LOS ANGELES — Although Southern Cal is out of the national title race, the Trojans' schedule puts them in position for a big finish to football coach Steve Sarkisian's debut season.
Even after every weird thing that has happened to USC in the past three months, from preseason player shenanigans to two last-second losses, Sarkisian is certain the Trojans (6-3, 5-2 Pac-12 Conference) are focused only on Cal's visit to the Coliseum tonight.
Sarkisian has reacted with exasperation in the past few days when he's repeatedly asked whether there's a chance the Trojans will look past a weekday visit from the Golden Bears (5-4, 3-4) to their high-profile, season-ending games against UCLA and Notre Dame.
“I don't know why there would be,” Sarkisian said. “We're going to play a team that if you don't score 35, you're not in the game, so we've got to be ready to play.”
Indeed, Cal is still searching for a signature win under coach Sonny Dykes, who has the Bears on the brink of bowl eligibility for the first time in three years.
None of the five teams that Cal has beaten currently has a winning record, but the Bear Raid offense already has the Trojans' respect.
“They've improved drastically from last year,” USC linebacker Su'a Cravens said. “They're no pushovers anymore.”
The Bears have lost 10 straight games to USC since their classic triple-overtime win over Matt Leinart's third-ranked Trojans in Strawberry Canyon in 2003. Cal hasn't won at the Coliseum since 2000, but has come awfully close.
Here are some more things to watch when Cal returns to downtown L.A.:
THROW IT UP: Although tailback Javorius Allen is having a spectacular season for USC, Sarkisian has made it clear that the Trojans' passing game must excel against the Bears, who are giving up an FBS-worst 376.4 yards passing per game. Cody Kessler, who has thrown 25 TD passes and just two interceptions this season, will attempt to pick on smallish Cal cornerbacks Cam Walker and Cedric Dozier while throwing to Nelson Agholor and the Trojans' fleet receivers. “That's what USC has always been,” Trojans offensive coordinator Clay Helton said. “Being able to run the ball, and then be able to throw it over your head. If we have that staple that (Allen) is providing, we'll go a long way.”
ON THE GROUND: Cal's running game has picked up in recent weeks, racking up 462 yards rushing in the past two outings. Daniel Lasco's career-best 188 yards on the ground were a key to the Bears' win at Oregon State. To keep the pressure off Jared Goff's arm against the Trojans' solid secondary, the Bears must try to run the ball on a USC front seven that has been stout and stingy in the past six games.
THURSDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: USC has a Thursday home game for the second straight year and just the second time since 1938. That's disappointing to a section of the Trojans' hardcore traditionalist fan base that defiantly resists most of the sport's modern trappings, from alternate uniforms to midweek television dates. Along with restrictions on traditional on-campus tailgating, those USC fans' distaste for a Thursday game is grounded in a familiar Los Angeles foe: Weekday rush-hour traffic, which makes for a daunting drive.