LOS ANGELES — On a misty Thursday night in Los Angeles, a hollow, booming sound echoed across the walls of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The low rings, which arrived rhythmically one after the other, were greeted by a deep and sustained roar that surrounded the stadium. This sound — the harsh growl of the crowd and the repeated clangs of the bell projected on the screen overhead — was repeated over and over and over again in the first half as the sky around the stadium darkened. The bell signals a third down for the opposing team, and the roar of the crowd is its natural greeting.
This noise accompanied the visiting Bears through most of their 38-30 loss to USC on Thursday night, though they would never look comfortable in the ringing stadium. Cal’s vaunted offense faced third downs early and often and was rarely able to convert or sustain the kind of drives it needed to keep up with a USC team that racked up 450 yards against the Bears’ defense.
“Early in the ball game, we did not convert any third downs,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “That was something we, offensively, struggled with in the first half. Put ourselves in too many third-and-longs.”
On the opening drive of the game, the Trojan offense ran away from the Bears through the air and on the ground. USC quarterback Cody Kessler found Nelson Agholor for a 28-yard gain on 3rd-and-12, and running back Javorius “Buck” Allen split through a hole in the defense for a gain of 13 as the Trojans quickly marched down the field.
Then Kessler threaded a needle on a pass that was just out of reach of Cal’s Caleb Coleman to find Agholor again for the 10-yard score, putting USC up 7-0. This pass was met by a roar from the crowd, too, but a higher-pitched, more ecstatic howling than the sound that would greet the Bears on the very next drive. The clamor was soon joined in by the USC Trojan Marching Band’s “Fight On,” another sound the Cal football team would become all too familiar with by the end of the night.
On the next possession, the Cal offense went three and out, giving the ball immediately back to the Trojan offense. USC responded by marching down the field again, this time capping it off with a 32-yard strike to George Farmer as the lead ballooned to 14.
Cal, meanwhile, was stuck on offense. The Bears were stuffed on the ground. Jared Goff, who would finish with 279 yards and three touchdowns, desperately tried to avoid pressure when the team tried to throw it. And on every third down — and there were many — that bell tolled and tolled and tolled.
“They were just doing some different stuff, a lot of similar stuff that I think Washington did to us,” Goff said.
The Bears found a brief respite when defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil brought down Justin Davis for a safety, but their offense wouldn’t find the end zone until the waning seconds of the half. Cal went into the locker room with a 31-9 deficit to try to make up.
The half was so lopsided that Agholor — USC’s star wideout — put up 52 more yards than the entire Cal offense together, hanging 177 yards to go with two touchdowns at the end of 30 minutes.
In the fourth quarter, Cal narrowed the deficit to 8 with 1:36 left in the game, but by then it was too late. Without a miracle, the Bears wouldn’t be able to mount a comeback. And they didn’t get one — USC recovered the ensuing onside kick, essentially ending the game.
“We can’t expect to beat good teams like we played tonight and allow them to have a 20-something point cushion on to start off,” said running back Daniel Lasco.
When USC finally ran out the clock, the stadium was oddly quiet — most of the 64,615 fans in attendance had exited the coliseum long before, more interested in beating traffic than staying for the end of a deceptively close blowout.
“Our guys were ready today, we were fighting, ” Jalil said. “It’s just the fact that you come out with little mental mistakes that lost the game.”