Trojans roll on Cal then hold on

The Trojans rolled out to a 31-2 lead right before halftime then had to survive a 28-7 Cal comeback for a 38-30 win that keeps USC unbeaten in November with the big two to go.

Here's all you need to know about how USC's 38-30 win over Cal at the Coliseum went Thursday night.

A Trojan team that was leading 31-2 with 10 seconds left in the first half, and should have been up 35-0, had to fall on an onside kick with 1:36 remaining before Steve Sarkisian could relax after recording his first six-win season in six years as a head coach in the Pac-12.

"We won," Sark said to himself as Darreus Rogers fielded the one-hopper cleanly. And the 7-3 Trojans (6-2 in the Pac-12) did just that, although with USC's track record this season, that was almost a bold statement. After all, even if Cal didn't have any timeouts, neither did Arizona State.

And that matters even now. "I don't think we let down," Sark said of USC's 11th straight win over the Bears, "but we need to find a way to play with confidence late in games." And coach with it as well, we might add.

But not to be negative on a night when so many Trojans did so much well even if they also did so many things not so well. We're thinking of three touchdowns called back on some of the 14 penalties for an incredible -- even for the Pac-12 -- 159 negative yards. Factor in the yards lost on the penalized plays and you're already well past the minus-300 mark.

So we're thinking it probably wasn't much fun for the leftovers in the crowd of 64,615 to watch Cal storm back for a 28-7 run over the last 30:09 in a game that started off as a romp that seemed to mark the arrival of the talented Trojans offense.

But as only Lee Corso can say, "Not so fast, my friend." This turned into just another USC game with a milestone or two -- and a couple of millstones as well.

For milestones, USC's Nelson Agholor went where no USC receiver in history has gone, recording back-to-back 200-plus receiving yard games. And that's despite losing a 78-yard TD catch and run in the third quarter leaving the junior from Florida with 216 yards on 16 catches with two going for touchdowns after his 220 yards last game at Washington State.

Cody Kessler threw for 371 yards on 31 of 42 passing for four TDs with one interception, leaving him with a 29-3 TD-to-INT ratio for the season.

But it wasn't all big plays for this USC offense that could protect Kessler but do little to get a seam for Buck Allen, whose streak of six 100-yard-plus rushing games, the first Trojan to do that in 33 seasons since Marcus Allen in 1981, ended with a thud. As did USC's short-lived Heisman campaign for Buck, who managed just 60 yards on 21 carries no matter how hard he tried. The holes just weren't there.

"We have to evaluate our scheme, our techniques and our fundamentals," Sark said and try to figure out "what will make us successful." One thing that would have made this USC team more successful on this night would have been not to call a slow-developing inside run with a pulling guard on the 1-yard line with Justin Davis, in for Buck, lined up seven yards deep in the end zone.

He didn't have a chance. Three Cal defenders hit him three yards deep in the end zone and the Trojans' shutout was gone. Even if USC stretched it out to 31-2 thanks to Nelson & Co.'s early work.

But as all too often happens, USC hit the skids after intermission, getting shut out the third quarter. And sure, the called-back touchdowns were part of that. But the offense just couldn't pick the defense up.

"I just kept going back out there and lining up," said Leonard Williams, who had eight tackles including 1.5 sacks in an energetic night for the All-American. "I'm not thinking about what the offense was doing." Good thing.

"If you want to beat a team like USC, or any good team," said Cal quarterback Jared Goff, "you can't do that," he said of the penalties and missed throws that had him short of his 347 yards passing a game with 279 on 29 of 47.

On Agholor's performance, "We prepared for him," Cal linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "He's just a great player who made some great plays."

But Nelson wasn't talking about those. "I'm thinking about that ball I dropped on third down late in the game," he said, as he jogged off the field. That bugged him.

But then he relented and said this about his night: "Coach called great plays and Cody made great passes to give me opportunities."

But at the end of this one, the team with the upbeat body language that looked like it was playing to win was Cal.

Even so, the Trojans hung in there. Adoree Jackson, who lost a 42-yard TD pass in the second quarter to a holding penalty, said "I laughed it off," although maybe not at the time. "I ran all the way back to the bench after we were celebrating and then I saw the flag on the video board."

Then Randall Telfer came along for the only USC touchdown -- and his first of the season -- on a Cody scramble to the sideline before hitting a wide-open Telfer in the end zone for what would be the game-winning touchdown.

That score had another distinction. After 10 games, it's the only touchdown scored by a USC senior. "Now I feel old and lonely," Telfer said. "That's weird."

And lonely Telfer was as the lone scholarship tight end here on this night as Bryce Dixon, after practicing this week, was held out of the game for "a student conduct issue," Sark said, one that he was "not privileged to talk about."

On a night when USC blitzed more than the one in 10 passing plays they'd averaged this season and held Cal to just three of 15 on third-down conversions, Su'a Cravens led the Trojans in tackles with 10 including 1.5 tackles for losses and one sack.

The teams combined for an incredible 25 penalties for 276 yards. Sark said he wasn't going to comment. "I'm going to refrain from getting a fine."

"Both teams had a lot of penalties," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "It was not a clean game and it was pretty chippy out there."

But probably not as chippy as it will get around here in Rivalry Week with UCLA next up Nov. 22 at the Rose Bowl.

It's simple, USC's Scott Felix said. "We don't like them and they don't like us."

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