A weeklong USC victory lap following the hiring of a new head coach in Lincoln Riley last weekend ended in a stumble and a few scraped knees, to say the least.
Cal’s 24-14 victory over the Trojans on Saturday, which saw the Bears finish their season 5-7 and the Trojans 4-8, does not seem like an embarrassing loss for USC at first glance. But things got ugly for the visiting team: A fumble and 55-yard scoop-and-score for Cal in the second quarter, an injured Jaxson Dart after halftime and a red zone fumble in the fourth quarter topped the long list of USC misfortunes and mishaps that cost it the game.
Down 17-7 with a few minutes left in the third quarter, USC starting quarterback Dart was helped off the field after colliding with Cal nickel back Josh Drayden on the right sideline. The Bears’ defense then stacked up the Trojans at the goal line on fourth down and, on USC’s ensuing drive, forced the second turnover of the night, this time at Cal’s own 8-yard line. Quarterback Chase Garbers then led a nearly 10-minute, 68-yard touchdown drive that put USC away.
“We came out Monday knowing that USC has a very talented roster regardless of the circumstances with their team, and they proved that tonight, regardless of the score,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “It goes back to the competitiveness and how much the guys care about their teammates. I felt like the guys played extremely hard and competed all night.”
By no means was this a decisive victory for Cal. The Trojans earned 409 total yards on the night to the Bears’ 265, and the Trojans’ run game might have been enough to earn the win had it not been for a few mistakes. By the end of the first half, USC running back Vavae Malepeai had 71 yards on the ground on 11 attempts, including a 24-yard run down the left sideline on USC’s only touchdown drive of the half. Cal’s run defense finally woke up in the second half, as Malepeai finished with 107 rushing yards.
“We probably could have done a couple things better on defense. A couple third downs, we could’ve gotten off the field and didn’t,” Wilcox said. “We caused some turnovers, our offense put together some timely drives for touchdowns and we were able to pull out the victory.”
Cal’s 17-7 lead at halftime was misleading. Bears linebacker Trey Paster scooped up an Elijah Hicks-forced fumble at the Bears’ own 45-yard line and tiptoed down the sideline and into the end zone with just under four minutes left in the half. USC kicker Parker Lewis also missed two field goals in the first half — a 51-yard attempt after the Trojans’ first drive of the game and a 43-yard attempt with seconds left in the second quarter. The Bears earned their luck but could have easily found themselves down by 6 heading into the locker room.
And just as it has been all season, Cal’s secondary was hit or miss. Before leaving the game, Trojan quarterback Dart, who has started in each of the last three games in place of the injured Kedon Slovis, exploited mismatches against Cal sophomore cornerback Isaiah Young and true freshman cornerback Lu-Magia Hearns III. Hearns was flagged for a costly pass interference call early in the second quarter, and the Trojans eventually found the end zone to take a 7-3 lead after Young horrifically mistimed his attempted pass breakup.
It certainly wasn’t pretty, but it’s a historic win for the Bears nonetheless. Cal’s victory marks its largest win over USC since 2000, when the Bears beat the Trojans 28-16 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
“This isn’t really what we expected recordwise, but like I said, we have a bright future,” Paster said. “We’re probably the most optimistic team in the Pac-12.”
At the beginning of their season, the Bears had Pac-12 championship game aspirations. Had they known before this season that they’d earn a win over USC in the final conference game of the year, Wilcox and his squad would have likely been ecstatic.
Sure, this wasn’t the championship game. But it’s a win that Cal (and hot seat candidate Wilcox) can hang its hat on for the next 365 days.