In a weird, disjointed, and ultimately frustrating game, Cal fell to USC 38–30 to mark their 11th straight defeat to the Trojans. Pessimists will wonder why Cal fell behind 31–2 in the first half, optimists will point out that the Bears responded by finishing the game on a 28–7 run, and realists will wonder how in the world they watched a game with a combined 25 penalties for 280 yards.
The first 28 minutes and 21 seconds of the game was an absolute horror show, and every Cal fan watching got to relive everything that has ever gone wrong against USC in the last decade plus. There were missed tackles. There were physical mismatches. There were turnovers and penalties. There was one of the more comical fake punt attempts in terms of timing and execution you'll ever see. There was one dude—there's always one dude (in this case, Nelson Agholor with 16 catches for 216 yards)—whom Cal couldn't stop no matter what they did.
Mostly, there was USC, playing at or near the peak of their ability, and Cal, playing at or near the nadir of theirs. Which is somehow what we have gotten every year for 5+ years running. At one point USC was outgaining Cal 310 (6.5 yards/play) to 90 (3.3/play). To that point, Cal's best play of the game was a punt by Jared Goff (which Bryce Treggs downed adroitly at the 1-yard line, which led to Mustafa Jalil tackling Justin Davis for a safety).
Why did the game start so poorly? I have no clue. If you've been reading CGB for a while, you know that I hate intangible explanations for pretty much everything. But damned if it doesn't seem like USC gets into our heads. The entire team seemed too hyped up and out of control, and the result was missed assignments, dropped passes, errant throws, missed blocks, and needless penalties.These players are desperate to prove that they can play right with a team like USC, and that's good. But the focus wasn't there until the game was virtually sealed, and that will have to change soon . . . like, hopefully by our next rivalry game next week.
When USC kicked a field goal to take that 31-2 lead, something shifted in the game. USC fans would argue that the something that shifted was USC's coaching philosophy, which immediately became more conservative in terms of playcalling on both sides of the ball*. Cal fans might argue that the team dug deep, refocused, and started actually playing up to their ability. Whatever the reason, USC's offense generally struggled to move the ball, Cal's offense finally woke up, and Cal managed to cut the deficit all the way down to 8 points before failing to recover an onside kick that would have made things really interesting.
*You want proof of USC's conservatism? According to ESPN play-by-play, Nelson Agholor was targeted 18 times in the first half and four times in the second half. I shudder to think of what he could have done to us if USC hadn't shut it down.
In a game with such a dramatic shift in play, there was one consistent presence: penalties. The numbers are staggering. There were 25 accepted penalties for 280 yards, and they came early and often. By my rough count, eleven were 15-yard penalties of one variety or another. Both sides were increasingly frustrated as the game went on, but the cavalcade of flags never seemed to result in players acting more cautiously.
Were all of those flags necessary? That's hard to say. I think on the whole the flags helped Cal stay in the game, as they tended to hurt USC a little bit more than Cal. The only call against Cal I vehemently disagreed with was a personal foul on Chris Borrayo that looked like standard hand blocking along the line. And oddly, the most baffling call of the night was when a flag wasn't thrown on a clear jersey tug by a USC defender when a Cal wideout got behind him.
By far the most critical call against Cal? A sideline taunting penalty on Stefan McClure that turned a USC 2nd and 24 into a 1st down on a drive that ended up being USC's only 2nd half score. If Cal had held on to force a USC punt, they would have had the ball in good field position, down 15 points with a full quarter of time left.
In the end, this game goes down as a defeat that marks how far Cal has come while at the same time reminding how much farther the Bears have to go. The difference between a team like USC that can pressure the quarterback with a four man rush, and a team like Cal that struggles to get any pressure even when blitzing, was stark. This is still a team with some pretty obvious talent and/or experience gaps. It's a problem that can only be solved with time, player development, and success on the recruiting trail.
And yet, Cal lost by one possession in the Coliseum, which is something that hasn't happened since 2004. Perhaps more importantly, this was a team that competed with USC, that didn't roll over and die against USC, for the first time since 2008. Moral victories are hollow, but ultimately better than the alternative.
Cal is now 0-5 vs. teams with a winning record this year. Three of those losses have been by 8 points or less. They have two more chances against Stanford and BYU. If Cal wins in 9 days with the Axe as a prize, this game will be forgotten very, very quickly.