LOS ANGELES — With another opportunity to stun a top-15 team on the road, the Cal football team had its upset hopes dashed by an inability to convert touchdowns in the red zone.
Despite winning the turnover battle on Saturday, the Bears could not win the war, falling to USC, 27-9. The No. 13 Trojans (3-1, 1-1 in the Pac-12) tacked on 10 points in the fourth quarter to make a reasonably close game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum look like a rout on the scoreboard.
“I thought we had a chance to win; we had a lot of opportunities,” said Cal cornerback Steve Williams. “We always have chances in games to win, we just got to overcome the hump.”
The Bears (1-3, 0-1) opened the second half with consecutive impressive drives — impressive, at least, until they reached the red zone. Cal’s 106 yards on the two possessions was more than its entire first-half haul, but the offense stalled inside the 20-yard line and settled for two field goals to bring the score to 17-9 to the Trojans.
“Against this team, top teams, you can’t win the game with field goals,” said wide receiver Keenan Allen.
After linebacker Chris McCain forced a fumble at USC’s 45-yard line on the ensuing drive, the Bears had a chance to tie the game in the middle of the third quarter. A 17-yard catch by Allen and a 13-yard run by C.J. Anderson had Cal at the Trojans’ 14-yard line.
It was now or never for the Bears.
On second down, Zach Maynard deluded a defender, rolled left and — in the tradition of many a Cal quarterback against the Trojans — threw an interception, his second of the game.
Maynard, who completed 18-of-33 passes for 173 yards, was under pressure all afternoon and was sacked seven times.
“Zach was under a lot of duress,” said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. “When you’re under duress, you’re throwing a little bit too soon.”
USC retaliated with a field goal of its own, leaving the Bears with 14 minutes of play to make up 11 points. The lead proved to be too substantial.
The Bears were lucky to be down only 14 at halftime. USC tailback Curtis McNeal outgained the entire Cal offense in the half, and he and Silas Redd provided an unexpected one-two punch in the backfield for the Trojans’ usually pass-happy offense.
With Cal focused on USC’s dynamic receiving duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, McNeal and Redd ran for 273 combined yards. After the tandem totaled just 53 yards in last week’s loss to Stanford, USC ran the ball 40 times on Saturday, surprising Williams and the Cal defense.
What kept the Trojans from blowing the game open in the first half was Matt Barkley’s two interceptions. The preseason Heisman Trophy frontrunner was picked off in the end zone on USC’s first drive of the game and later at the Bears’ 26-yard line, stopping what would have likely been another USC score.
The Bears had two decent drives in that half, even converting on two third downs and a fourth downs on one possession. But Vincenzo D’Amato’s name was always called at the end. The junior kicker, who missed all three of his attempts in last week’s 35-28 heartbreaker at Ohio State, was wide right on a 35-yard try before nailing a 24-yarder to put Cal on the board with five minutes to go in the half.
“We just couldn’t put it in in the red zone,” Tedford said. “We’re encouraged, but there’s a lot of plays to be made.”
Even with a 1-3 start to the season, Tedford is not worried about rattling off enough wins to become bowl eligible. But the squad knows there is little room for error.
“I told the boys today, ‘We can’t lose anymore,’” Maynard said after the game. “It lays in our hands. It’s on us.”
Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.