Trailing 17-7 early in the second half, Cal quarterback Jared Goff threw a pass right at USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson to score on the pick-six play that extended the Trojans’ lead over the Bears. Down by multiple possessions midway through the third quarter, Cal (5-3) needed to respond or would risk getting blown out for the second game in a row.
With Goff trying to lead a comeback effort and Cal’s defense silencing USC (5-3), the Bears then went on a 14-3 run with one touchdown by running back Daniel Lasco in the third quarter and one from tight end Stephen Anderson with 3:52 left in the fourth. But in the end, Cal’s defense couldn’t get the ball back to Goff, as the Trojans picked up the first downs they needed to drain the clock and come away with the 27-21 victory at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
In the first quarter, it was clear Cal wanted to give its running backs a chance to make an early impact. With Khalfani Muhammad and Lasco splitting time, the two gained 67 rushing yards on 13 carries. Because threat of the run was established early, the USC defense couldn’t sell out on the pass and focus solely on Goff.
“We needed to run it against them,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “We have to run the football to give our quarterback time. I thought we ran it okay. Not as well as we needed to, but we ran it okay.”
As a result, Goff was protected from the pass-rush and his receivers had time to complete their routes. On plays such as Bryce Treggs’ 6-yard touchdown catch from the pre-snap motion to get open in the flat and Kenny Lawler’s 13-yard catch off a flea-flicker, the Trojans needed to respect the run and gave Cal receivers one-on-one opportunities.
As expected, USC’s dangerous group of athletic receivers and running backs found several opportunities to make plays. The Trojans gave their players many chances to showcase their speed against the Cal defense using screenplays and basic running plays. On one play, USC even successfully executed a trick play in which quarterback Cody Kessler handed the ball off to Jackson, who then handed it off to wide receiver Jalen Greene, who would then make the 34-yard completion to wide receiver Deontay Burnett.
“They (Trojans) played hard nose. They have a bunch of athletes on the field offensively and defensively.” Lasco said. “I wouldn’t say they weren’t throwing anything at us that we couldn’t handle. We just weren’t executing.”
Despite the early explosive plays the Trojans had, the defense was still able to hold its ground and limit USC’s impact. The Bears did give up many big-yardage plays, but for the most part, they were able to keep the Trojans in check. Cal’s defenders made the tackles to prevent the highlight plays from becoming scoring plays and the majority of USC’s offensive snaps produced minimal results. At the end of the first half, the Bears were right with the Trojans trailing just 10-7.
But the second half was a different story. USC had the ball to start off the third quarter and on that opening drive, Cal’s defense couldn’t get off the field and the drive ended with a Tre Madden rushing touchdown on 4th and goal. Right after, Jackson picked off Goff’s pass and returned it to the end zone. All of a sudden, the Bears went from trailing by a field goal to being down 24-7.
“As an offense, we believe we’re underperforming tremendously,” Treggs said. “We had shots. We just didn’t take as many as we should have.”
Goff did lead two drives of 80+ yards that took under four minutes each to give Cal its last two touchdowns. The defense also shut USC out in the fourth. The Bears, however, dug themselves in too deep of a hole to catch up and avoid their third consecutive loss of the season.
“Any time when it’s under two minutes, our offense just kind of raises its level of play,” Lasco said.
But the Bears waited a bit too long before their offense finally started to look explosive.
“Once again, we just didn’t get the job done on offense,” Lasco said. “Defense played well enough. For some reason, we just kind of lost it. Once again, we got to make plays.”
Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact him at [email protected].