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Is This Rock Bottom? USC Administers 62-28 Punch in the Face to Cal

A beautiful sunny afternoon at Memorial Stadium, the Joe Roth Memorial Game, and senior day for 13 Cal players. It was the perfect setting for Cal to break a seven game losing streak, a 13-game losing streak to FBS opponents, and a nine-game losing streak to USC. Except it wasn't.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It seems silly to say there was a "turning point" in the 62-28 beating that the USC Trojans laid on the California Golden Bears on Saturday. After all, Cal fell behind 21-0 in a horrid first quarter that saw Cal give up a touchdown on a punt return and, for the ninth time in ten games, a touchdown on the opposing team's first offensive series. But strangely enough, the game wasn't decided after that horrible beginning. After two touchdown passes by Jared Goff on consecutive possessions, the Bears were back in the game, trailing only 21-14 with 9:41 left in the first half.

And then the turning point. In a span of 5:54 after Cal's second touchdown, the Trojans wrested control of the game for good and did so by illustrating the difference between a team that executes and a team that does not. The gory scenario--

  • On the ensuing series after Cal's second touchdown, the Bear defense appeared to make a key play when linebacker Michael Barton sacked Cody Kessler for an 8-yard loss to force a 2nd-and-18. But on the next play, USC outplayed and outsmarted Cal. USC dialed up a screen pass to Javorius Allen, who turned the short pass into a 57-yard touchdown. Cal's defense basically had no shot at Allen: USC's downfield blocking combined with the Cal defense being caught out of position paved the way for a momentum-killing score.
  • Cal's crisis of execution continued on the following series. Down only 28-14, the Bears had two chances to pick up first down yardage on perfectly thrown passes by Goff. But Kenny Lawler could not hold onto a pass on the right sideline on second down and Chris Harper was caught off guard by a pass that hit him in the facemask on third down, forcing the Bears to punt. That proved to be disastrous: Cal failed to execute its punt protection correctly, USC's Soma Vainuku blocked Cole Leininger's punt, and Josh Shaw returned the blocked punt 14 yards for a touchdown to make it 35-14.
  • It only got worse on the next series. After a false start penalty and a sack of Goff by Devon Kennard stalled a Cal drive that had progressed to midfield, the Bears were forced to punt. Nelson Agholor, who had already returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, took this punt at his own 7-yard line and effortlessly returned it 93 yards for his second touchdown of the game, giving USC a 41-14 lead. With the return, Agholor became the first Trojan to return two punts for touchdowns in a game since Mike Garrett did it in 1965 guessed it...Cal. (And, by the way, the three punt return touchdowns by USC in the game tied a conference record. Oh joy.)
Turning point complete. After getting back into the game, the Bears failed to seize the momentum. Instead, they paid the price for a failure to execute on offense, defense, and special teams. And it was game over.

"Our punt team killed us," lamented Cal coach Sonny Dykes after the game. "I think when you sit down and look at today, we cut it to a 21-14 lead and had some momentum. We finally had some confidence taking the lather off their defensive line a little bit, and a little tired. We did some things offensively to move the football, then gave up 21 points on our punt team.

"I've been doing this a long time and that has always been a strength of ours. Our team last year at Louisiana Tech led the entire nation in net punting. We start three practices every week with our punt team; it is a big deal to us. That was 21 points at a pretty critical point in the ball game when we had some momentum, and felt like we had an opportunity to be in the game."

Oh, sure, there was still more than one half of football left to play. But USC (7-3, 4-2 Pac-12) had taken Cal's best shot, shook it off, and punched the Bears in the face again. The rest of the game was just a matter of figuring out what USC's final margin of victory would be -- and to see if the Trojans would unleash anymore explosion plays on the Bears. (And they did: Allen blistered the Bears with a 79-yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter and third-string running back Ty Isaac battered the Bears with a 37-yard touchdown run in the 4th quarter.)

The 62-28 final score belies any positives coming out of the game for the Bears (1-9, 0-7 Pac-12). But for the sake of pointing out the positive, Goff did complete 35 of 49 passes for 260 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Goff has 3,141 passing yards this season, ranking second on Cal's single-season top-10 list. (Pat Barnes is first with 3,499 yards in 1996.) And the Bears did manage to show a fairly capable running game, racking up 190 yards rushing on 43 attempts. Cal also committed only six penalties in the game (though three of them were facepalm worthy personal foul and/or unsportsmanlike conduct calls).

After a competitive loss last week against Arizona, Saturday's performance against USC was disappointing to say the least. More than disappointing are the losing numbers that continue to pile up: eight straight losses this season, 12 straight losses in Pac-12 games, 10 straight losses to USC, and 14 straight losses to FBS opponents.

The Bears close out the season with games at Colorado and at Stanford. The way Cal played on Saturday does not inspire much confidence of avoiding a 1-11 season.