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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