Injuries, defensive lapses plague Bears in 41-17 loss to USC

Sunny Shen/Staff

Like the 2019 Golden State Warriors, the Cal football team seemingly couldn’t catch a break Saturday evening. Despite a tightly contested first half of play, the visiting USC Trojans took advantage of the Bears’ in-game injuries and defensive breakdowns in coverage, pulling away in the second half to secure a 41-17 win over Cal.

“They made the plays, and we didn’t,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “I love the way our guys competed — we just didn’t make many plays at all down the field.”

Bad to worse to ugly? Not quite. Bad luck to scary injuries to a darn good performance from USC’s quarterback? That’s more like it.

A week after silencing prolific WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon in a 33-20 dismantling of the Cougars to secure their fifth win of the season, the Bears’ defense took a beating at the hands of Trojans freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis.

With the help of multiple athletic playmakers outside the hashes, the true freshman put on a clinic under the Saturday night lights, finding Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr. and Drake London on several post routes and jump balls down the sideline. Against a Cal defense that forced two big turnovers last week, Slovis had one of the best games of his young career: 29 of 35 for 406 yards and four passing touchdowns.

It was St. Brown and Pittman Jr. who Slovis found in the endzone after Cal cornerback Elijah Hicks slipped twice in coverage during the first half, both on third down plays with the Cal front seven in pursuit of Slovis on the run. The 33-yard connection with Pittman Jr. came with just 43 seconds left in the first half, giving USC a 17-10 lead heading into the break.

While the Bears found the endzone first in this one, their first half was marred by not one, not two, but at least three significant injuries that affected their game plan.

First, starting tailback Christopher Brown Jr. left the game after taking a hit in the backfield from USC defensive end Christian Rector. After two carries for a robust 29 yards, Brown Jr. was spotted on the sideline for the remainder of the contest, leaving redshirt juniors DeShawn Collins and Marcel Dancy to fill his shoes.

On the flip side of that play, Rector’s night, as it turns out, was done too. The redshirt senior defensive end was called for a targeting penalty less than three minutes into the game, ending his evening prematurely.

Just like that, one play, and both teams had lost two key playmakers.

While the Bears responded to Brown Jr.’s departure with Collins’ first career rushing touchdown, giving them the early edge, the bad luck didn’t end there on the injury front.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Chase Garbers returned from a four-game absence to the delight of the 46,397 fans in attendance Saturday evening. His return, however, was cut short just a quarter and change into the contest, as Garbers landed on his upper body and immediately went to one knee.

In a scene eerily similar to Garbers’ injury nearly two months ago against Arizona State, the crowd’s noise tapered off significantly as Garbers walked gingerly toward the sideline and redshirt junior Devon Modster entered the fold.

To his credit, Modster initially picked up right where he left off last week — relieving Garbers in stride and moving the Bears into field goal range, where Greg Thomas connected on a 37-yard field goal attempt.

But as the second half unfolded, Modster’s relief appearance turned sour, accentuated by two third-quarter interceptions with his team trailing by multiple scores. While Slovis could seemingly do no wrong en route to a nearly spotless 218.0 quarterback rating, Modster failed to replicate anything reminiscent of last week’s four touchdown performance against the Cougars.

“We were executing some plays pretty well, and then it was the third downs,” Wilcox said. “We had three potential conversions that we didn’t finish. Plenty to improve upon.”

With the Bears struggling on the field and undoubtedly shaken by Evan Tattersall’s first half injury while covering a kickoff return, it was a forgettable night for a program that still needs one more win to clinch postseason eligibility. Despite Collins’ 103-yard rushing performance, accentuated by the first two rushing touchdowns of his career, it’s no secret that the pressure is on to capture that elusive sixth win.

As Cal hopes for the best surrounding the statuses of Garbers, Brown Jr. and Tattersall, road contests against Stanford and UCLA remain on its mind as well.

“We need to put all of our focus into next week, because we have a really big game,” said linebacker Evan Weaver. “We’ve not been really good against Stanford the last nine years, I think. So it would nice to go win that game, but it’s not going to happen without a lot of hard work and everybody showing up everyday.”

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.