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Cal offense comes up short yet again in 12th straight loss to USC, falling 27-21

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Same game. Different year.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you've heard this before.

  • Cal defense plays decently well enough against USC to give the Cal offense a chance to win it.
  • Cal offense wastes it.
  • Cal special teams pours salt in the wound.
  • Cal loses to USC.

The good news was that it wasn't a rout this time. Cal played well for the first time in years against USC and had legitimate chances to win this game. But in the end the result was the same--a comfortable wire-to-wire second half lead for the Trojans where they led by multiple scores most of the way. Cal's offense made a game of it but only after falling behind 17, partly in a hole of their own making.

With a veteran Cal squad and an injury-depleted USC squad, this felt like our best shot in a long time. It's another opportunity for a signature win lost for Sonny Dykes and company, as Cal falls to 5-3 and must rebound with wins in a hurry to save the season.

That's your short recap. Here's the longer recap.

First quarter

For the first time in a long time, Cal actually started out alright offensively. The Bears moved down the field on the first drive with Khalfani Muhammad starting at running back and Kenny Lawler getting a nice catch. Muhammad fumbled and USC took over at midfield, but the Cal defense held a quick three-and-out and a punt.

Cal's next drive was their best of the game. It was a long methodical move of 13 plays and 87 yards, with runs by Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad combining for 46 yards on five rushes. Jared Goff completed all five of his passes to Chad Hansen, Darius Powe, Trevor Davis and finally Bryce Treggs in the end zone (just seconds after his dad was getting honored during a TV timeout!). Cal took a 7-0 lead.

However, the Cal offense couldn't really do anything in the next 30 minutes, and the Trojans capitalized in the next quarter.

Second quarter

After the two teams traded punts, the Trojans got going. A wide receiver pass by Jalen Greene found its way into Deontay Burnett's hands and set up USC deep in Cal territory, a third down conversion by Cody Kessler to JuJu Smith-Schuster set up the Trojans in the red zone, and Ronald Jones II plunged in untouched from 13 yards out thanks to the blitzing linebackers opening up gaps.

Cal went three-and-out. USC drove to the Cal 40 and punted after a Todd Barr sack. Cal drove to the USC 40 and punted after Stephen Anderson dropped a 1st down conversion and Goff and Lawler misconnected.

With 4 minutes before the half, Keslser found Burnett and Smith-Schuster for big 1st down conversions and Tre Madden and Ronald Jones rushed for 10+ yards to set up USC in the red zone. The Cal defense held the USC offense to a field goal after pressure on Kyle Kragen forced Kessler out of the pocket and missed Darreus Rogers.

Debatable timeout management by Sonny Dykes (Cal could have had more time if they used a timeout or two) left Cal with only :11 on the clock, and USC took a 10-7 lead into halftime.

Third quarter

USC received the second half kickoff and the Trojans marched down the field, with Kessler finding Rogers for 10 yards and Smith-Schuster for 18 yards. USC then took control on the ground with runs from Justin Davis (8 and 5), Jones (8 and 3), and Tre Madden plunging it in on 4th and 1 on the Cal 2 to put USC up 17-7.

Cal got the ball back (with again poor field position, a recurring trend in Saturday's game), and in what turned out to be the deciding play of the game, Goff threw a terrible pick-six to Adoree' Jackson, who took it back to the end zone and gave USC a decisive 24-7 lead.

Cal responded quickly with Goff finding Treggs for 21 and 15 yards and Trevor Davis for eight and eight, and an unsportsmanlike conduct setting up a Daniel Lasco six yard touchdown run to cut the USC lead to 24-14.  Two big throws by Kessler to Burnett and De'Quan Hampton set up a USC field goal to make it a two touchdown game.

Cal seemed to be rolling right back after getting pinned at their 9. Goff found Lawler for 11 yards and Treggs for 43 to put Cal at the USC 37.

Fourth quarter

In the second weird play of the game, Goff attempted a throwback screen to Lasco on 3rd and 3 that was stuffed for a huge loss, and then Kevon Seymour intercepted a throw targeted for Kenny Lawler on 4th down. USC started running clock and got to the Cal 29, but Mustafa Jalil and Jake Kearney stuffed the Trojan run attack on 4th and short.  After Cal went three and out, USC went 3 and out as well, getting stuffed on 3rd and short, this time with Devante Downs keeping Justin Davis down.

Cal made their last stand offensively with Goff scrambling for two big first downs of 13 and eight yards, then getting a pass interference call to put the Bears in Trojan territory. A holding put Cal in 1st and 20, but after picking up yards thanks to Lasco's legs and a Ray Hudson catch, Goff found Darius Powe on 4th and 6 for 29 yards to set up first and goal.  Goff then found Stephen Anderson for the touchdown to make it a one score game.

USC got the ball back with under four minutes left and Cal having all three timeouts, but Tre Madden bounced off of tackles to get a 14 yard conversion on 3rd and 1 and Justin Davis reached out to get a  seven yard rush first down on 3rd and 6. The Trojans kneeled down to clinch.

Key stats

  • Special teams didn't seem to let us down, but it did in the ways that you hardly noticed: The Bears had to drive the length of the field almost all game long. Cal's average field position of the game was at their own 16 yard line. USC started at their own 32. (HT chowder) Theirs was normal, ours was bad. Cal needed to drive 87, 81 and 87 yards to score their three touchdowns.
  • Cal had three turnovers, USC zero. Two turnovers killed Cal drives at midfield, and of course the pick-six swung the game permanently in the favor of the Trojans.
  • Goff has thrown eight interceptions in three games. If he throws even ONE less in each of the Utah and USC games, Cal probably wins. And there aren't many arguments I can make in favor of bad pass protection--Goff did not get sacked once and the offensive line generally held up with help from Lasco and Muhammad. He has played well most of the time and made costly decisions otherwise.
  • The Cal run game picked up 59 yards on its first seven carries. On the remaining 19 rushes that weren't Goff scrambles, Cal managed 35 yards. USC dared Cal to run early, and after initial success everything stalled out again. Cal averaged 3.6 yards per rush from its running backs, so the struggles continue on that front.
  • Aside from the USC points off turnovers and the Trojans finishing things off on their final drive, the statsheet indicates a fairly even game in terms of plays, first downs, yards per play, and everything else. Cal and USC basically played to a draw in everything but field position and turnovers, which made up the final difference.
  • The only other key stat is 3rd downs: Cal went 2 for 9 (poor), USC 6 for 15 (below average).
  • Cal has now won or lost all but one of its Pac-12 games by six points. It's like we're playing the same game every week!

Conclusions

Cal's defense allowed only 20 points. That should have been enough for victory. If Goff doesn't throw that costly pick-six, Cal stands a 50-50 shot to win. But Adoree' Jackson made a spectacular play and that was the difference between a potential Cal victory and a fleeting shot.

In the big picture, this came down to (once again) the USC offense eliminating mistakes (the Cal defense forced no turnovers) and the Cal offense making just one too many. It was a workman-like effort with a depleted Trojan squad. And it's been the story of the Cal offense all season: They don't start games well. It put them in a hole again and they couldn't dig out of it.

With Cal through the gauntlet of October, winnable games are all over the place in November, which means they are all quite loseable too. The Bears still have a reasonable shot at closing the season right, but they need to start clicking in a way that hasn't really happened in Pac-12 play.

So I'm ambivalent.

I'm quite encouraged by this loss. This is the most competitive game Cal has played against USC since 2008. After the UCLA debacle, this is right in line with the Utah game in terms of the type of game I'd like to see against top 25 competition.

But I'm also bummed that this streak to USC endures and that this program missed another chance at a signature win. Hanging on against Texas and hanging on against the Washingtons is good times, but they were essentially coin flip games. Heads came up for those three games, tails for our Utah and USC losses.

And after a year of slow starts, it doesn't seem like this team is going to break through and start clicking this year. It doesn't have that ceiling.

For once though, I'd like to feel elated watching Cal football. It's been too long.

I know it'll happen the day this stupid streak ends.