If you had told most Cal fans before Thursday night's game against USC that (1) USC wide receiver Robert Woods would be held to five catches for 36 yards, (2) Cal quarterback Zach Maynard would pass for nearly 300 yards and nearly 100 yards more than USC counterpart Matt Barkley, (3) Keenan Allen would top the 100-yard receiving mark for the fifth time this season, and (4) Cal would outgain USC in total offense, Cal fans would have felt pretty good about the Bears' chances for victory.
All of those things happened. Yet, USC (5-1, 3-1 Pac-12) defeated Cal for the eighth straight time. In this year's annual USC defeat of Cal, it was the Bears who helped facilitate the outcome. Cal committed five turnovers (four by Maynard), failed on a fake punt to lead to a USC score, and were penalized seven times (three of which gave USC a first down). And on a night when the Bears' defense largely kept Barkley and Woods in check, Cal's mistakes were costly. In the end, what should have been a winnable game for Cal turned into a 30-9 USC win at AT&T Park.
With the defeat, Cal (3-3, 0-3 Pac-12) has lost its first three conference games for the first time since the horrific 2001 season.
Cal's mistakes started early, as the Bears lost two fumbles (one by Allen, one by Maynard) on their first three offensive possessions. Though Cal managed to hold USC without a score after Allen's fumble -- helped by a curious decision by USC to eschew a short field goal and go for it on fourth-and-goal at the Cal 7 -- the Bears were not so lucky after Maynard's fumble in Bear territory. Though Cal's defense managed to hold USC to a field goal, it was still a 3-0 USC lead after the first quarter, for which Cal had itself to blame.
After USC made it 10-0 midway through the second quarter on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Barkley to Marquise Lee, which capped an 80-yard drive (USC's best of the night), the Bear mistakes began to pile up. Maynard's first interception of the game (to Chris Galippo) led to a USC field goal to make it 13-0. Then, after Cal went three-and-out on the next offensive series, the Bears did the inexplicable on 4th-and-7 from their own 32-yard line. Instead of punting the ball away, Cal punter Bryan Anger took off around the right side and was tackled two yards short of the first down. The unsuccessful fake punt gave USC great field position at the Cal 37 with 4:32 left in the half.
The Trojans capitalized. USC took just five plays to score, hitting paydirt on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Barkley to Brandon Carswell. What had been a 3-0 game early in the second quarter was suddenly a 20-0 USC lead late in the half, and many a Cal fan was probably having flashbacks to the 2010 and 2009 runaway USC wins against Cal. And even though Cal tried to seize some momentum before halftime with its best offensive drive of the first half (60 yards in five plays), the Bears made yet another crucial mistake. After completing three straight passes to get the Bears to the USC 10 with under a minute left in the half, Maynard threw a pass into heavy coverage on first-and-goal. Trojans defensive back Dion Bailey intercepted the pass in the end zone, leaving the Bears with nothing to show for the drive except a 20-point halftime deficit.
USC extended the lead to 23-0 with Andre Heidari's third field goal of the night, capping a 15-play, 66-yard drive on the opening possession of the second half. At that point, though, Cal's offense threatened to give Bears fans some hope for an improbable comeback. A nine-play, 60-yard drive, highlighted by a 27-yard catch and run by Allen, ended in a 27-yard Giorgio Tavecchio field goal to put the Bears on the board. And then, after a three-and-out by the Bears defense, Cal finally found the end zone when Maynard ran the ball for a four-yard touchdown to cap a drive on which he completed all four of his pass attempts. But even in success, the Bears had failure -- namely, a dead ball personal foul penalty after the Maynard touchdown and yet another blocked extra point (Tavecchio's fourth blocked PAT of the season). Nonetheless, Cal had cut the lead to 23-9, giving Bears' fans a glimmer of hope as the game went to the fourth quarter.
But the Bears would get no closer, as mistakes continued to plague them. A fair catch of a USC punt by Marvin Jones at Cal's own four-yard line put the Bears in a field position hole they could not afford with a 14-point deficit in the final period. And then, as he desperately tried to rally the Bears, Maynard threw his third interception of the game on a poor throw intended for Jones. Bailey got his second pick of the night and returned it to the Cal 9-yard line. The Trojans punched it into the end zone two plays later to make it 30-9 and effectively end the competitive portion of the evening.
Bright spots for the Bears? Well, there were a few. Allen caught a career-high 13 passes for 160 yards to post his fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season. And the Cal defense put up a respectable performance that might have been good enough to win the game had Cal not made as many mistakes as it did on the offensive side of the ball. But all in all, this performance by the Bears is one that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many a Cal fan. Cal's chances to win this game were undone by its own poor play. Fumbles, interceptions, bad shotgun snaps, mental mistakes, and penalties do not a good football team make. And, simply put, Cal did not look like a good football team on Thursday night, at least not on offense and special teams.
Cal has gone from 3-0 to 3-3. Utah is up next, on Saturday, October 22 at AT&T Park. It is not a stretch to call that game a must-win for the Bears in order to right the ship.