Cal, led by improved defense, offers unexpected test for USC in road opener – Orange County Register

As Cal prevailed over Ole Miss last weekend with a 27-16 victory, it was again spurred by a second-half comeback.

It outscored the Rebels, 20-0, in the third and fourth quarters.

“We know the second half’s our half,” quarterback Ross Bowers said afterward. “We just don’t flinch. We could be down, we could beat. I think this team is always prepared, like we’re waiting for the adversity to hit because we know that’s when we play our top game.”

In fact, through three games, the upstart Golden Bears have outscored opponents, 57-13, in the second half.

USC’s road opener on Saturday includes an unexpected test. Cal, in its first season under new coach Justin Wilcox, is 3-0, its best start in six seasons. When the Trojans and Golden Bears meet in Berkeley, it will be as unbeaten teams for the first time since 2004.

“There’s a lot of confidence brewing up there,” USC coach Clay Helton said.

Cal’s defense has been instrumental in its second-half comebacks. It held Ole Miss scoreless for the final 43 minutes, forcing six of its final nine drives to end with a punt. The group has not been without flaws, ranking 115th in the FBS in total defense, but it has been opportunistic. The Golden Bears have nine sacks, 19th most in the nation, five interceptions, ninth most, and four recovered fumbles, eighth most.

It also helps to have senior linebacker Devante Downs, who was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Week on Monday for the second time this season. Downs is the conference’s leading tackler, too.

“Defensively, they’re playing good football,” Helton said.

Wilcox was most recently the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin in 2016, but is well known at USC for holding the same position in the two previous seasons.

It was an uneven stretch with the Trojans, and when Helton was hired as the full-time head coach following the 2015 season, he did not retain Wilcox, among other assistant coaches.

At Cal, Wilcox added brought in Tim DeRuyter as his defensive coordinator. DeRuyter was fired as Fresno State’s coach, but had previously been the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M.

“Those are two really good defensive coaches and know how to put a good game plan together,” Helton said.

RUN GAME REVIEW

USC’s ground game was formidable in its Pac-12 opener against Stanford.

It was confounding against Texas.

The Trojans did not top at least 100 rushing yards for the first time in 15 games, held to 71 yards, their lowest since last…

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