LOS ANGELES -- The best way to sum up California’s 38-30 loss to USC (7-3, 6-2 in Pac-12) – it’s 11th in a row – comes from head coach Sonny Dykes:
“It doesn’t matter how you do it. It doesn’t matter if you make a run at the end and win, or win the first half and hold on. Whatever it is, we want to win a football game, and we weren’t able to do it tonight. We’ve just got to get better. That’s the bottom line, is we’ve been in most every game we’ve played this year, and it’s come down to playing disciplined football and not making mistakes. We made too any of those tonight.”
The Bears (5-5, 3-5) now have just two games left to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 – next week’s Big Game against Stanford, and a Nov. 29 tilt in Berkeley against BYU, and they aren’t going to get there by, as quarterback Jared Goff said, “shooting ourselves in the foot.”
1. Did the Bears underestimate USC’s playmakers? Cal didn't rush more than four at all in the first half, after two first-series safety blitzes, and because of that, Cody Kessler absolutely picked the Bears already-much-maligned secondary apart. Kessler went 13-for-17 for 185 yards and two touchdowns, with a QB rating of 206.7 in the first quarter alone. His favorite target? Nelson Agholor. The junior amassed eight catches for 120 yards, including four screen passes, taking one to the house and averaging 15 yards per catch in the first quarter.
Kessler has a reputation as a hot starter, and he continued that trend on Thursday. He’s now 81-of-108 (75.0%) for 1,014 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the first quarters of games this season.
Against a line that has the fewest sacks in the Pac-12 this season, Kessler didn’t need to buy time; the Bears were giving it away for free, most notably on the Trojans’ only touchdown of the fourth quarter. On third-and-goal from the Cal 15, Kessler had about eight seconds until Austin Clark finally moved the left side of the pocket enough for Kessler to slowly start rolling right, where he easily found Randall Telfer for a touchdown in the back of the end zone.
“We’ve struggled with getting a pass rush,” Dykes said of his line that had a single, solitary quarterback hurry and one sack on 43 dropbacks. “That’s obviously something that, we’ve tried to blitz, we tried to blitz a lot tonight, and had some success, and didn’t have success at times … He did a good job keeping it alive. We got a little bit of push, he got out of the pocket, we lost contain and had a guy slip down and they through a touchdown.”
By the time the first half had ended, Agholor had 13 catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns – more than Cal’s entire offensive output (125 yards).
Agholor taking screen passes for 10-plus yards combined the two things that the Bears have been constitutionally unable to defend all year: A dynamic, physical receiver and the screen. Except, this time, it wasn’t Nelson Spruce. It was a player who will almost certainly be a first-round draft pick this May, and a player Cal probably should have been marking more heavily and consistently, particularly early on as the Trojans made it plain that they wanted to get on top of the Bears’ quick-scoring offense early and keep their foot on the gas. It was in fact because of Agholor that Cal did not blitz much early on, which actually gave Kessler more time to find Agholor.
“If you blitz, you can’t double people, and you can’t have help,” Dykes said. “You’re in one-on-one situations, so you’re darned if you do, darned if you don’t, when you’re playing against a good receiver like that.
“We knew, we knew he was going to be good. We knew it wasn’t a great matchup, but he’s a good football player, and they did a good job getting him the ball … We played with four different corners, at times, tonight – three or four different corners – and he caught balls against all of them.”
Agholor was an equal-opportunity abuser, as the Bears tried any number of different ways to try to defend what they knew was coming.
“We knew they were going to throw a lot of wide receiver screens,” said Dykes. “Everybody does against us. It’s something that we had some issues getting off those blocks tonight. They completed a lot of passes, and, for the most part, we tackled him. The times they got out, they had holding penalties. He didn’t get out much on the screens. He got out on some other stuff, but they did a good job.
“We tried, at times, to get some safety help. Obviously, that was something coming into the game, you knew that was going to be a tough matchup. We tried to get some safety help and got some at times, and then, at other times, had him playing some one-on-ones, and we just didn’t make those plays.”
Dykes said that Cal tried four different corners against Agholor, who set a personal best with 16 catches – one fewer than the school record set by Robert Woods.
With 8:40 left in the third quarter, Agholor needed 4 more catches for the USC single-game record and six more for Pac-12 single-game mark, as he’d hauled in 14 grabs for 196 yards, mainly against JuCo transfer Darius White.
In fact, by the end of the third quarter, Agholor did something that no USC receiver has ever done – recorded at least 200 yards receiving in back-to-back games, going for 205 yards. He became the seventh player in the nation in the past 10 years with back-to-back 200-yard receiving games.
How good was Agholor? He made up for a decided lack of a running game in the first half. USC sprinted out to a 31-9 lead averaging just 2.0 yards per carry, and still had 325 first-half yards of offense.
That inability to run was a theme for the Trojans, who only gained 95 net yards on the ground on the game. Again, though, with the passing game, they didn’t need to run, and against the worst passing defense in the nation, why would they?
Kessler finished 31-for-42 for 371 yards and four touchdowns. Kessler threw for the third-most yards he’s thrown for all year, and the second-most passing attempts all season. The only time USC threw more passes was against Arizona State.
2. “Special” teams. Just like last year, special teams gaffes hurt Cal, and Agholor didn’t even return a single punt in the first half. No, there were three penalties by first-year cornerback Arthur Wainwright -- all on special teams – that gave USC short fields.
Wainwright was called for holding on USC’s kickoff after Cal tallied a safety in the first quarter, dragging the Bears back to their own 39. That drive went just one yard before punter Cole Leininger was called upon, sending his second punt of the day down to the USC 24, but because Wainwright grazed the fair-catching Agholor, the Trojans got the ball at their own 39, and proceeded to drive 61 yards for a touchdown.
After the Bears finally stopped USC on third down – after allowing six straight third-down conversions – Wainwright was called for holding on the ensuing 32-yard punt, putting the Bears down at their own 13, and allowing Antwaun Woods and Su’a Cravens to tee off on Goff, who finished 29-of-47 for just 279 yards with four sacks, though he did throw three touchdowns.
And, whilst on the subject of special teams, lest we forget, there was the ill-fated fake punt by Leininger, which was quite an adventure with about five minutes left in the first half, as Leininger stood in place, looked to march his feet up and down like a toy soldier, and then threw a slow, low lob to Stefan McClure, who had four Trojans right in front of him.
“It was a bad call. I called it,” Dykes said. “We needed to make a play, I needed something good to happen. If we could have got the ball to Stef, I think he might have scored.”
3. Slow and steady won’t win any race. Taking out Cal’s 28 points against Sacramento State in the second week of the season, the Bears have been outscored 87-54 in the first quarters of games against FBS opponents this season, and that trend was punctuated on Thursday night with a 21-2 stanza where the only points Cal scored were on defense – the Bears’ first safety since 2013 against Washington State.
“We don’t typically have that issue,” said Goff. “It’s happened maybe once or twice this year, and it shouldn’t happen. We’re 10 games in now. We should know what we’re doing from the get-go. Sometimes, they do what they’re supposed to do on defense, and we shoot ourselves in the foot, often, and we did, tonight. We were unable to recover from it.”
While the Cal offensive line has been stout of late in the run game, pass protection has been lacking – sometimes, severely – and the Trojans took advantage, sending Leonard Williams and Woods often. USC tallied 7.0 tackles for loss, including 4.0 sacks, and it was because of that pressure up front that they were able to play very effective man defense.
“A lot of man coverage,” Dykes said. “They played more man tonight than we probably thought they were going to play against us, and we didn’t do a great job of separating and didn’t do a great job of making contested plays. I thought the guys did, in the second half, and I thought that’s what gave us a chance. When we got the drive right there at the end of the second quarter and scored, I felt like we had a great opportunity to get back in the football game.”
The Bears were down 31-2 before outscoring USC 28-7, but without any kind of a pass rush or a downfield passing game, Cal had to chip away on offense and hope for the Trojans to not keep going to Agholor while on defense.
What got the Bears on their heels so early?
“That’s a good question,” said Dykes. “I don’t know.”
“It wasn’t what USC did. It’s what we didn’t do,” said defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil, who finished with three tackles, including 1.0 for a loss. “It wasn’t what their offensive line was doing, but what we weren’t doing. We weren’t sticking to our technique, and if you do that against an above-average team, you’re not going to come out with a win.”
Offensively, USC took the deep ball away from Goff, much the same as Washington did. Against the Huskies, Goff had a single completion of over 20 yards, and on Thursday, he had one such completion – a 29-yarder to Stephen Anderson in the fourth quarter. In fact, Cal had just two explosive play (a pass of 20 or more yards or a run of 12 or more) on Thursday, the second being a third-quarter 17-yard run by Daniel Lasco, who averaged just 2.0 yards per carry in the first quarter, while Goff went a dismal 5-for-12 for just 36 yards.
“We just had to get a feel for their defense,” said Lasco. “Seeing the scout team, they gave us a different look. It’s something that we’ve got to execute early. We can’t be down by as much as we were and try to claw back in the end. As a running back, it was a feel thing. I had to get used to their speed, their size and how our offensive line was working.”
Lasco finished with 86 net yards and one touchdown on 19 carries, as Cal had a net total of just 105 rushing yards.
“It’s just their size and their speed,” Lasco said. “It took the offensive line some time to get used to it. The way that the defense was schemed up, it was a feel thing. A lot of the holes we were hitting in practice weren’t there. It’s just a feel thing. As the game progressed, I started getting a better feel for how their linebackers were playing, where they were flowing. We can’t have a 20-point cushion and expect to keep running the ball.”
4. Third down nightmare.The biggest issue for the offense early on was not so much the scheme, but the fact that Cal could not execute on third down, on either side of the ball. The final numbers? USC went 9-for-16 on third down, while the Bears went 3-for-15 – their lowest conversion rate of the season, and their fewest third-down conversions in a game this season. The Trojans’ conversion rate (56.25%) was the second-highest by an opponent that Cal has allowed this season, just short of Oregon’s 58.82% mark.
“Bottom line, it came down to third down,” Dykes said. “We didn’t get off the field on third down, and we let them convert way too many third downs. Obviously, that was pretty important.”
On each of the Trojans’ first three third-down attempts, Kessler went for Agholor, and Agholor obliged with a seven-yard grab, a 28-yard haul and a 10-yard touchdown catch for USC’s first score.
Agholor then accounted for 28 of USC’s 60 yards after a Cal three-and-out to put the Trojans up, 14-0, as USC never got into third down on their second drive.
“Early in the ballgame, we could not convert any third downs,” Dykes said. “I think that was something that, offensively, we just struggled on third down in the first half. We put ourselves in too many third-and-longs. We had too many penalties. Penalties hurt us tonight. A lot of penalties for both teams, but the penalties we got seemed to really have an impact on us, and that’s one of the things we’ve got to get addressed and get cleaned up. We had too many of those tonight, and it hurt us.”
And, that leads us neatly into the next point …
5. Lack of discipline everywhere. USC set season highs for most penalties and most penalty yards, blowing past the 14 and 124 that were the previous high-water marks. The two teams – two of seven Pac-12 teams in the top 20 teams most penalized in the nation – combined for a mind-numbingly over-officiated 25 penalties for 276 yards.
“I am going to refrain from getting a fine,” said USC head coach Steve Sarkisian when asked about the veritable blanket of yellow handkerchiefs.
“Both teams had a lot of penalties,” Dykes said. “I don’t know exactly what the numbers were, but I know there’s a bunch. It was not a real clean game. It was pretty chippy out there. We’ve just got to not get involved in all that.”
Left guard Chris Borrayo -- who had to leave the game three times due to his helmet coming off – had his helmet whacked at fairly frequently by USC defenders (specifically Claude Pelon), and he reacted frequently, once getting called for a personal foul.
Both Borrayo and Stefan McClure received very uncharacteristic flags, with the usually-reserved McClure getting flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after Darius Allensworth drew an offensive pass interference flag on George Farmer. McClure actually yelled straight into the referee’s ear while jawing at Farmer, prompting a quick flag, offsetting the pass interference call, on the final drive of the third quarter – a drive that would end in a USC touchdown.
“I talked to our players about the discipline that we have to have in order to beat a good football team, particularly on the road,” Dykes said. “You can’t get involved in all the extracurricular stuff. We’ve got to just focus on doing our job and playing hard and not getting too emotional and caught up in everything else.”
Cal may have been out-fouled by the Trojans, but the Bears’ penalties came at the worst possible times, with Borrayo’s penalty on a huge first-down reception by Khalfani Muhammad bringing up a third-and-23, and three special teams penalties by Wainwright.
“I talked to our players about, when you play against a good football team, then you’ve got to play cleaner football than we played tonight,” Dykes said. “I credit our guys who played really hard. They never gave up. They did exactly what we asked them to do, every Saturday, which is to play hard and don’t look at the scoreboard, and played through the game. I thought we played hard for 60 minutes, but did not play good enough to win a good football team.”
Of Cal’s 11 penalties, four were personal foul penalties, and all four came on the lines – from Borrayo, Jordan Rigsbee and fifth-year senior center Chris Adcock -- players who should know better.
• Defensive tackle David Davis went down late in the first half and did not return. He is the only one of Cal’s players who went down during the course of the game, who did not re-enter the game. Dykes had not gotten a report at the time he spoke with the media.
• Noah Westerfield went down with a sprained ankle, though Dykes was unsure of how severe it was.