No. 9 USC scrapes by in lifeless win over Cal

Defensive back Jaylin Smith #19 of the USC Trojans reacts with teammate defensive back Mekhi Blackmon #6 of the USC Trojans after tackling running back Ashton Hayes #26 of the California Golden Bears on a punt in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Defensive back Mekhi Blackmon #6 and defensive back Anthony Beavers Jr. #15 of the USC Trojans tackles running back Ashton Hayes #26 of the California Golden Bears on a punt in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Running back Travis Dye #26 of the USC Trojans runs for first down against he California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Defensive back Jacobe Covington #14 of the USC Trojans tackles wide receiver J. Michael Sturdivant #7 of the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Defensive back Calen Bullock #7 of the USC Trojans knocks away a pass intended for wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter #3 of the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Michael Jackson III #9 of the USC Trojans celebrates after running for a touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Head coach Lincoln Riley of the USC Trojans with quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans after a touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Head coach Lincoln Riley of the USC Trojans smiles after a touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Tahj Washington #16 of the USC Trojans catches a pass and runs for touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Tahj Washington #16 of the USC Trojans reacts after catching a pass and runnning for touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Tahj Washington #16 of the USC Trojans catches a pass and runs for touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Michael Jackson III #9 of the USC Trojans runs for touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Michael Jackson III #9 of the USC Trojans celebrates after running for a touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Running back Raleek Brown #14 of the USC Trojans can’t reach a pass in front of linebacker Jackson Sirmon #8 of the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Michael Jackson III #9 of the USC Trojans runs for touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Running back Travis Dye #26 of the USC Trojans runs for a touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Running back Travis Dye #26 of the USC Trojans runs for a touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Michael Jackson III #9 of the USC Trojans catches a pass for a touchdown past safety Daniel Scott #32 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans passes against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Michael Jackson III #9 of the USC Trojans celebrates with teammates after catching a pass for a touchdown past safety Daniel Scott #32 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Tahj Washington #16 of the USC Trojans catches pass for first down against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Defensive back Calen Bullock #7 of the USC Trojans intercepts a pass against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Michael Jackson III #9 of the USC Trojans catches a pass for a touchdown past safety Daniel Scott #32 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso smiles as he greets the crowd in the first half of a NCAA football game between the USC Trojans and the California Golden Bears at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Brenden Rice #2 of the USC Trojans runs for yardage past linebacker Femi Oladejo #10 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans runs for touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Terrell Bynum #0 of the USC Trojans catches pass for yardage against safety Miles Williams #13 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Terrell Bynum #0 of the USC Trojans catches pass for first down against cornerback Isaiah Young #41 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Kyle Ford #81 of the USC Trojans drops a pass against cornerback Tyson McWilliams #11 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Kyle Ford #81 of the USC Trojans drops a pass against cornerback Tyson McWilliams #11 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Defensive lineman Brandon Pili #91 of the USC Trojans tackles running back Jaydn Ott #6 of the California Golden Bears for loss of yards in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver J. Michael Sturdivant #7 of the California Golden Bears catches a pass for first down against USC Trojans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Tahj Washington #16 of the USC Trojans catches pass for first down over safety Daniel Scott #32 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Linebacker Garrison Madden #41 of the USC Trojans tackles running back Ashton Hayes #26 of the California Golden Bears for a loss of yards in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Terrell Bynum #0 of the USC Trojans catches pass for first down against cornerback Isaiah Young #41 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Wide receiver Kyle Ford #81 of the USC Trojans drops a pass against cornerback Tyson McWilliams #11 of the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Running back Travis Dye #26 of the USC Trojans celebrates with teammates after running for a touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Running back Travis Dye #26 of the USC Trojans runs for a touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Running back Travis Dye #26 of the USC Trojans runs for a touchdown against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans passes against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans scrambles against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans passes against the California Golden Bears in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 5, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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LOS ANGELES — On a night when three top-six teams lost, clearing the playoff picture a bit for a possible USC run, the ninth-ranked Trojans could have done well to make a statement against a toothless Cal team. Run up the score, stomp on their throats, the sort of thing a team wants to do on homecoming under ordinary circumstances.

Instead, USC delivered a largely lifeless performance, settling for scraping by against the Bears for a 41-35 victory.

USC (8-1, 6-1 in Pac-12) appeared to have the game wrapped up after a Tahj Washington touchdown with 1:18 left in the third quarter. Sure, that’s a lot of clock, but a 20-point lead against a team that had not scored more than 24 since September and a quarterback who had not thrown for 300 yards since the 2021 season opener should have been safe.

Instead, the USC defense decided to make it a ball game. First came a blown coverage that left Cal receiver Marvin Anderson wide open for a 47-yard touchdown.

Then the kickoff return unit fell asleep at the wheel, not prepared for a successful onside kick by Cal. The Golden Bears (3-6, 1-5) put together a methodical, 52-yard drive for a touchdown, and suddenly USC had a seven-point lead with nine minutes to play.

It made quarterback Caleb Williams earn his self-anointed nickname of ‘Superman’. The sophomore completed all three of his passes on the next drive to move USC 77 yards in six plays for a Lake McRee touchdown that sent most of the 64,116 in attendance for the exits.

The game was not as over as it appeared, with Cal putting together a 12-play, 85-yard touchdown drive. A two-point conversion made it a six-point game with 2:31 to play.

USC was able to successfully recover the next onside kick attempt, drawing Bronx cheers in the process. A Williams keeper on third-and-five for 15 yards allowed uSC to assume the victory formation.

Down leading receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams for the second straight week, Caleb Williams again made do with his other targets. He completed 26 of 41 passes for 360 yards and four touchdowns while running for a fifth.

There were plenty of positives to take away from the offense. Not so much on the other side of the ball.

On paper, this seemed like the type of week where the USC defense could get back on track after back-to-back 500-yard debacles. Cal entered the weekend 10th in the Pac-12 in yards per game and QB Jack Plummer was dealing with a neck injury.

And after an alarming 76-yard opening touchdown drive by the Golden Bears, the USC defense seemed to settle down. It held Cal to 88 yards the rest of the first half while forcing three punts and a turnover on downs while Calen Bullock came away with an interception that set up the first of Michael Jackson III’s two touchdown receptions.

But things fell apart in the second half, in which Cal moved for 290 yards. The Golden Bears’ 469 total yards were their second-most in a game all season. Cal converted 34.8% of its third downs entering the night, but went 8-for-15 against the Trojans.

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