Instant analysis/reaction: Cal’s season ends sweetly in Strawberry Canyon, Bears break Trojans 24-14

photo of Cal football
Antonio Martin/Staff

Related Posts

Key takeaways

PAT: Pride after touchdown

Both teams arrived at Memorial Stadium with less-than-stellar records — Cal ended the season 5-7, while USC fell to 4-8. The fact that both the Bears and Trojans had recent and heavy losses handed to them by Joe Bruin himself as well led to a particularly tense game at Strawberry Canyon. It was a contest of pride and not much else. Both teams were bowl ineligible while facing embarrassing records and off-the-field incidents (the Bears with their COVID-19 fiasco and USC just coming off firing its head coach Clay Helton). As such, this game was about ego.

Defend until the end 

As the game began, it became more than clear that USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s defense left much to be desired. The Trojans’ defense has allowed a staggering 175 rushing yards per game and is currently ranked 98th in the country. The fact that one of their most effective defensive starters, Drake Jackson, was out with injury was apparent — USC’s defense looked almost as bad as the Bears’ did during their recent 42-14 loss to UCLA.

Cal coordinator Peter Sirmon’s defense has been nothing to write home about this season, but once in a blue and gold moon, the seemingly impossible happens: Cal’s defense locks it in on the gridiron. Saturday night was illuminated by that blue and gold moon. The Bears showed up and showed out in incredible fashion as linebacker Femi Oladejo hurried the opponent’s quarterback, Jaxson Dart, while also registering two tackles for a loss. Seventh-year defensive lineman Luc Bequette showed that experience matters as he broke up a pass to turn the play in the Bears’ favor. USC’s Parker Lewis missed two field goals, and Cal forced two critical fumbles. The Bears proved that their defense was in peak performance during this faceoff.

Are you ready to fumble? 

A touchdown is no easy feat, even for a team’s offense. Touchdowns from fumble recoveries are even fewer and farther between. During the second quarter, senior safety Elijah Hicks forced a fumble, opening a window of opportunity for the Bears. Sophomore linebacker Trey Paster leaped through that window without hesitation. Paster scooped up the loose ball, returning it 55 yards, all the way into the end zone — putting Cal up 17-7.

It wouldn’t be the last time the Trojans let the football slip from their fingers. USC’s efforts to close the gap on the scoreboard were proven futile by Cal’s defense. Safety Daniel Scott completed a remarkable strip-sack of freshman quarterback Miller Moss, who replaced an injured Dart in the third quarter, foiling any chance the Trojans had at potentially equalizing the score. The turnover propelled the Bears into their next touchdown, leading to a 24-7 blue and gold lead near the end of the fourth quarter.

Cal’s game MVP

While this matchup showcased the abilities of many a player, the source of the crowd’s cheers was undoubtedly Paster. The outside linebacker forced a fumble, racked up seven tackles (one for loss) and anchored the Bears’ defense during an unsuccessful fourth-down attempt at a touchdown by the Trojans. Working to create openings for his teammates and doing so quite successfully, Paster truly showed his prowess.

Eye-opening stats

It seems as though special teams were less than special for the Trojans during this match. On the Bears’ side, Dario Longhetto went 1-for-1 on field goal attempts. Lewis, on the other hand, missed two field goal attempts (51 and 43 yards). Lewis’ longest field goal this season was 52 yards, making this game’s field goals hit or miss. In this case, it was definitely more “miss.”

Looking forward

For this late-season game that was rescheduled from Nov. 13, it seems as though both teams were summoned from the pits of the Pac-12. While this matchup marked the end of the football season for both teams, it can be argued that a new wave is coming ashore.

Many players, either listing “Cal grad” on their resumes or hoping to add “NFL” to them, are expected to be missing from the 2022 roster. Starting quarterback Chase Garbers has voiced his want to join the big leagues, and so have others such as Marcel Dancy. Bequette, a seventh-year player, may be officially at the end of the Division I road.

As seniors begin to make their way down Strawberry Canyon and off the roster, new recruits come to take their place. Freshman quarterback Kai Millner is the subject of much anticipation as he looks to fill an opening role — not unlike others of his age group. Eager and ready to begin their Cal football journeys away from the bench, brand-new additions to the team elicit the thought of a new beginning at the end of the 2021 season.

Maria Khan covers football and is a deputy sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].