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Cal bids USC farewell in the most Cal way possible
The California Golden Bears said goodbye to the USC Trojans with the full Cal football experience.
I’ve watched Cal lose to USC most of my adult life.
Since the glorious triple-overtime win, Cal has won two games against USC:
Once in one of the most inconsequential games ever, between two 4-7 teams playing for absolutely nothing in the final moments of 2021.
Cal has run the full spectrum of tough losses to USC.
Cal had first and goal at the 9, with the Pac-10, the Rose Bowl, the national title all in our grasp.
Cal has had touchdowns taken away at the Coliseum or gifted to USC on objectively bad calls that would’ve been overturned if replay existed back then.
The Cal defense has played equal to the task of great USC offenses many times, only to put up scorelines of 3, 3, 14, 9, 9 as the USC Band played on, and on and on.
Cal ran all over USC in the rain in the glorious Joe Roths, only to toss the ball back to the Trojans over and over.
Cal has been blown out 42-0 in a half by USC, leading to an eventual wonderful “We won the second half” quote.
Cal has lost by 8, 6 and 6, but all in last-minute scores that made the games look closer than they were—they never had a drive to tie/take the lead in any of them.
Cal has hung with USC tough plenty through three quarters, only to see it all fall apart in the fourth.
In two decades, you can count on your hands the times Cal has had leads against USC.
This isn’t just true for me. It’s true for nearly every modern generation of Golden Bear.
From 1978 to 1995, Cal beat USC two times (one tie).
From 1959 to 1973, Cal beat USC once.
Since Cal’s last Rose Bowl, the Bears have 12 wins against the Trojans, with just under half of them with winning Cal teams.
We can trace it to many things—better recruiting, better coaching, better talent, better skill development, better bagman system—but ultimately USC is a football school, and Cal is a school that plays football. When those two identities clash, Cal is inevitably going to come up short a lot.
So when Cal took a two-score lead for the second time in the second half against the Trojans on Saturday, my brain did not default to “Oh wow, who am I meeting at the 50 yard line today?”
“Oh wait, we’ve never actually had a CAL loss to USC right?”
An hour later, there we were.
If I presented you even half of the following bullets, you would have assumed this was one of the greatest modern Cal wins of our generation.
Jaydn Ott was on pace for 500 rushing yards and ten touchdowns after a quarter-plus.
Fernando Mendoza went toe-to-toe with the defending Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, and two mistakes aside, stood tall.
A really great trio of receiving performances from Trond Grizzell, Jack Endries and Jeremiah Hunter, who piled up 251 receiving yards and 21 catches. All came up clutch on the final drive.
Justin Williams-Thomas and Jaivian Thomas stepped up on the final drive as the running back depth chart disintegrated.
Although they gave up 50, the Cal defense gave up only half those points on non-assisted turnover drives. USC had 11 drives start in their own territory, but only managed 24 points.
Cal’s secondary went blitz heavy and it paid off with sacks. Freshman Cade Uluave had quite the statline (10 tackles, 1 sack, 2 pass break ups, 1 forced fumble). Patrick McMorris, Craig Woodson and Jeremiah Earby did good work.
Cal took multiple double-digit leads on USC in both the second and fourth quarter, the second time rallying from a USC comeback that usually spelled the end.
Cal scored 49 points against USC, the second most in 112 years they’ve ever scored against USC. It’s only the second time Cal has scored 40 points against USC.
Eventually all the inherent advantages of USC—skill, talent, physicality—seemed to wear on the Bears in the second half. The return of Bear Alexander in the second half from his suspension definitely changed the tone on the ground, as Cal mostly had to turn to the air to score. As Cal began running on fumes from all the plays, the middle was open a lot more, giving MarShawn Lloyd avenues to explode downfield.
(Yes, it is not lost on me that Cal mostly because of the efforts of dudes named MarShawn and Bear. The football gods aren’t very subtle with their cruelty.)
Mendoza kept things going in the air but it got harder as Isaiah Ifanse and Jaydn Ott were sidelined from injury, gaming his way through four quarters. And there were some nice plays from everyone everywhere, including solid Lachlan Wilson punts pinning USC deep and a surprisingly good kick coverage performance.
But football is simple. You make a half-dozen major mistakes against a superior team, you lose.
There’s Mendoza dropping the ball on the ground early to put Cal in an early hole, and throwing a pick into traffic.
There’s Cal going for it on 4th down on their OWN 45, getting stuffed, and immediately USC scoring.
There’s Jeremiah Hunter fighting needlessly for extra yards on a punt return that Cal has fair catched all season, with Cal up 7.
There’s Ashton Stredick putting his one carry into the dirt in a tie game.
Three Cal turnovers, plus the above 4th down failure, set up USC with the other half of their points on relatively short fields.
There were dozens of missed tackles that extended USC drives and turned short plays into long conversions.
Cal actually FORCED more fumbles (including one near the USC goal-line), but could not grab them. Tough.
Cal, having the USC defense on their heels, calling timeout before their two point conversion attempt, which essentially made the play do-or-die (USC ran out the clock when they got the onside kick back).
Take a few of those away. Cal could’ve had a comfortable double-digit win and a season-defining upset. Cal legitimately could have had 60 to 70 points on USC playing mistake-free football.
Instead, an ultimate Cal loss against USC.
No justice. Just Cal.
It all comes back to that 2004 game in the end, when Cal and USC were arguably the two best programs in college football. Those nine faithful yards spanned the distance between glory and oblivion.
USC took the win saw this as the standard. Although they have faded since those early glory years because they have mostly been run by arrogant nepo-babies, their arrogance makes them strive for excellence, and they set their standard high.
Cal was just happy to be there. They could not in the long run overcome institutional inertia, administrative incompetence and local bureaucracy, and eventually faded back to the standard they’re at today.
USC put the final nail in the Pac-12, but the Pac-12 destroyed itself long before USC did. The Trojans only did what was in their nature. They selfishly blew it all up, completely in their own self-interest, and chased the cash. As you’d expect.
Stadium upgrades aside, Cal has mostly sat passively, a spectator in its own story. Although moves have been made to change the narrative recently, they have all been reactive, with usually the least optimal option being the one we ended up picking.
USC is going to a Big Ten on a full share, where they will thrive enough to keep going, and eventually compete for national titles if they don’t freeze in Purdue in November. Although the shallow stupidity of the institution will self-sabotage them from ever returning to the top of the perch, they are in the game.
Cal is going to the ACC, in an eleventh hour deal to maybe keep the lights on because it was the only deal left that was mildly acceptable. Cal might figure itself out, but those questions are open-ended and deeply uncertain, and irrelevance is a very realistic outcome.
USC has always been an objective group of arrogant morons, but they were OUR morons. It won’t be easy to replace that as a foil, and seeing that rivalry fade into the air reminds us of how perilous Cal’s road to survival will be.
Cal and USC was packed for this final game between these two programs. But can our crowds really get up the same way for Pitt and Syracuse? It’s uncertain.
Twenty years ago, Cal had its moment to climb up and be as competitive as USC, and they turned it over.
Twenty years later, Cal had one final bit of sweet revenge locked up against USC, and they turned it over.
I've watched Cal lose, and lose, and lose to USC most of my life, and they saved the most Cal loss for last.
It was an insane, obscene, perfect farewell.