LOS ANGELES, CA- Leading 14-0 on the third play of the second half, a bad snap sent redshirt freshman quarterback JT Daniels and the USC offense backward 22 yards into their own endzone for a safety. The second half downward spiral began with the safety and continued for USC, as the Trojans gave up 15 unanswered second half points for their second loss in three games, 15-14 at the hands of Cal.
“It wasn’t one person that lost the game,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. He added, “we made too many mistakes across the board.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Garbers guided Cal to their first win against USC since 2003, tossing for 93 yards and collecting two touchdowns (one passing and one rushing). Redshirt senior running back Patrick Laird gained 72 rushing yards on 19 attempts.
Daniels completed 21 of his 34 passes, gained 180 yards and finished with two touchdowns. Redshirt sophomore receiver Tyler Vaughns led the Trojans with eight catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
Trailing 14-2 after the safety, Cal kept momentum on their side. The Golden Bears left their offensive struggles in the first half and came out swinging throughout the third quarter. Garbers dropped a 29-yard touchdown dime to Vic Wharton III, four plays into Cal’s first possession of second half action. Daniels made his first mistake of the night on USC’s next possession, throwing a costly interception to junior Golden Bears’ cornerback Traveon Beck.
Garbers responded with a nine-play, 40-yard scoring drive to give Cal their first lead of the game. The redshirt freshman ran past the pylon from five yards out to put the Golden Bears ahead 15-14, nearly halfway through the third quarter. A two-point conversion attempt failed, keeping Cal’s lead at one point.
Late in the first quarter with no score, Garbers had completed six straight passes. From his own 16 yard line, the Bears’ quarterback escaped past the USC defensive line and bursted up the middle of the field for an apparent touchdown. Cal was flagged for offensive holding, however, nullifying yet another potential momentum-swinging play.
The Trojans struck fast in response to another Cal three-and-out. Ware blasted for a 44-yard gain down inside the Golden Bears’ six yard-line and Daniels fired a two-yard touchdown pass to Vaughns three players later, giving USC a 7-0 second quarter lead.
As the second quarter winded down, USC stayed hot offensively. Two Daniels’ completions to Vaughns (23 yards) and tight end Josh Falo (24 yards) set the Trojans up deep inside Cal territory. A five-yard Amon-Ra St. Brown catch and run resulted in a fumble, however, as USC lost possession to end the first half.
USC’s third quarter offensive struggles only worsened. The Trojans found little rhythm and punted on fourth and two as the third quarter drew to a close. A tale of two very different halves continued for the USC offense during the fourth quarter. Two possessions into the final quarter, Daniels suffered a 10-yard sack on third and eight.
Senior Trojans cornerback Iman Marshall picked up a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a crucial third down with just inside 3:30 remaining in the game. Laird picked up a game-winning, 14-yard first down run on fourth and one.
Action kicked off to a rather peculiar start, as Cal kick returner Ashtyn Davis called for a fair catch and dropped the ball. Cal started their first drive pinned down at the three yard-line and suffered a quick three-and-out as a result.
To follow, USC started on the opposing 48 and drove inside the 25 yard-line. Redshirt sophomore kicker Michael Brown came out to attempt what appeared to be a manageable field goal attempt for the Trojans. Instead, Brown took the snap and tried to pick up the first down himself on a fake field goal play, but lost two yards.
Four plays into Cal’s next possession, Moe Ways caught a Garbers pass but was immediately stripped by Jonathan Lockett. John Houston picked up the fumble for USC, but officials decided to review the play. Upon further review, it was determined Ways knee was down before losing the football and Cal kept possession at the 50 yard-line. The Golden Bears failed to capitalize on the second chance, however, as their drive ended with Garbers being sacked on third down.
After trading three-and-outs with USC, the Golden Bears relinquished another big first half offensive opportunity. Garbers picked up 29 yards on the ground but fumbled it away to Jordan Iosefa. USC took over at the 49 yard-line and took advantage of Cal’s second first half turnover. Daniels led a four play, 50-yard touchdown drive in just 1:53 to extend USC’s advantage (14-0 with 7:29 remaining in the first half).
“We made enough mistakes to stop drives,” Helton said. He added, “We had 74 snaps tonight and 73 of them were perfect.”
USC falls to 4-4 in Pac-12 competition, 5-5 overall. The Trojans were out-gained on the ground, 114 to 97, including a negative three-yard rushing performance for the third quarter. USC gained the edge in passing yards (180 to 93) and first downs (18 to 11), but lost the fourth quarter time of possession battle by more than two minutes.
The Trojans have two major games remaining, at UCLA next week (11/17) and hosting No. 3 Notre Dame (11/24) to finish the 2018 season. “We can’t play based off what our record is,” senior inside linebacker Cam Smith said. He added, “For me, it’s not about what our record is. We have to go out there and play our game of football. I think we’re better than we played tonight.”
Cal improves to 6-4 on the season, 3-4 in Pac-12 action. After nearly beating No. 8 Washington State last weekend in Pullman and shocking USC, the Golden Bears have major momentum heading into their final two games of 2018 (Stanford and Colorado).