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Post Game Thoughts: USC

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USC’s skill position talent blows away Cal’s previously vaunted secondary in a demoralizing defeat.

NCAA Football: Southern California at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Well, if that wasn’t the platonic ideal of a miserable loss to USC.

A full day of hype as Cal fans engage in the annual illusion that Cal will win, a brief spasm of hope, a flurry of injuries, the usual disrespect from USC, and 60 minutes of evidence that USC has and will almost certainly continue to have a massive talent advantage across both rosters that makes hope of future victories faint.

2018 was fun. 2019 is back to normal.

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 6 punts, 2 turnovers (2 interceptions), 1.5 points/drive

For whatever it’s worth, Garbers was injured during Cal’s 4th drive of the game. His stats look poor (4-10, 3.3 yards/attempt) but he had two passes dropped and another near completion overturned on review. Based on what we saw in his limited time, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t the right choice to give Cal their best chance to beat USC.

Injuries have again sapped any chance of functional offense

No Kekoa Crawford. No Chris Brown. No Chase Garbers. No Jeremiah Hawkins. A probably not 100% Nikko Remigio.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Cal’s offense was most successful on the first drive of the game before their skill position guys got hurt. But this isn’t anything new: Cal’s QB, RB, TE, and WR ranks have all been decimated by transfers, and now decimated by injuries, and there just isn’t enough talent and experience left on the roster to score points against competent opposition.

Maybe everybody will be healthy by next Saturday. When this offense is at something approximating healthy, they can score a little bit. But they weren’t on Saturday against USC, so they didn’t.

Defense

Efficiency Report

9 drives: 5 touchdowns, 2 FGA (2-2), 2 punts, 0 turnovers, 4.6 points/drive

Removed: USC’s final two drives, when they played the backups and just ran the ball.

Torched. There’s no other way to say it. For the second time this season the Cal defense was beaten so badly that the offense was rendered irrelevant. Three weeks ago I noted that Utah put up more points/drive than any previous team had managed against Wilcox. Well, USC just beat that mark, in part thanks to better field goal kicking.

The talent gap

In terms of analysis, there’s really not much to say. USC’s receivers constantly won 1-on-1 battles with Cal’s cornerbacks and safeties. That’s it. USC managed 10 passing plays of 15 yards or more, against a team and a defense that defines itself precisely by not allowing big plays.

Per the 247 composite, Amon-Ra St. Brown was the #11 recruit in the country in 2018. Michael Pittman was the #59 recruit in the country in 2016. Drake London was the #247 recruit in the country in 2019. The highest rated player on a national ranking that Cal has on the roster? Well, Kekoa Crawford was #118 in the class of 2016, though he went to Michigan before transferring to Cal. Also, he didn’t play due to injury. The highest ranked player that came to Cal as a freshman would be Jaylinn Hawkins, #275 from 2015*.

You get the idea - USC has three players in one position group who were more highly touted prospects than virtually anybody else on Cal’s roster.

This talent disparity is something that was celebrated last year, when Cal barely snuck out a 15-14 win while playing walk-ons all across the field. And while I was fully on-board with celebrating last year’s win for any number of reasons, the fashion that Cal won the game really illustrated WHY there had been a 14 game losing streak, an why this year and most other years weren’t even all that competitive. When the talent disparity is that vast, you need a whole bunch of other factors to go your way, and most years they won’t.

Last year, USC turned the ball over a bunch and ran a bad pro-style offensive scheme. This year USC didn’t turn the ball over, and they were smart enough to replace their bad offensive system with an air raid system under new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. This wasn’t a game Cal was winning, even if they were at their best, because when USC brings their best they have the athletes to win regardless.

*Curious about other nationally top-400 recruits currently on the Cal roster? Injured Will Craig, injured Chase Garbers, recently returned from injury and probably not 100% Nikko Remigio, Elijah Hicks. In case you needed further proof that this season might be cursed.

Special Teams

Another rough field position game

Perhaps it’s still the lingering effects of his early season injury, but whatever the reason, Steven Coutts has regressed this year. Cal only netted 33 yards/punt in 6 attempts, and that small number wasn’t influenced by trying to kick short to trap USC inside the 20 - none of Cal’s 6 punts went for touchbacks or were downed inside the 20. Meanwhile, USC average 44 net yards/punt. But at least Ashtyn Davis had a nifty sideline return of one punt that set Cal up in good field position . . . before Cal went 3-and-out after a dropped pass on 3rd down.

Eliminate kickoffs

Evan Tattersall was injured on a kickoff, when a USC blocker led with his helmet as Tattersall sprinted downfield. Thankfully Tattersall has since been released from the hospital, and will hopefully not have long term health issues.

But this was just another reminder that the kickoff is almost certainly the most dangerous play in football, without adding any particularly frequent value to the game in terms of strategy or excitement.

Coaching & Errata

Going down without much protest

On 4th and 5 from close to midfield, Cal didn’t go for it and punted, gaining 32 yards of field position that were rendered irrelevant when USC drove 79 yards in 11 plays.

With USC driving late in the 2nd quarter, Cal didn’t use any timeouts to attempt to preserve time for a drive of their own, then didn’t use those timeouts when Modster was sacked on first down, letting the clock expire. Was a scoring drive likely? No, but with three timeouts why not throw a downfield pass to try to at least get a field goal?

Early in the 4th quarter, trailing by 24 (technically ‘just’ three possessions) Cal lined up to go for it on 4th and 2, but false started . . . and then decided to punt.

Did any of these decisions ultimately matter? No, of course not, USC dominated. But isn’t the point to try to win?

Big Picture

First, I think there’s an important point to be made about USC: The 2019 Trojans are a good football team.

I get it. We’ve all been making Clay Helton jokes all year after their 2018 debacle, and USC isn’t as successful as their talent says that they could be. But: USC is still 7-4, with close 3 point road losses to Notre Dame and BYU that both probably should’ve been wins. USC is inches away from a 9-2 record, they’re the only team to beat Utah, and they have a legitimately excellent offense.

They have their problems (defense is a little iffy, their backup QBs have been prone to iffy decisions) and they’re certainly beatable, but they are pretty clearly in a tier with UW, below Oregon and Utah but well above everybody else in the conference.

That shouldn’t make anybody feel any better about losing to them, but losing to them doesn’t say much about how Cal might match up against Stanford or UCLA, two teams also coming off of humiliating defeats.

But losing to USC does mean one thing: to retain anything resembling good feelings about the 2019 season, Justin Wilcox and the Bears must beat Stanford.

True, losing to Stanford and then beating UCLA would still mean a bowl game, but I don’t think fans are going to be jumping for joy about winning one fewer game than the previous year AND not even ending the Big Game losing streak. Regression and not holding the Axe, even with a bowl, would be a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

Particularly when you consider the condition of Stanford this season. The Cardinal have lost 5 games by at least 15 points and were very lucky to squeak out a win over Oregon State. Even if they beat Cal they’re going to get crushed by Notre Dame and miss a bowl for the first time since 2008. They’re bad. And yet Vegas has still installed them as favorites, with an opening line that implies that the game would be a virtual coin flip on a neutral field.

I’ve been writing these post-game columns for 5 seasons now, and I feel like I’ve written a version of this plea each year: Stanford has to be beaten. For the sake of fan and institutional support, morale, good feelings, recruiting against a program that we are actually in direct competition with . . . the streak has to die.

Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, kill it.