Well, I happen to like gravy, especially on meatloaf or chicken fried steak (mmm…). And like the only principle I remember from my economics classes, more is better. I also loved our three-game winning streak at the Coliseum, which has been virtually the only Pac-10 road venue where the Bears have managed to win lately. But a fourth consecutive victory was not to be, as the Trojans came from behind to snap our mini-run. It was a very difficult loss to stomach, considering that 1) we had an 18-point lead early in the second quarter and then surrendered 27 unanswered points; and 2) a clear officiating error, unmistakable from the video board and plainly acknowledged by the USC announcers in the post-game show, sparked the USC rally.
The first twenty minutes or so were all Cal, and it was wonderful. The Bears, passing on almost every down, went 74 yards after the opening kickoff with the big chunks coming on Kyle Boller passes to Tom Swoboda for 22, LaShaun Ward for 16, and Joe Igber for 18. Igber finished the drive with a 3-yard TD scamper and Cal led 7-0.
USC answered with an impressive march of its own. Freshman kickoff return man Hershel Dennis froze in the end zone before taking the ball out and getting tackled at the 8, and the Trojans were flagged for an illegal block to boot. Facing third and 10 from the 4, Carson Palmer found WR Mike Williams for a 14-yard completion and a first down. On a later third-and-7 play, Palmer hit WR Keary Colbert for 29 yards to the Cal 33. Struggling placekicker Ryan Killeen, whose gaffes against Washington State the previous week (including a key missed extra point and a couple of botched field goals) might end up costing USC a Rose Bowl berth, capped the 79-yard drive with a 34-yard FG and USC was on the scoreboard.
The Bears quickly responded with another good-looking scoring drive. A misdirection pass to Swoboda gained 13, Igber's nifty cutback at the sidelines allowed him to rush for 14, and a 28-yard reverse to Vincent Strang brought Cal to the USC 11. The drive bogged down at the USC 2, and the Bears faced fourth and 1. Coach Tedford elected to go for it, and Boller rewarded his faith by gaining the first down on a QB sneak. Terrell Williams leapt over the pile from the 1, and Cal extended its lead to 14-3.
We almost got a huge break on the next Trojan possession when a Palmer pass was tipped and DB Jemeel Powell picked it off at the USC 26. Unfortunately, USC's Williams stripped Powell on the return and recovered the fumble himself. The result was that the Trojans got a roundabout first down after the double turnover on third and six, but USC soon punted afterward.
After a couple of punts, the Bears got a real boost when Powell intercepted another Palmer pass and returned it 7 yards to the USC 37. A personal foul facemask penalty tacked on another 15, and the Cal offense took over at the USC 22. Two plays later, Boller executed a perfect play-fake and hit WR Jonathan Makonnen in stride for a 15-yard TD pass. With 11:42 remaining in the second quarter, the Bear advantage swelled to 21-3.
The party rocked on when USC boofed another kickoff return, this time due to an illegal block that pinned the Trojans back to the 7. An incompletion, a 4-yard loss by RB Sultin McCullough, and a near-safety later, USC was forced to punt from its 3. Cal took over at the USC 42 and by the time we got a first down at the USC 32, the feeling in the stands was downright giddy. Then came the unquestioned turning point in the game. On first down, Boller was sacked, and he fumbled the ball away. We later learned that Boller had hurt his non-throwing hand earlier in the game and thus his grip on the ball was hampered. Damn. One more Cal score could have crushed USC's spirits, but from that moment forward, almost everything went the Trojans' way. USC never punted again and scored on five of its next seven possessions, including three straight touchdowns. Er… make that two, though it counted as three on the only place that mattered - the scoreboard.
Palmer soon made a great play, eluding several Cal rushers before passing to Williams for a 32-yard gain. McCullough then started trampling our defense in earnest en route to a 39-carry, 176-yard afternoon. The Trojans plowed their way to the Cal 6, where they faced third and goal. Enter the zebras. Palmer scrambled away from the pass rush before throwing a pass to WR Kareem Kelly in the end zone. The refs ruled that he caught the ball for a TD. But on the video board, it was obvious that the ball bounced first - heck, even Traveler could've seen that. USC got at least four extra points, and momentum, that it didn't deserve from the officiating incompetence and the Trojans were back in the game at 21-10. (A recent ESPN.com article used that play as an illustration of why instant replay may someday be brought to college football - to correct unambiguous blunders like that.)
Cal soon punted, and the Trojans began shredding the defense again. With time running out in the first half, USC ran seven consecutive pass plays and culminated the drive on a 21-yard slant to Williams. Three Cal defenders converged on Williams around the 10, but somehow he emerged from the collision to finish the play for a TD. Palmer also threw his first pass to TE Alex Holmes, a 21-yarder on second and 16; the Bears had no answer for him, and he made several key receptions later. The Trojans closed to 21-17 at the half, and Cal fans had much to worry about during the break.
It didn't take long for our fears to be realized. After the second-half kickoff, USC put on another offensive clinic and methodically went 68 yards in 12 plays to take the lead, 24-21. McCullough alone rushed eight times for 38 yards, including a 2-yard TD run. In little more than a quarter, Cal's 18-point lead had become a 3-point deficit.
The Bears looked to regain momentum but instead shot themselves in the foot. On third and 2 from the 43, Boller completed a 5-yard pass to Swoboda but we were flagged for holding, negating the gain. What really stunk was that the holding occurred after Swoboda had picked up the first down, as the 10-yard penalty put us in a third-and-7 situation. Boller then completed a pass to Ward, but it was a yard short, and we had to punt.
USC resumed its attack on the Bears, with Palmer passes to Williams and Holmes preceding a 29-yard McCullough run to the Cal 26. The Bear defense finally stiffened, breaking the Trojan TD string, and we got a break when Killeen missed a 38-yard FG attempt wide right.
After Cal punted, USC's offense again looked almost unstoppable. Palmer hit Colbert for 11 and Holmes for 20 on a drive that reached as far as the Cal 2. But with their backs to the wall, the Cal defenders came up with another stop when Tom Canada sacked Palmer for a 13-yard loss on third and goal. Killeen regained his form and booted a 32-yard FG to increase the USC lead to 27-21 with ten minutes left in the game.
The game was still eminently winnable, as a touchdown would have put the Bears ahead. However, the offense still couldn't get untracked and went three and out. It was especially painful because on third and 7 from the Cal 24, Ward was open several yards beyond the first-down marker but he simply dropped Boller's pass.
USC then embarked on an apparent backbreaking drive by chewing up almost 5 1/2 minutes, converting three third downs, and moving 39 yards toward the red zone. The clinching score seemed inevitable when the Trojans had a first down at the Cal 21 with about 3 1/2 minutes remaining. We needed a miracle and almost got one when Bert Watts forced a McCullough fumble and Nmandi Asomugha recovered at the Cal 19. The Cal players and fans celebrated heartily, but alas, the revelry was sadly temporary. On the very next play, Boller's long pass to Ward was deflected and intercepted by DB Jason Leach, who returned the ball to the Cal 33. The shell-shocked, deflated Cal defense returned to the field and immediately gave up a 24-yard run by McCullough down to the 9. Though the D subsequently held, stopping RB Malaefou McKenzie at the 1 on third down, the damage was done. Killeen easily converted the 18-yard FG attempt, and the USC lead stretched to an insurmountable 30-21 with 1:41 remaining.
Against USC's prevent defense, the Bear offense finally returned to life and broke the long scoreless drought. Though Cal showed resolve in driving for a late 5-yard Boller-to-Swoboda TD pass with 35 seconds left, converting on fourth and six in the process, it wasn't enough. We never seem to be able to recover an onside kick, and this time was no exception. The Trojans ran out the clock and celebrated while the frustrated Cal players unhappily trudged off the field and the frustrated Cal fans headed for the exits… and the usual LA traffic jam. It took us forever to get out of the parking lot, and even longer to get to Hollywood for a consolation dinner at Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles. That didn't even go right, as there were roughly one thousand people in line before us, so we settled for chili cheeseburgers and dogs at Original Tommy's. What a disappointing day.
Naturally, you have to wonder what would have happened if the officiating blunder didn't give USC those four extra points assuming that 1) Killeen, who had been struggling mightily, booted a 23-yard field goal and 2) USC didn't go for fourth-and-goal from the 6 (which I consider unlikely so early in Q2). After all, simply subtracting four points from the Trojans' final point total would have made it 28-26, Cal. However, I think USC probably would have won anyway because its defense would not have been in prevent mode and surely would have put up much more resistance on Cal's last TD drive if it would have represented the go-ahead score. We had gained only 72 yards, 4 first downs, and no points on our previous seven possessions, so we didn't exactly have the base Trojan defense figured out. On the other hand, you could also argue that Cal would have had more momentum if its lead were 21-6 instead of 21-10, and perhaps that would have spurred a better performance from the offense and/or defense that would have been sufficient to win. Unfortunately, as Aslan the lion said in C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, "What would have happened? No one is ever told that, my child." What did happen was that we got hosed, we lost, and we're now 4-3. Rats.
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