No. 5 USC left Saturday’s Memorial Stadium matchup with Cal football with a two-possession, 30-20 win, but that’s admittedly a little misleading. The Trojans were far from embarrassing the Bears, who led in the second half and were tied in the fourth quarter. If it weren’t for some ugly turnovers, the Bears would have been in the game until the end, but therein lies the rub. When you’ve got a late lead against a title contender, you simply can’t have those costly errors. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
“First and foremost, you’ve got to give USC a lot of credit,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “We’re disappointed. We came into the game expecting to win it, and we just didn’t make enough plays at critical times. … We were tight there, until the fourth quarter.”
The Cal defense got off to an excellent start on the Trojans’ first play of the game. Freshman corner Elijah Hicks made a great play to break up a pass to open his second career start, and outside linebacker Alex Funches got his second career sack, continuing to look more and more comfortable each week as he’s moved positions from defensive end.
Ross Bowers’ connection with Vic Wharton III continued to look dominant, and they met up twice to help set up a field goal that gave the Bears an early 3-0 lead. On a crucial third and one, they handed off to fullback Malik McMorris, who has come through for Cal in big moments throughout the season. The Trojans should have been able to sniff out the playcall: The Bears were lined up in a pro formation, with Patrick Laird in the backfield. Laird hasn’t taken a handoff out of a pro set all season; generally, Vic Enwere comes in for those short-yard situations if Cal truly intends on running the ball through the halfback.
Cal kept the pressure on USC star quarterback Sam Darnold, flushing him out of the pocket and limiting his downfield options. A turnover on downs forced by linebacker Devante Downs could have set up a big Cal score, but Bowers threw an interception on a deflection following bad blocking from Ryan Gibson, who replaced the injured Valentino Daltoso. USC only had to go 20 yards to set up a game-tying kick.
A 23-yard run from Enwere set up by the aggressive blocking of Michael Saffell put the Bears at the 2-yard line, and Enwere punched the ball into the endzone shortly thereafter to go up 10-3. The touchdown came on a fourth down that Wilcox had apparently decided to go for before the third down failed, and Cal’s speed in getting the play off was hugely advantageous. The Trojans then had their only impressive drive of the first half, targeting speedy running back Stephen Carr, who Cameron Goode struggled to keep up with. Darnold tied the game up with an excellent throw to tight end Tyler Petite.
Sophomore cornerback Josh Drayden, after looking a little shaky against Ole Miss last week, pulled down an excellent interception to stop a Trojans drive, but the Bears and USC would trade field goal kicks to end the first half tied. Wide receiver Kanawai Noa continued to show a penchant for snagging big conversions, making an excellent grab over the back on a Trojan defender to set up Cal’s game-tying field goal.
Cal started with the ball in the second half, but a rough sequence in which right tackle Patrick Mekari missed a block on a sweep and was called for a false start almost ended the drive early. But another fourth down conversion eventually put kicker Matt Anderson in position to take the lead with a 29-yard kick. Wide right.
USC was driving on its first possession of the second half, but on a fourth and one from the 28 yard line, safety Quentin Tartabull got in the backfield to set up a run stuff for James Looney, keeping the score even. But the Cal defense couldn’t hold up forever, and on the next drive the Trojans converted two third down and fives, eventually taking the lead on a 46 yard field goal.
On their first play with the ball back, the Bears offensive line collapsed, and a strip sack gave the Trojans the ball at the three-yard line, and it was only a matter of time until they took the decisive 23-13 lead behind a Carr rush to the left. An unadvisable deep shot to Wharton was Bowers fourth turnover the game and although there were still almost 13 minutes remaining in the game, the nail in the Bears coffin.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter Cal was tied, but less than five minutes later they were down 17. Having to play while down multiple scores for the first time all season, Bowers was simply over eager and outmatched. He finished with two fumbles and four interceptions, and while it’s hard to fault him for each turnover, the body of work simply won’t get the job done against strong opponents.
“(Bowers) will bounce back,” Wilcox said. “(Bowers) is a tough guy, he has guts. He’ll learn from that and grow from it. I’m not worried about (him).”