Staring up into the clear blue sky, USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor searched for the football careening toward the earth.
Agholor brought the ball toward his body and took off toward the south end zone as a militia of blue bodies stormed downfield, each one locked in on the shifty punt-returner.
Cal linebacker Dan Camporeale was the first defender in his path. He crouched low, preparing to bring down the USC sophomore. Agholor veered to the left, knocking Camporeale off balance and finding swaths of space on the sideline. With only Cal punter Cole Leininger standing between Agholor and paydirt at the Cal 35, the wideout changed directions back to his right — tying Leininger up like a pretzel — and raced untouched into the end zone.
The 75-yard punt return touchdown — the first of Agholor’s two punt returns for a touchdown — broke a scoreless tie with 13:05 in the first quarter and granted the Trojans a 7-0 lead they wouldn’t look back from. USC (7-3, 4-2 in the Pac-12) racked up 41 points in the first half on its way to a 66-28 blowout over the Bears on Saturday afternoon.
“Our punt team killed us,” head coach Sonny Dykes said. “We had some momentum, some confidence. We finally got them a little tired and had an opportunity to do some things offensively. Then, you know, we basically give up 21 points on punt team.”
From the opening kick, the Bears (1-9, 0-7) struggled in all facets of the game. Following the Agholor punt return, the Bears’ offense picked up one first down but stalled near midfield after a drop from Darius Powe. After taking over at the Cal 21, the Trojans put their power running game to work. Silas Redd toted the rock six times for 17 yards and capped off the 13-play, 79-yard drive with a 12-yard scoot on a screen pass to give USC a 14-0 lead.
On the ensuing drive, the Cal offense went three-and-out, handing the ball right back to the USC offense. The Bears needed a stop to stay competitive.
In direct contrast with their first touchdown drive, the Trojans raced down the field in just five plays. On a 2nd-and-1 from the Cal 43, backup tailback Javorius Allen found the edge and ran over a couple of the Bears’ defensive backs en route to a 43-yard touchdown rumble.
“We missed a lot of checks,” Dykes said. “Rolled coverages the wrong way a couple of times and got out of position as a result. We didn’t tackle well, at times.”
For a moment early in the second quarter, it appeared Cal could make the contest interesting. Jared Goff marched the Bears into the red zone with a 21-yard pass to Kenny Lawler. On 3rd-and-goal from the four, Goff hit Lawler on his back-shoulder to pull the Bears within 14.
“He’s really stepped up big for us,” Goff said. “He’s a guy who can really go up and get it. I’m pretty confident with him down at the goal line.”
A stout defensive series pinned the Trojans deep in their territory, and Cal took over near midfield. From there, offensive coordinator Tony Franklin dialed up the trickeration section of the playbook.
On first down, Franklin called a Chris Harper halfback pass. Although the pass fell incomplete, the confusion forced the Trojan cornerback to commit pass interference, gifting the Bears 15 yards. Two plays later, Daniel Lasco took the handoff on a 3rd-and-4 from the USC 24. He promptly tossed the ball back to Goff, who lofted a pass to a wide-open Powe in the middle of the end zone to make the score 21-14.
That’s right about when the magic ran out. The Trojans once more extended their lead to two touchdowns on Allen’s second touchdown of the game, a 59-yard scamper on a screen pass. Soon afterward, USC returned a blocked punt 15 yards to the house to make the score 35-14. Another special teams miscue — this time poor punt coverage — allowed Agholor to sprint his way to his second punt return touchdown of the game. In a matter of minutes, a close game became a blowout, and the Bears were on their way to yet another pointless second half.
“Experienced, tough, grown men win football games,” Dykes said. “It’s not who we are right now. It’s who we’re gonna be. But it’s not who we are right now. I knew when I took this job it wasn’t going to be all rainbows and puppy dogs.”