SAN FRANCISCO — Zach Maynard and the Cal football team were stationed on the 10-yard line with perhaps the most necessary first-and-goal they had seen all season. With 55 ticks left in the first half, USC had already tossed up an effortless 20-0 lead.
So Maynard lines up, takes the snap, and whips the ball into the end zone. This is where it found the eager, welcoming hands of Trojan linebacker Dion Bailey.
The result, unsurprisingly, was a 30-9 loss at AT&T Park on Thursday night — the Bears’ third straight since starting Pac-12 play.
Before that, there was the fumble by wide receiver Keenan Allen, which squelched Cal’s game-opening drive at 17 yards. There was Marvin Jones’ punt return that put the Bears on their own 48; three plays later, USC swatted Maynard’s hand and recovered the ball. There was the obscenely horrendous interception Maynard threw on his own 10-yard line, an easy completion if linebacker Chris Galippo had instead been wearing blue and gold.
“You see these past two weeks, we beat ourselves,” Jones said, referring also to his team’s 43-15 loss at Oregon last Thursday. Cal had held a 15-14 halftime lead.
No, this wasn’t the Coliseum massacre of last year, wherein a bloodthirsty Matt Barkley tossed a school-record five touchdowns in the first half alone. So what? Cal gave the Trojans four first-half turnovers on Thursday night. For context: USC had entered AT&T Park with a mere five takeaways on the season. The Bears, in turn, had only committed four turnovers in 2011.
Truth be told, homecoming felt like a fresh start for this Cal (3-3, 0-3 in the Pac-12) team. Its first game in this stadium happened nearly a month ago. Its three season-opening victories were rung up against two lower-class teams and one relatively destitute one. Thursday was a barometer.
The verdict for now is that this squad, while aesthetically different from its 2010 incarnation, is remarkably similar in its production. Its offense, while more explosive and with a higher ceiling, cannot consistently put together drives. At its best, Maynard is tossing highlight-reel stuff to Allen or Jones, and the 5-foot-7 Isi Sofele is charging through multiple tacklers. At its worst, Maynard is zipping passes right into the hands of defenders and Michael Calvin is botching fly sweep handoffs.
“We’ve got to find a way to put it all together,” head coach Jeff Tedford said. “We’ve got flashes of really good things. We’ve got to put it all together.”
Its defense, while not as stellar as the lineup that produced four picks in the 2011 NFL Draft, proved itself at least an above-average unit. No Trojan recorded eye-popping stats: Barkley had 195 yards and two scores; backup tailback Curtis McNeal ran for 86 yards and a touchdown. Cal’s true freshman Stefan McClure, making his first start at cornerback, limited USC’s star wideout Robert Woods — the Pac-12’s leading receiver — to 36 yards.
Too often, though, turnovers gave the Bears a short field to defend.
“Either way, we’ve got to stop them, whether it’s 80 yards or 30 yards,” McClure said. “They never start in the end zone.”
There were attempts at a comeback — a 66-yard drive in the third quarter for the team’s first three points, a 44-yard touchdown drive in the fourth — but it was too little, too late. Maynard, who only burns or fizzles, managed a marvelous third quarter: 8-of-10 for 108 yards passing, paired with a rushing touchdown. He finished with 294 yards and three interceptions, with 13 of his 25 completions going to Allen, a career-high for the receiver.
“Sometimes he does force it (to me),” Allen said. “I try to tell him about it, but I don’t know if he listens to me or not.”
USC (5-1, 3-1) has now outscored Cal by a total of 82-0 in the first halves of their last three contests. The Bears, of course, have now lost to USC for eight years running. The difference is that the first six — or even seven — could be dusted off as a loss against a powerhouse.
That was not the case on Thursday night.