BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — California coach Justin Wilcox spent the week off for the Golden Bears trying to fix a defense that has been one of the worst in the Pac-12.
The Bears (3-4, 1-3 Pac-12) will get an immediate test on how well that went when they host reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and No. 24 Southern California (6-2, 4-1) on Saturday.
“He’s a special talent and I know our guys are excited to get to play him again,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox compared Williams to past great Pac-12 quarterbacks he has faced as a coach or coordinator, including former Oregon star Marcus Mariota.
He cited his strong arm, accuracy and demeanor, as well as the creativity that makes Williams so hard to defend.
“You have to play the play on schedule and then you have to play the play off schedule,” Wilcox said. “Even if the first initial read is not there or somebody did get pressure and move the pocket or get him out of the pocket, you have a different play that you have to defend, the second half of it.”
Cal has allowed 41.5 points per game in conference play, the worst of any team.
But the Trojans have their own concerns following back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Utah that have them in danger of falling out of the conference title race with another loss.
“We’ve still got a lot to play for, a lot of goals in front of us,” linebacker Mason Cobb said. “We’re working hard every day. Nothing changes in our locker room because we lost two games."
The game against Cal appears to be the one respite in a brutal second half of the season for the Trojans. After losing to ranked opponents Notre Dame and Utah, USC will play No. 5 Washington, No. 8 Oregon and No. 23 UCLA after the game against the Bears.
“I try not to take any team lightly, and I know that’s the same for all of our guys,” safety Zion Branch said. “Every team has got players. I go into every week knowing we’ve got to be on our game and we’ve got to prepare for every team if we want to get to our goals.”
As good as Williams has been this season with 23 touchdown passes, seven TD runs and 284.6 yards passing per game, the past two weeks have been a grind. He has only one TD pass in those losses and has been held under 260 yards passing in each of his last three games. He threw three INTs in the loss to Notre Dame and has taken 10 sacks the past two weeks.
TAKING THE REINS
While the Trojans have been set at QB, the Bears have been searching all season with Sam Jackson V, Ben Finley and Fernando Mendoza all getting starts. Mendoza will get his third straight start on Saturday. He threw two TD passes in each of his first two and is making progress.
“I think he's just going to continue to get better and better,” Wilcox said. “One thing Fernando has shown from the short time is the ability to learn from a mistake.”
USC freshman Zachariah Branch is one of the most versatile threats in the game. He scored on a TD run against Utah, after previously having touchdowns on a catch, punt return and kick return. The last player to score a TD those four ways in a season was Stanford's Christian McCaffrey in 2015.
END OF RIVALRY
This will be the final scheduled meeting between the two in-state rivals before the Trojans head to the Big Ten and the Bears to the ACC. The teams have met in every non-pandemic season since 1925, with USC's 110 games against Cal its most against any opponent.
“It’s really sad, you know, and kind of shameful, the way this whole thing went down,” Wilcox said.
AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham contributed to this report.
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