For much of the third quarter of Saturday's 27-9 win by the USC Trojans over the California Golden Bears at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it looked like Cal might actually build upon the encouraging performance it had last week against Ohio State. After a lackluster first half that found the Bears behind 17-3 --- a deficit that could have been much worse without two Trojan turnovers deep in Cal territory --- Cal opened the second half with a pair of Vincenzo D'Amato field goals on its first two offensive series of the third quarter. And then, after a replay challenge held that Cal linebacker Robert Mullins recovered a fumble by USC running back Curtis McNeal at the USC 47-yard line, it looked like Uncle Mo was wearing a Cal jersey, with Cal poised to mount a serious challenge to the Trojans for the first time since the schools' 2008 meeting at the Coliseum.
And then it unraveled. Cal's offense looked just fine as it drove to the USC 14-yard line. But from there, Cal quarterback Zach Maynard (18 of 33, 173 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT) rolled to his left, and either did not see or chose not to throw to a seemingly wide open Bryce Treggs in the back left corner of the end zone. Instead, Maynard tried to hit an underneath route near the left sideline. USC's T.J. McDonald stepped in front of the pass, intercepted it, and got a foot down before going out of bounds. What was once a promising drive that could have tied the game was no more: McDonald bailed out the Trojans' offense by plucking a Maynard mistake out of the air.
USC took advantage of the turnover, parlaying it into a 41-yard field goal by Andre Heidari early in the fourth quarter. And with that, it was game over. Game. Over. Sure, there was a little over 14 minutes left in the game and the deficit was only 20-9. But USC had taken Cal's best shot and ducked it. There was little more that the Bears could do.
If there was any doubt that the Bears were finished at that point, they proved it on the following series. With the sense of urgency needing to be even higher now down by 11 points, Cal's offense instead went out with a whimper. The Bears went three-and-out on the next (and crucial) possession, with the third down play particularly pathetic for Cal fans frustrated at the near decade of futility against the Trojans. Facing a 3rd-and-15 after one of seven (count 'em, seven) USC sacks on the afternoon, Maynard found himself scrambling to his left, near the Cal sideline. Instead of throwing the ball away or gambling on a pass downfield to try to get the first down, Maynard instead meekly stepped out of bounds for a two-yard loss, with body language suggesting a resigned frustration that the game was lost. At that moment, an 11-point lead had never seemed larger. And when USC kept the ball for 6:27 of the 4th quarter, driving effortlessly for the game-clinching touchdown, you could say that the gap between the USC football program and the Cal football program had never been larger.
USC's win over Cal was the Trojans' ninth straight in the series and the third time in those nine that Cal was held without a touchdown. Unlike the last three meetings between the two teams, this one was actually competitive, due in large part to USC penalties and turnovers in the first half. Cal cornerback Steve Williams intercepted a pass in the end zone on USC's first offensive possession of the game and linebacker J.P. Hurrell intercepted a tipped pass deep in Cal territory in the second quarter to keep the Bears within striking distance. But other than those bright spots, Cal's defense had little to write home about. USC outgained Cal 488-250 in total offense and rolled up 296 yards rushing.
Cal was an equal opportunity sieve against the run. Silas Redd rushed for 158 yards on 21 carries, with McNeal contributing 115 more yards on just 10 carries. The 296 yards rushing by the USC offense made it altogether forgettable that USC quarterback Matt Barkley (22 of 34, 192 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) threw for fewer than 200 yards and was responsible for two turnovers.
With Barkley not on his game, Cal had a chance to do something special on Saturday. But if the Cal offense was expected to do special things, there were no such things happening on Saturday: Cal gained only 250 yards and yielded seven sacks to the USC defensive front. The Bears were held without a touchdown for the first time in two years (at Arizona, 2010) and had only three field goals to show for five trips to the USC red zone. Though it was a welcome sight for Cal fans to see D'Amato bounce back from a three-miss performance with three made field goals in the same game, the Bears too often settled for field goal attempts. D'Amato's field goals culminated Cal drives of 15 plays (60 yards), 10 plays (40 yards), and 9 plays (66 yards): while getting at least the three points on those drives was a welcome change from the Ohio State game, it remained frustrating that Cal could not finish.
Settling for field goals against USC is a dangerous thing, as the Trojans' high-powered offense, even when not clicking on all cylinders, features more than enough firepower to win. And win the Trojans did on Saturday, putting the game out of Cal's reach in the fourth quarter with two long scoring drives. In the end, it was an 18-point victory for USC over a Cal team that may have been brought back down to earth after last week's unexpectedly close loss at Ohio State.
Before the season, most Cal fans probably thought realistically that the Bears would be 2-2 at this point in the season. But after the season-opening loss to Nevada and the tough two-week stretch that the Bears have just completed, Cal finds itself 1-3 on the season, with bowl eligibility arguably on the brink for a Cal team that (pure and simple) just does not seem to be as good as most of its Pac-12 brethren. On the bright side for Cal fans, the Bears face an Arizona State team at home next Saturday: Cal has beaten Arizona State seven of the last eight times the schools have meet on the gridiron. So Cal should feel pretty good about getting off the schneid next week, right?
Maybe, maybe not. We shall see.