

--RB Ronald Jones II sustained an ankle sprain in Week 3 and will be evaluated day-to-day.

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