Post-Game Thoughts: USC Football
When can a football game mean nothing and everything all at once? When you decide to let it mean something to you and your people.
We all get to decide what matters, and we all get to create our own meaning.
For the rest of the country, Saturday’s game meant nothing. Two 4-7 teams with no bowl possibilities, playing out the string. For USC, you could tell it didn’t mean anything. They have moved on to Lincoln Riley, and their fan presence inside Memorial Stadium may have been an order of magnitude lower than normal.
Whatever disappointment Cal’s players may have been feeling over a loss to UCLA that meant no bowl trip, they found motivation on Saturday. The motivation of pride in your craft, the motivation of beating USC, and likely most of all, the motivation of sending their seniors out on a high note:
For us fans, there’s the motivation to watch a win over USC, a result that has been far too rare over the years. For many of us, it was about celebrating a transition for a friend and colleague:
For others, about celebrating a return:
What I’ve loved most about this season (other than all of the above, natch) doesn’t really have anything to do with football, ultimately, so let me tell you about a happening on Saturday that brought me joy.
As has been the case all season, the tailgate began well before game time, and as the afternoon transitioned to evening a shockingly large number of folks had gathered for this silly little football game. As we chanted for Nam and shared libations, a pair of curious first year grad students wandered by, heard the commotion, and asking what was going on. I explained the basics, and told them that they should come back at 7:00, when we would sing the drinking song and share a drink before heading to the game. They smiled, said thanks, and left. I assumed that they wouldn’t return to hang out with a bunch of olds drinking in a dark parking lot in the cold.
But just a short time later, they returned, with more friends. The bulk of the group were Germans studying abroad, and the found the entire party unique. We shared food and drink, tried in vain to explain what the lyrics to the Drinking Song mean*, and sent them extra tickets so that they could enjoy the game.
And that, ultimately, is what keeps me coming back each week. Do I enjoy shouting and carrying on in the stadium? Do I enjoy heckling the USC band? Absolutely. But it’s the new friends and the old friends and the friends you make for two hours who you likely will never see again but give you a memory anyway that make it so very worth it.
Anything you do in life can be meaningless if you let it, and anything can have meaning if you find a way to create it.
*Does anybody know why a song written 100+ years ago references “the Highland Dutch,” a geographic contradiction in terms? Of course not.
7 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA (0-1), 4 punts, 0 turnovers, 2.4 points/drive
Cal’s three scoring drives: 30 plays, 206 yards, 17 points. The rest of Cal’s drives? 22 plays, 59 yards.
In short, it was a rough offensive performance in any context, and particularly playing arguably the worst defense in the conference, but at least the Bears managed to maximize their offensive output when they sustained a drive.
Offseason project: Tackles needed
I’ve talked all season long about how Cal’s offense ebbs and flows in tandem with Cal’s ability to prevent edge disruption, particularly on pass plays. Will Craig’s injuries have been a major challenge. Meanwhile, Cal will be losing stalwart RT Valentino Daltoso to graduation.
The depth chart released prior to the game listed redshirt freshmen walk-on Colin Hamilton and 3 star redshirt freshman Ender Aguilar as back-ups to sophomore Brayden Rohme and Daltoso.
Maybe next year Will Craig gets and stays healthy. Maybe Aguilar or Rohme take a big step forward developmentally. Maybe Cal considers moving one of their starting interior linemen to tackle. Maybe Cal dips into the transfer market.
Whatever the case may be, it’s essential that Cal finds a solution at both tackle positions; while Cal has had solid production and depth at interior line positions (losing an all-conference center like Michael Saffell could have gone much worse) the tackle spots have been tougher to figure out. That’s the reason that Daltoso gamely positions heading in to this season, and it’s the reason that Cal has a walk-on as a back-up.
USC did appear to more or less play their starters
There were rumors ahead of the game that USC had a number of player opt outs, whether it was to avoid injury in a meaningless game or to protest not retaining interim head coach Donte Williams in some capacity. That perception was fueled when a smallish contingent of Trojans came onto the field.
With no knowledge of what was or wasn’t happening inside the USC locker room, I can tell you that the dudes who have started and played all season long largely played on Saturday, excepting guys who were already reported as injured and missed time earlier in the season.
They’re also the same guys who gave up 30+ points in six straight games but allowed just 17 to Cal, for whatever that’s worth.
9 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (0-2), 2 punts, 3 turnovers (2 fumble, 1 downs), 1.6 points/drive
It’s the ultimate bend-but-don’t-break game of the Wilcox era. USC entered Cal territory on EIGHT of their nine drives, and yet somehow managed to only outscore the Cal defense by 14 points to 7. And that last touchdown was a perfunctory garbage time score.
So, would you prefer to focus on the fact that Cal allowed 25 first downs and 409 yards, or would you prefer to focus on only allowing 14 points and scoring a defensive touchdown?
To be clear, I think 14 points allowed flatters the Cal defense; they don’t control USC’s field goal kicker, after all. But it’s also true that the Cal defense laid out some big hits on USC’s QBs and RBs to help create the turnovers that led to USC wasting a whole ton of yards.
A heavy burden on Cal’s safeties
Daniel Scott and Elijah Hicks are probably Cal’s defensive MVPs (I do see you, Marqez Bimage) and in a game in which Cal’s linemen and linebackers struggled at the point of attack, Cal’s safeties made up for it with stellar play.
It was Hicks who shot ahead to force the fumble that was returned by Trey Paster, and it was Scott who blitzed and crushed Miller Moss for another fumble recovery. It was an uncharacteristically aggressive game plan for two players who are more frequently asked to play deep centerfield, and both were used frequently on both pass and run blitzes to great effect.
Even better, that aggression didn’t result in any USC shots over the top, although quarterback inexperience probably played into Cal’s aggressive defense.
Boy it’s nice when the other team is screwing up
Sometimes a good special teams game comes when the other team does bad things and you don’t. USC missed two field goals. USC committed an offsides, negating a Cal miss and allowing Longhetto a do-over that he made. USC returned a couple of kickoffs and couldn’t get past the 25. USC had a mediocre 30 yard net punt.
Kudos all around to the Cal special teams unit for solid kick/punt coverage and for not making any particular mistakes. Sometimes that’s more than enough.
Oh the bizarre reality of beating Stanford and USC in the same season and not going bowling. For nine tortured seasons Cal lost to both rivals, and most of the games weren’t particularly competitive. Even then, Cal still managed to scrape together three bowl appearances, because USC and Stanford were both near the top of the Pac-12.
Now, both of Cal’s rivals are deep in the dumps, to the point that 5-7 Cal beat both of them by double digits. Bizarre.
If Cal had managed to avoid more COVID hell, I have no doubt the Bears would have defeated Arizona and managed a 6-6 record and get sent to, I dunno, the Armed Forces Bowl. I don’t think getting to the game itself would’ve been a big deal for fans, but it wouldn’t been nice for the players to get a trip and a swag bag and extra practice time for the young guys.
What Cal fans (and Cal administrators) are going to have to ponder is how you value the important emotional value of beating Stanford and USC vs. the objective context of a 5-7 season and one win over a winning team (7-5 Oregon State).
This season was an opportunity, because the Pac-12 was down. Cal wouldn’t have had to have been much better to beat Nevada, Washington, TCU, Oregon, or Washington State.
Next year will be still be an opportunity, because the Pac-12 will probably still be down. Oregon (lol), Washington, USC, and Washington State will all be dealing with coaching staff transitions. Cal still gets Arizona and Colorado from the South rather than ASU and Utah. Stanford will very likely still be bad, and UCLA is losing most of the talent that led them to an 8 win season. Cal will have five home games vs. four road games.
This year was an opportunity spurned. What are the chances that Cal’s coaching staff can find enough solutions to not spurn another opportunity in 2022?