Five observations: Cal vs. USC


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By Ted Lee
Posted Oct 31, 2015
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2015

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Darius Powe/(photo by Douglas Zimmerman/
Five observations from Cal's 27-21 loss to USC.


  1. The offense has hit a wall.

During the latter part of the 2014 season, the likeliness of the Bears winning any game depended largely on whether the defense would be able to stop surrendering points and yards long enough to give the offense a shot at winning the game. Now, in 2015, everything's reversed. The defense has been playing much better – whether it's surrendering fewer big plays, limiting opposing possessions that start with short fields to just field goals, and up until lately, causing momentum shifts with turnovers. But lately they've faced an increase challenge because not only is the offense not as productive, they're also causing turnovers.

Against USC, Cal's opening drive gained 36 yards in three plays but ended in a fumble by Khalfani Muhammad. In the third quarter, a long USC touchdown drive was immediately followed by an interception for a touchdown, and in the fourth quarter, the Bears made it as far as the Trojan 30 before having that possession end in another interception.

This is due to a couple of things – the most obvious is an increase in the class of the opposition. Head coach Sonny Dykes alluded to this in his postgame comments, the difference in opposition matters. But not only is it the increase in the quality of the opposition, opposing defenses also now have several games of video to review.

Early in the year, the Bears could run the slant to Kenny Lawler as a go-to play. Teams are trying to take that away – UCLA was very successful in not just taking that away, but causing turnovers. The Bears continue to have success with the left-side bubble screen to Trevor Davis, but teams will start looking to take that away as well.

With a healthy Lasco bolstering the run game – the Bears will be better suited to run more effectively. And while Oregon/Oregon State/Stanford might not sound appreciatively easier that Utah/UCLA/USC – the Ducks are having defensive problems, while the Beavers are having everywhere problems, so the offense may find slightly easier going.

The other issue is depth. Even with a bye week, teams are starting to get beat up – and this shows up in the second half. In the second half, when the Bears needed a couple of defensive stops, USC ran the ball 31 times for 98 yards. While Cal did manage to get one three-and-out, albeit with the help of a holding penalty, they weren't ever able to show that they were generally getting the best of USC during the second half.

While the Bears were able to run the ball early and keep Goff from getting hit as much as he has in recent weeks, the offense was very rarely at the point where they were attacking downfield with the defense on their back foot – and they were facing a USC team that's given up more than 40 points twice this season.

  1. All losses aren't alike.

Now at the end of the season, 7-5 is 7-5, whether all five losses are by one point each or by 35 points each. Eventually it might matter to a bowl committee or somebody trying to pick a top 25 for the next year. But in looking at Cal this season compared to last, it's easy to see that Cal went 1-6 during the last seven games of last season and are 0-3 thus far into the last seven games of this season and assume that everything's really about the

Last season at this point, the Bears were 4-4, this year they're 5-3. Last year, Cal opened with the softer part of their schedule and wilted against tougher opposition. This year, it's been pretty much the same.

However, in games six, seven and eight of last season, the Bears lost by 24 to Washington, 2 to UCLA, and 18 to Oregon. In games six, seven, and eight of this season, Cal's lost by six to Utah, 16 to UCLA, and 6 to USC.

Additionally, in 2014, two of Cal's wins were nailbiters over Colorado and Washington State, two of the weakest teams in the Pac-12. This season, the Bears don't play Colorado or Arizona – who along with Oregon State are probably t he three weakest teams in the Pac-12.

Now the contrary view is that the Bears slipped against UCLA going from losing by two to losing by 16, and that it's still to be determined whether Cal can improve upon an 18-point loss to Oregon and a 21-point loss to Stanford.

But in the grand scheme of things, it's easier to be more optimistic about the future of Cal football and its ability to compete with good teams than it was a year ago. While talent upgrades on the offensive and defensive line would certainly help the Bears take the next step up; they're a long way from where they were in 2013 when they closed out the season with losses of 39, 22, 27, 32, 24, 5, 34, 17, and 50 points.

The Bears are at the point where they can compete with top 25 teams week after week, which isn't something anybody would have been all that confident about last season.

3. Goff is losing a little bit of his luster


It's easy to be jaded after watching his play during the past couple of seasons – but in the lead-up to the Utah game, you didn't have to go far without bumping into stories about how Goff was not just a top prospect for the upcoming NFL draft but was even a candidate to be the top pick overall. Since then, he's had a couple of games under the spotlight and has yet to have the signature game that would get those who write about such things to label him the Boss Hogg of the upcoming NFL draft class.

He had the five interceptions against Utah, a rough game against UCLA, and two dubious interceptions against USC. On the first pass, he made the right read in seeing an open Bryce Treggs running up the seam, but the ball was short and behind him and was intercepted. There was some discussion in the press box afterwards about whether Goff's arm was actually hit or he just threw a duck.

On the second one, Kenny Lawler ran directly towards the defensive back and there appeared to be contact. It's not clear that Lawler was ever actually open on the play, but the contact threw Lawler off and Kevon Seymour was able to step up and make the interception.

But that's not to say that it's all going south on Goff.

He did make a few throws that were magnificent. A couple of deep balls were likely going to be completions to Trevor Davis and Bryce Treggs, but USC's Chris Hawkins early contact likely saved the Trojans from lots of additional yards. On a 1st-and-10 from the Cal 20, he threw a deep ball to Treggs, leading him perfectly even though USC's Leon McQuay III was there on the coverage for a 43-yard gain.

In the second quarter, he had a 2nd down play where, he looked towards the left side towards Maurice Harris, took a quick glance to the right, and fired a 14-yard completion to Chad Hansen.

Perhaps the best throw was a 4th-and-6 pass from the USC 29, late in the 4th quarter. With the Trojans carefully guarding against slants, swing passes and short crosses, Darius Powe ran up the right seam. Goff had to throw it quickly to get it to Powe before the coverage could make the adjustment and Powe made a terrific leaping catch for a 29-yard gain. It's a play that would be considered risky on 4th down, but it needs a strong level of confidence and faith on the part of the quarterback and the receiver to make that play.

But if 23-for-31 and 272 is an off-day, that suggests that there's a whole lot left.

4. Ten minutes of agony

In terms of game time, it was 10 minutes, but in clock time it was much longer than that, and in football suffering time it was all of that plus some plus the 12 years it's been since Cal last beat USC.

During that 10 minutes, USC scored 17 points, gained 142 yards, while allowing Cal all of three plays – with two of them coming at the very tail end of the half. By the time this stretch ended, USC broke open a 7-7 tie and turned it into a 24-7 lead which the Bears would spend the rest of the game trying to dig itself out of.

First, the Trojans just about closed out the half with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that was finished with a 33-yard Alex Wood field goal. The Bears received the kickoff, attempted two plays and then halftime came.

USC then received the opening kickoff of the second half and went on a 13-play, 67-yard drive that ended in a two-yard Tre Madden touchdown when the Trojans elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Cal 2.

And on the first play after the kickoff, USC's Adoree Jackson intercepted a Goff pass and returned in 46 yards for a touchdown.

So there was a big chunk of time when Cal's offense wasn't on the field and couldn't be a factor. The Bears defense was stout enough that it didn't allow a quick strike, or a drive that was due largely to one big play. But it did allow the Trojan offensive line to assert itself with lighting up the scoreboard or putting up particularly impressive stats.

The Bears have had a lot of success with scoring drives towards the end of the first half, but they didn't get the ball until there were seven seconds left – and as good as Cal's offense is, hoping was a score within seven seconds would have been very optimistic.

Despite that, the Bears still fought back to the point that they were a defensive stop away from being in position to drive for the game-winning touchdown. For those who've followed Cal football for decades, one might argue that over time, the Bears have been in that situation an awful lot, particularly when they were an awful lot.

But when the defense is lining up, and the offense is waiting for that one chance; they can't be burdened with history. Maybe they might sense context within the course of the season; and certainly within the course of the game. All they can do is put themselves in a position where they can make plays – and by putting themselves in more positions – at some point they'll be successful with those plays.

  1. One to go.

While there are undoubtedly a number of ups and downs that the Bears will face during the final four games of the season, the Bears still need just one more win to be bowl eligible. Even if the win total jumps from last season's 2014 to this year's total which could go as high as nine but is probably more likely to be somewhere around seven, the win total won't matter so much as the chance to play in a bowl.

For one, it means more practice, which will give the team a head start going into the 2016 season.

Importantly, it helps validate the work that Sonny Dykes and his staff are doing to improve Cal's football fortunes. From taking the job following the 2012 season and not having very much to work and then laboring through a 1-11 season, to playing in the postseason – it's something that people probably anticipated might happen at some point, but nobody would know when. And especially considering how the 2012 season ended, with five straight losses by a total of 138 points in Jeff Tedford's final season, there had to be some wonder if Cal would ever be good again.

Of the games left of the schedule, the likeliest candidate for a victory is Oregon State. They've got quarterback issues, the defense struggles against anybody who's mildly above average and they don't have the firepower remotely close to any of the top teams the Bears have played. Plus the game will be in Berkeley.

Following that is likely the last home game of the season against Oregon State – the game following Thanksgiving that's always a little bit of an adventure.

Yet it's not out of the question that Cal could beat Oregon. While the Oregon offense is strong, it's not quite as potent as it's been the past few years with Marcus Mariota at the helm. This year's Cal defense managed to reasonably contain a USC offense that could have posed all sorts of problems. While they couldn't as many stops as they needed, they didn't get sliced apart by big plays.

On the flip side, regardless of the health of the Ducks' quarterbacks, Oregon' defense has struggled against almost everybody it's faced. In October, they surrendered 144 points, and none of those teams is in the Top 25. Their combined record is 16-14. And even though many of those points were late, the Bears scored 41 points against Oregon last year, the only team that scored more points against the Ducks last season Ohio State.

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