One team secured a bowl game berth tonight. The other let its record fall to a dismal 5-5, a .500 record that provides little comfort so late in the season. Those diametric outcomes were up for grabs at the beginning of the battle between the Bears and the Trojans, and as the game wore on, that toss-up was even more pronounced.
If you had asked at the end of the first half, nearly every observer would’ve bet on a USC win, but in the second half, the tables markedly turned. It was only in the waning minutes of the game that the outcome was certain, with the Bears holding on to a narrow 15-14 lead to secure a win against their SoCal foes. The win would snap a 14-year losing streak, made all the sweeter by the oh-so-coveted sixth win.
“The first goal of our team is to get six wins to make it to a bowl game,” said Cal running back Patrick Laird. “It means a lot, and I’m so happy for our guys.”
The first quarter wasn’t all bad from Cal’s standpoint, but the uphill challenge of playing in a road environment was evident. The Bears and the Trojans traded possessions throughout the first 15 minutes, with neither team making noticeable gains on either end of the field. Cal’s first possession was pretty emblematic of the entire half — the Bears took over at their own 3-yard line after Ashtyn Davis bobbled the opening kickoff, and then Cal squandered three quick plays and ended up punting the ball.
Throughout the first half, the Bears saw much of the same when it came to their offense; they generated just 69 yards of offense in the entirety of the half, a dismal display when compared to the 237 yards the Trojans were able to drum up. In the second quarter, Cal was completely unable to generate a first down, with its biggest gain coming from a 29-yard run from quarterback Chase Garbers that resulted in a fumble for a turnover.
Once again, it wasn’t that the Trojans’ defense was superb, it was that the Bears’ offense was subpar.
Speaking of the Trojans, their offense — in the first half of play — was miraculously able to do something that teams far superior were unable to accomplish: break down the Cal defense. Slot passes and dynamic runs led to big gains by USC, which relied on two touchdowns from receiver Tyler Vaughns to separate itself from Cal by halftime, 14-0.
The Trojans’ first touchdown came at the very start of the second quarter, after USC received favorable field position at the 50-yard line with the first-quarter clock winding down. Four quick plays later, USC was in Cal’s end zone after a drive that was induced by a 44-yard run from lethal Trojan running back Aca’Cedric Ware. The touchdown play came off a short lob from Trojan quarterback J.T. Daniels to Vaughns, who sped away from cornerback Camryn Bynum into the end zone.
The Trojans’ second touchdown came on a similar combo from Daniels to Vaughns, as the nifty receiver ran past Elijah Hicks to cap off an efficient, three-minute drive. The only reason the score wasn’t 21-0 after the first 30 minutes was because of a fumble by the Trojan offense deep in Bear territory in the final 50 seconds.
By the end of the first half, Cal looked dejected and the Trojans looked invincible.
But then came the third quarter. On USC’s first possession, the Bears zoned in. After a couple plays landed the Trojans with third-and-13 at their own 22, a bad snap over the head of Daniels led to a safety. Cal’s defense, which had produced the team’s past two wins, stood poised to generate another one.
“To boil it down, it was something to the effect of ‘we played about as bad as we could play in the first half, so let’s go play as good as we can play in the second half,’ ” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox.
On the next possession, Cal made it happen on offense. After an advantageous kick return from Davis that started the Bears from their own 44, a pass interference yielded a 15-yard gain, a run from Laird brought 6 more, and a lob pass (eerily similar to the Daniels-to-Vaughn connection in the second quarter) from Garbers to wide receiver Vic Wharton III was a stroll into the end zone.
Suddenly, a game that seemed lost was miraculously found.
On the Trojans’ next drive, Daniels was able to earn two first downs before Traveon Beck secured an interception in the middle of the field and then swirled his arms in celebration. From there, it was the one-two punch of the Laird-Garbers running show that brought the Bears a touchdown. A 2-point conversion was incomplete, but it didn’t really matter. After nine plays and 3 minutes, 37 seconds, Cal had a 15-14 lead over USC less than 10 minutes after everything seemed bleak for the blue and gold.
The Bears would maintain that lead at the end of the third quarter, and as the clock wore down for Cal, players and coaches each held up a single finger — just one more quarter and the bowl-clinching win would be theirs.
15 minutes later, it was. After trading possessions, the pivotal play came with 2 minutes, 10 seconds on the clock. It was fourth-and-1 on the USC 33-yard line, and Garbers gave the ball to Laird, who more than earned the necessary yard — he carried it for 14, and the Bears took a succession of knees on the remaining snaps.
Game over. It might’ve been the slimmest margin of victory for Cal this season, but it was also the most coveted. With it, the Bears improved to 6-4 and proved themselves worthy of securing a huge Pac-12 road win.
“They’re finding a way, and that’s what I’m most proud of,” Wilcox said.