NCAA Football News
LOS ANGELES — Turnovers will be in limited supply Thursday when USC hosts Cal, assuming the two teams follow season-long trends.
When a takeaway comes along, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said it's crucial the Trojans parlay it into points.
"We need to capitalize on turnovers," he said, speaking after practice Tuesday at Howard Jones-Brian Kennedy Field. "We need to take advantage of maybe creating some short fields for ourselves and then maintaining taking care of the football offensively to make them work their way down the field.
"We can't give an offense like that short fields," Sarkisian added.
The Trojans coach cited USC's plus-nine turnover margin to Cal's even ratio. In terms of actually giving up the ball, however, the two teams have been considerably more comparable.
Cal ranks No. 38 in the Football Bowl Subdivision with just 13 turnovers lost. USC is even better, having given away just eight possessions to rank sixth nationally.
Both can thank the steady play of their quarterbacks. USC's Cody Kessler and Cal's Jared Goff are among the most prolific scorers in the nation with 25 and 27 touchdown passes apiece, respectively, but their lofty numbers are not the result of high-risk, high-reward mentalities.
As good as each is at getting his team in the end zone, both Kessler and Goff are equally adept at maintaining their squad's possessions.
Goff has thrown just four interceptions in 372 attempts—one every 93 passes. Kessler has been picked off twice in 297 passes, or once every 148.5 attempts.
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes credited Goff's improved ball protection to the Golden Bears starting stronger this season than in the quarterback's freshman campaign when he threw 10 interceptions.
"The biggest thing is his comfort level and the understanding of the offense," Dykes said. "He has a better anticipation, a better sense for what's going on.
"The most important attribute that good quarterbacks have is confidence," Dykes added. "He's starting to play with a lot of confidence."
In turn, the Golden Bears in general are more confident, and the result is a 41.9 point-per-game average.
Sarkisian's taken notice. He said the Trojans must score at least 35 points to win.
That's a number USC has hit in three of its last four wins. And in those three victories, Kessler has a remarkable 14 touchdown passes with no interceptions.
In his last outing against Washington State, Kessler went 21-of-32 for 400 yards and five scores. That got the attention of Cougars head coach Mike Leach, who commented on Kessler's play Tuesday on the coaches teleconference.
"He doesn't take any chances. That's the biggest thing," Leach said of Kessler. "They do a lot of things to make sure he's successful."
Those "things," according to Leach, include using play-action fakes to "bait" defenders, then "he does a good job throwing to the open man."
It's a very simple formula, albeit one that could dictate the outcome of Thursday's game.
To Blitz or Not to Blitz
Don't expect USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to call for many blitzes against Cal. The Trojans have run the fewest blitzes of any team in the power-five conferences.
More specifically, USC's two games with the lowest percentage of blitzes called, per USCFootball.com's Ryan Abraham, were against Boston College and Washington State.
Cal's offense bears similarities to that of Washington State, as Dykes is a branch off the Leach coaching tree. Dykes also uses backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer for zone-read plays in the same vein as Boston College's Tyler Murphy.
According to Sarkisian, that's unlikely to change based on what he described as play-calling to the team's strengths.
"We've got a really good front seven," Sarkisian said. "We take pride in our front four and what they can do. Also, we understand that we have some youth in the secondary. We need to take care of those guys to make sure we're minimizing the big [pass] play."
Minimize those plays the Trojans have. Opponents have completed 22 passes of 20 yards or more against USC, 20th best in the nation. The Trojans have allowed just five pass plays of 30 yards or more, which ties Alabama for third best in the country.
Conversely, Cal is one of the best teams in the FBS at producing explosive pass plays. One reason, according to Dykes, is Goff's ability to turn blitzing situations into opportunities.
While USC's limited blitzing is a safeguard against the pass, Sarkisian does not see it negatively impacting the Trojans' run defense.
"Even though we haven't blitzed as much, our run numbers have been fantastic," Sarkisian said. USC is allowing 138.4 rushing yards per game and just four yards an attempt. "We haven't had to devote an extra defender to the box, which in turn has helped us in our pass coverage."
Lobendahn Holding Off Walker at Tackle
Aundrey Walker initially filled in at left tackle for starter Chad Wheeler, who tore his ACL in the Oct. 25 loss at Utah.
Sarkisian hinted Walker would remain in the position, but freshman Toa Lobendahn moved from the interior to left tackle in the week before the Trojans faced Washington State.
"Toa beat him out," Sarkisian said. "We're going to play the best players that give us the best opportunity to be successful, and that's what happened."
Injuries and Energy After Bye Week
Sarkisian said on his Nov. 2 conference call that USC's bye week "couldn't come at a better time."
The Trojans used their additional week leading up to Thursday's game to recuperate from the collective injuries that piled up throughout Pac-12 play, and the strategy should pay off.
Linebacker-safety hybrid Su'a Cravens will be in the lineup after suffering a knee injury at Washington State.
On Tuesday, Sarkisian said fullback Soma Vainuku was looking good. Freshman defensive back John Plattenburg is day-to-day with a thigh bruise.
In addition to healing, the bye week afforded USC an opportunity to re-energize. Sarkisian said he has seen that manifest in practices, which resumed on Saturday.
"This is our Thursday...for a 'Thursday' practice, I thought our energy was fantastic," he said. "I had to tell them to slow down, which is a great place to be. [It] means we're energized and fresh. They're in tune to the details of the game plan, and Thursday night, we're going to put it all together."
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics via CFBstats.com.
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