For those fans who arrived early it was clear that this wasn't meant to be an ordinary game. The Coliseum lots were filled with tailgaters by the time 7:30am rolled around for the national broadcast of the ESPN GameDay show and the crowd of fans gathered around the set caused the announcers to comment on the enthusiastic showing. This wasn't the normal environment for an early October match-up between USC and Cal but there hasn't been anything ordinary about this rivalry in recent years since Pete Carroll and Jeff Tedford began matching wits. These two programs have established themselves not only as the class of the Pac-10 but they've also put together a string of close games on the field and this year would prove to be no different.
As the game approached the Coliseum sidelines began to fill with former Trojan stars such as Charles White (the game was Charles White Day as the 1979 Heisman winner was honored at halftime) and Mike Williams (nobody was cheering louder when the Trojan band took the field prior to the game) along with potential recruits such as Ekom Udofia, Maurice Wells and Desean Jackson. At one point during warm-ups Pete Carroll was on the field with a ball in his hand when he noticed Jackson, the two waved to each other and then Carroll fired the ball to Desean with the Poly star making the catch.
Once the game began it didn't take long for the Trojans to get their first break when the Cal punter bobbled the ball and we got it on the 31. The USC drive looked like it might stall when 4th down arrived but Dwayne Jarrett came up with a huge leaping Mike Williams-type catch before he hit the ground. The Trojans were able to finish off the drive with a TD pass when Matt Leinart hit LenDale White for the opening score and all was right with the world with an early 7-0 lead. It was so important to not let Cal jump out to a big lead, this was just the kind of start the Trojans needed.
After a booming kickoff from Ryan Killeen (we'll talk more about him later in this report), the Trojan defense hustled onto the field and Craig Fertig commented that it was a good sign to see the defense so anxious to hit the field. Little did they know what was in store for them once Rodgers really got it going for Cal.
Steve Smith helped the Trojans extend their lead when he caught a pass and raced for a 31 yard gain inside the five. Smith would later leave the game with a broken fibula and is expected to be out 4-6 which deals a blow to the USC receiving corps. With the ball in scoring position it seemed like a prime opportunity to run the ball, perhaps with LenDale White behind big John Drake, but the Trojans tried to throw and ended up losing yardage before having to settle for a Killeen field goal.
USC continued to hold Cal to a series of short gains while only allowing a field goal early in the second quarter. At one point Lawrence Jackson had a sack and freshman Josh Pinkard got some playing time with starter Scott Ware on the sidelines tending to a foot injury. After the Trojan offense was unable to generate a drive we saw Tom Malone drop back in punt formation deep in his end and it was time for a patented Malone "bomb" which Tommy delivered on his 65 yard kick that ended up being muffed by the Cal return man and recovered by Eric Wright. Since there was never possession it was ruled a muff instead of a fumble and the Trojans were unable to advance it from that spot. The offense gained one yard and once again we saw Killeen with a successful field goal to make it 13-3. That lead was nice but suddenly there were a couple missed opportunities to extend the lead and you don't want to let a dangerous offense hang around for too long if you have the chance to put them away. Of course, Rodgers was able to get a touchdown pass before half to Geoff MacArthur and a Killeen field goal with :03 left sent the teams into the locker room with a 16-10 Trojan lead.
The halftime ceremony featured Charles White donning the familiar #12 jersey and running out from the tunnel to the center of the Coliseum while receiving cheers from the Trojan crowd.
On the opening drive of the second half we saw one of the best offensive series of the day for the Trojans and it resulted in a touchdown pass from Leinart to Jarrett. When DJ got to the bench one of the first people to enthusiastically greet him was Mike Williams. It was also good to see Whitney Lewis and Chauncey Washington on the Trojan sideline.
Aaron Rodgers continued with his record setting performance (he would eventually complete 23 passes in a row to tie the mark set by Tee Martin of Tennessee) and it seemed there was little the Trojans could do to stop him. We weren't getting much of a pass rush on his short throws but the good news was that we were keeping everything in front of us and not allowing long pass plays. At some point you simply have to tip your hat to Rodgers because he was outstanding in directing his offense against the USC defense. After being behind for the entire game he was able to bring his team within a touchdown in the third quarter when Marshawn Lynch scored on a short run to make it 23-17 in favor of the Trojans.
Just when USC fans thought the impossible might happen, that Cal could put themselves in position to steal this game, we got what we thought was our saving play on a long kickoff return from Reggie Bush. The Coliseum crowd was rocking only to be jolted back down moments later after a Leinart pass was picked in the end zone. Fortunately we got the ball back soon after that when, on the first play of the fourth quarter, we saw a terrific play from Mike Patterson as he caused and recovered a fumble from Rodgers. All day long Cal had picked us apart until "Baby Sapp" came up with the timely turnover.
Unfortunately the USC offense wasn't able to do much either and the ball quickly went back to the Bears who proceeded to march right down into scoring position. A great play by Lofa Tatupu on 3rd down forced a field goal attempt, this was considered a small victory against the red-hot Rodgers, and it was considered an even bigger victory when their kicker missed wide right.
The Trojan fans were going crazy at this point because they knew with 7:00 left that one good drive would effectively put the game away but once again we saw a three and out with the ball being punted back to Cal. It was at this point that you could sense a real drama about to unfold. Cal and their offense matched against the USC defense with the game on the line. Jeff Tedford matching wits with Pete Carroll. For college football fans, this was as good as it gets.
The Bears began to drive down to the field and it began very apparent that the Trojan defense was exhausted. It was understandable, Cal held the ball for over 37 minutes in this game, and after Rodgers completed a pass to give his team a first down inside the USC 10 we saw Carroll make one of his most important calls of the day. Carroll called timeout and brought his defense to the sideline, he did this not only to make sure he could discuss the upcoming play but also to give his players a much needed rest. The game was going to be decided right here, right now and Carroll wanted them prepared to make a stand.
On first down a Rodgers throw barely missed Noah Smith and USC fans drew a sigh of relief. On second down the Bears were set to run a shovel pass to the running back but Frostee Rucker read the play and moved down the line which forced Rodgers to pull the ball back in and scramble, by the time he started moving away Manuel Wright was in pursuit and he made the play for a five yard loss. It was pandemonium in the Coliseum at that point. On third down it was a pass to MacArthur, the pass was on target but Eric Wright was able to get a hand up and distract the receiver to force the incomplete pass. That set up the final play, fourth down and goal for the win. As we all know, the Cal receiver slipped on that fateful play on the Rodgers pass sailed beautifully to the ground.
It's a cliché to say "one mark of a good team is the ability to win even on those days when they don't play their best" but there is a reason that's a cliché, because it's true. This was not the best of days for the Cardinal and Gold in sheer terms of performance. The offense missed numerous opportunities and gained in the neighborhood of 200 total yards. On defense, not only did Rodgers have the game of his life throwing the ball but we also saw a lot of broken tackles by the Bear running backs and we're normally a solid tackling team. These are things for the coaches to work on in practices but as far as the game in concerned the only thing that matters is that the Trojans found a way to win. This was an old-style "Southern Cal" victory featuring a classic goal line stand and a team that made the big plays when they had to. The Trojan special teams were outstanding. Ryan Killeen, who has been much maligned in the past, was perhaps the player of the game with his three field goals (on three attempts) and the consistent ability to put his kickoffs into the end zone forcing Cal to start each drive on the 20. Tom Malone had a couple big kicks when we really needed them. Reggie Bush had the long KO return, Eric Wright recovered a muffed fumble, all in all it was a good day for the special teams. On offense LenDale White ran well when given the opportunity and Matt Leinart had a solid, if not spectacular by his standards, game. Defensively we sacked Rodgers five times and never let him get any downfield throws. We give all due respect to the way Cal played and the type of excitement this game generated but the scoreboard will show the Trojans won and that's the reason you play. It's always great to see a game with such high drama but, make no mistake, it's so much better when you come out on the winning end.