Before the season, there was a glimmer of hope. Two weeks into the season, that hope grew into a chance. After a victory against Ole Miss, a dream was formed. That dream was Cal coming out of the gates under new coach Justin Wilcox and moving to 4–0 while ending Cal’s ridiculously-long losing streak against U$C. Alas, dreams are as they are—made-up fantasies that rarely make their way into reality.
The reality that hit Cal fans today was that this version of Cal football is legitimate. For three quarters, Cal played even or better than the #5 team in the country. Even merely mentioning USC as the number-five team in the country feels like you are discounting how truly talented they are. Were they missing their starting running back? Sure. Yet this is USC who replaces starters with future stars and Stephen Carr is a name we will all becoming more familiar with. Except the Cal defense today made Carr and future NFL quarterback Sam Darnold look pedestrian. That feat is a huge testament to how far this defense has come.
The transformation of the Cal defense is something none of us could have possibly expected. They are nothing short of thrilling to watch and I nearly find myself longing for the Bears to get back on defense so we can watch who they’ll send on the next blitz or what kind of coverage they are going to show the opposing quarterback. Keep in mind this is game four of year one. The potential for the defense is through the roof and the future with coach Wilcox looks as bright as it has since the Tedford era.
Top Two Themes of the Game
Ross Bowers Inaccuracy
When looking over the game notes and film, the fourth quarter was far from the actual issue regarding the Bears passing attack. Bowers struggled all day long (8 of 20 in the first half) to hit his receivers with many passes coming late and off-target. He also struggled with his passes getting tipped and put way too much air underneath many longer throws. The best throws of the day that came from Ross arguably were ones that came in garbage time when USC eased up on defense. There were several missed opportunities that prevented Cal from taking a bigger lead and forcing USC into higher-pressure situations.
Opportunity #1: With about 59 seconds left in the first quarter, the offense opens up and goes for a shot at the end zone on a play action. Vic Wharton gets a step on the safety, but Bowers puts the ball in the back of the end zone while Vic nearly comes down with it despite only having one hand. Kyle Wells was occupying the other defensive backs on that play and there was room to the right for Bowers to put less airtime on that ball and deliver a stronger pass to Vic. Instead, the overthrow left Vic to make a ridiculous one-handed catch—and he nearly did that—but it’s hardly a play to rely on.
Opportunity #2: Bowers is sacked, fumbles the ball, and USC recovers. The very next play, the Cal defense gets the ball back by forcing a fumble on Carr. The next drive, Bowers missed two receivers killing the drive and forcing Cal to punt. His first attempt (around the 10-minute mark in the 2nd quarter) was a deep ball to Vic Wharton; if he threw to the back shoulder with that pass, it’s most likely a forty-yard gain deep into USC territory. For the third-down play, Bowers finds Noa over the middle, but throws it too high and Noa has to turn back towards the safety—who then decleats him on the hit. If he leads Noa there and puts it closer to his chest, that is a converted first down.
A lot of people will focus on the fourth quarter and rightfully so but there were early indicators that this was going to be a long day for our passing attack.
The Return of the Run Game
The Cal power running game was one of the more beautiful sights to see this Saturday. The Bears were dominating USC on the ground with a solid combination of Vic Enwere and Patrick Laird. It has been at least four years since we have seen Cal run at will against the supremely talented USC defense. There were gaps that Cal backs wasted no time taking advantage of and in short-yardage situations, Baldwin leaned into his run game.
Many Cal fans have rightfully pointed to the fourth quarter as the critical time in the game where the offense started getting away from what was working. While the run game was effective, USC started showing a lot more looks to help stop the run. Give credit to Clancy Pendergast for adapting well to what the Bears were doing on the ground. The minute USC started keying in on the run, the Bears turned to Bowers to make the game-changing plays and unfortunately today he wasn’t able to make them.
Play by play recap
Cal comes out and elects to play defense first and on the Trojans first drive Alex Funches comes up with a big sack of Darnold, forcing the USC punt. Cal took the first drive downfield and had a couple of chances at a touchdown. They would settle for a field goal and take the first lead in the game 3–0. After a Bowers interception on a tipped pass, USC drove downfield, but was held again by the Cal defense on an excellent pass deflection by Cameron Goode. USC kicked a field goal and the game was tied 3–3.
Cal came out of the first quarter ready to score a touchdown, but the USC defense came ready to stop them short on a goal line stand. The Bears were left with a fourth-down decision and unlike his predecessor, Justin Wilcox went for the touchdown. Vic Enwere got the nod and took the ball in for the touchdown, breaking a tackle in the backfield to cross the plane. 10–3 Cal. The very next possession, USC responded with a drive that took two minutes and spanned 74 yards. Darnold found his tight end for the first USC touchdown and the game was tied at 10.
After another ineffective drive by the Cal offense the USC offense would start moving downfield again. Darnold missed two receivers on throws that left the USC offense to settle for a field goal, 13–10 USC takes their first lead.
Cal took over and drove the field with the big play coming by Patrick Laird. Bowers then hit Vic Wharton downfield for a big gain, but Vic appeared to fumble the ball at the end of the play. The call was reversed allowing Cal to continue the drive as the clock wound down. Bowers hit Noa down to the four-yard line and then the Bears drive would stall. The Bears fed Enwere in a short-yardage situation, but could not get the one yard they needed for the first down. With the play clock winding down and a fourth-down decision, Wilcox opted to take the points. 13–13 at the half.
The Bears picked up where they left off in the first half, running the ball effectively downfield. The Bears would go for it again on fourth down and convert once more. Bowers would hit Vic Wharton on the sideline and then Veasy to get to the 15. Bowers would find Laird running towards the end zone and Laird dropped a sure touchdown for the Bears. After the game, Bowers would mention that Laird said the sun was directly in his eyes and he couldn’t see a thing (this was also confirmed by the sideline reporter). The Bears would settle for a thirty-yard field goal and Anderson missed it wide left.
USC would take the ball back into Cal territory until the defense forced USC into another failed fourth down attempt with a huge stop by Beck and Looney. The stadium erupted after that play—one of the louder roars we have heard at Memorial Stadium in the last few years. The rest of the third quarter would be a strong defensive battle with neither team scoring any points.
The last quarter was where the entire game unraveled for the Bears. Cal was quite fortunate on a broken play where Darnold just missed a wide-open receiver for a touchdown. The Trojans settled for a field goal and took a 16–13 lead.
The next Cal possession, the Bears would be backed up by a penalty and the first of many turnovers took place. Bowers dropped back to pass and the ball slipped out of his hands as a USC defender ran into him. The ball went right into the arms of the defense and on the following possession, the USC offense would BARELY get the ball into the end zone. 23–10 USC.
The next Cal possession Bowers dropped back and tried to force a deep ball into three USC defenders. The pass was picked off and brought back into Cal territory. Darnold would finish the drive with a touchdown pass, putting the game nearly out of reach, 30–13.
The Bears would score one more time late in the game with a final touchdown to Veasy who got away with a big shove on the play, making the score a bit more respectable. The final score would stand at 30–20, USC beating Cal once again.