BERKELEY — Three games into Justin Wilcox’s tenure as coach at Cal, the once-maligned defense has turned from a major liability into the strength of the team for the Golden Bears.
Cal is allowing 20 fewer points a game this season and has held its past two opponents scoreless in the second half. But shutting down Weber State and Mississippi isn’t the same as doing it against quarterback Sam Darnold and fifth-ranked USC (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12).
“We always set pretty high standards in our own building so we feel like we can play a lot better, and we’re going to need to play a lot better to continue to have success,” Wilcox said. “So that’s really what we’re focused on and not necessarily opinions of others.”
No one ever said much good about the defense at Cal (3-0) the previous four seasons under coach Sonny Dykes when the Bears never finished better than 102nd in the nation in yards per play and finished last season ranked 125th in total defense, 127th in scoring defense and 122nd in yards per play out of 128 FBS teams.
That led to a 5-7 record that was the third losing mark in Dykes’ four seasons and the move to hire a proven defensive coordinator in Wilcox to turn the program around.
“They brought a really great scheme,” linebacker Devante Downs said. “With this new scheme, it puts players in position to make plays that they didn’t before. People are playing with confidence.”
The success comes as little surprise at USC, where many of the defensive players for the Trojans played for Wilcox when he was defensive coordinator there from 2013-15.
“He was a great coach when he was here,” safety Chris Hawkins said. “A lot of things didn’t go his way, but at the same time he was a great coach. ... He got them guys going up there. I wish the best for him. He was a great coach. He recruited me out of high school, too, so when I came here I had an instant relationship with him.”
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Cal did a good job of holding Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson in check even though the Bears allowed him to throw for 363 yards. More than half of those yards came on three big plays and Cal got three interceptions, including a late interception return for a touchdown by Cameron Goode to seal the game.
Doing the same to Darnold will be a challenge. He has thrown for at least 200 yards in 13 consecutive starts and has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,002 yards so far this season. Darnold has thrown six interceptions in three games.
“Sam Darnold is as good as there is playing his position,” Wilcox said. “He’s arguably the best player in the country.”
Most of the players in this game hadn’t even worn pads the last time Cal won in the series.
The Bears dealt the Trojans their only loss in 2003 with a triple-overtime win in Berkeley. Since then, the series has been decidedly one-sided.
USC has won 13 consecutive meetings by an average of 18.1 points per game.