The Cal Bears entered Thursday night’s matchup with the USC Trojans looking for their first winning streak of the season. Things didn’t quite go as planned.
The Trojans set the tone on their very first offensive play after forcing a Cal punt on the opening drive. Ronald Jones II took a handoff to the left and ran away from the defense, finally being dragged down after a 61-yard scamper. That was the beginning of a seven-play drive that would end with a touchdown. Quarterback Sam Darnold capped the drive with a three-yard scoring strike to Darreus Rogers.
Cal couldn’t answer. The next drive was a three-and-out, and USC had no issues moving the ball on the proceeding drive. Jones continued romping through the defense, while Darnold picked apart Cal’s depleted secondary. Those two ended the drive when Darnold hit Jones on a screen, and Jones went 16 yards untouched to the endzone. Just over 10 minutes into the game, and the Bears were staring at a 14-0 deficit.
On the Bears’ third drive, USC gave Cal some life with facemask penalties on consecutive plays, but took it away with an interception on an ill-advised deep throw by Davis Webb. USC started at their own seven, but Cal forced a punt. Again, they did nothing with the ball.
Another three-and-out gave USC the ball, and a nice punt return from Adoree’ Jackson put it inside Cal’s 30. Predictably, USC moved down the field with ease for another touchdown. With the Bears’ defense tired as their offense couldn’t help them out, Darnold threw his third touchdown with over 12 minutes left in the second quarter.
Also predictably, Cal didn’t do much with their possession. They picked up two first downs but still had to punt, forcing their defense back on the field again. The defense deviated from the script.
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Defensive end DeVante Wilson came off the edge and stripped Darnold. After the ball rolled around for a few seconds, James Looney picked it up and rumbled for 33 yards to USC’s 22. The short field was what the Cal offense needed, as a screen pass to Tre Watson ate up all 22 yards, and put the Bears on the board.
On the next drive, USC hurt themselves. After a big catch and run that may have been called back had been challenged, USC hurried up to prevent the challenge. Instead, they fumbled the snap and Cal recovered.
Cal’s big-play offense showed up after that. Plays of 23, 24, and 32 yards moved the ball quickly, but they stalled in the redzone. Kicker Matt Anderson was good from 27 to make it 21-10 USC. The Trojans had just under two minutes with which to work, and did what they did most of the first half. They moved the ball down the field with little resistance, putting the ball in the endzone with Darnold’s fourth touchdown. Cal fumbled with 11 seconds to play, but USC kicker Matt Boermeester hooked the kick wide right. 28-10 was the score at halftime.
The Bears came out of the locker room with some fire. Their defense forced a USC punt, and the offense went 71 yards in 10 plays, capped with a one-yard Webb keeper, to make it 28-17.
That would be as close as Cal would get. Jones scored on 37-yard run on the next drive, and USC kept the momentum rolling afterwards. Darnold threw his fifth touchdown with about a minute to go in the third quarter.
Webb threw his second touchdown early in the fourth quarter, with freshman Melquise making a very nice adjustment to come down with a 16-yard pass in the endzone. On the next defensive possession, Darnold made his first mistake by throwing into double coverage downfield, and safety Luke Rubenzer (one of the few healthy Cal safeties) made the interception. Cal couldn’t move on the next drive, and Webb came off the field limping after a failed conversion on fourth down.
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USC killed a lot of clock on their next drive, and kicked a field goal to get the lead back to 21. Cal got a tiny bit of good news on their final drive, as Webb was back on the field after being hobbled on the previous drive. He was on the turf when the final whistle blew, signifying a 45-24 USC win.
Jones racked up a career-high in rushing yards, blowing his previous high of 177 out of the water. He ran wild for 223 yards on just 18 carries. His backup, Aca’Cedric Ware, toted the rock 20 times for a career-high 130 yards, the second straight week he’s gone over the century mark.
For the Bears, running backs Khalfani Muhammad and Tre Watson failed to surpass 100 yards on the ground for the first time in three games. After 165 yards against Oregon State and 148 yards against Oregon, Muhammad piled up 89 yards on 15 carries. Watson had 154 and 134 yards, respectively, in the past two weeks, but had just 33 yards on 11 carries. Muhammad had a chance to get to 100, but was held off the field on the final drive when the game was out of hand. Sophomore Billy McCrary carried the ball thrice on the final drive, the first carries of his college career, and picked up 19 yards.
Darnold finished the night completing 18 of his 25 passes for 231 yards and five touchdowns. The freshman has now thrown five scores in consecutive weeks. His counterpart, Webb, suffered again without his top receiver Chad Hansen, but still had 33 completions for 331 yards and two touchdowns. Both quarterbacks had one interception, but neither resulted in points for the other team.
In Hansen’s absence, freshman Demetris Robertson was the leading receiver for Cal. He caught nine balls for 92 yards. Fellow frosh Stovall also caught nine passes for 87 yards and one of Webb’s scores.
A loss to USC isn’t exactly new news for the Bears. They’ve now dropped 13 straight games to the Trojans, dating back to 2004. With this loss, Cal has still not been able to put together consecutive wins this season. They’ve alternated wins and losses through the year.
Things don’t get easier next week for the Bears. Next Saturday, Cal faces off against the fourth-ranked Washington Huskies. Washington will face number-17 Utah this Saturday first.