USC-Cal takeaways: Trojans avoid disaster, defense steps up down the stretch

BERKELEY, Calif. — USC made its last trip to Berkeley as a member of the Pac-12 this weekend and will return with its league title hopes still intact — barely.

Cal led USC by 14 in the fourth quarter before the Trojans stormed back — with the help of some critical miscues by the Bears — and left Memorial Stadium with a 50-49 victory.

Here are some immediate takeaways from USC’s win.

Defense implodes … then recovers

Make no mistake, much of USC’s defensive performance was a disaster. Cal ripped off big play after big play. Quarterback Fernando Mendoza had a career day. Standout running back Jaydn Ott rushed for scores of 43 and 61 yards in the first quarter, which set the tone for the defense’s bad day.

In the first half, Cal scored 28 points, which helped it build an 11-point lead, and averaged 9.8 yards per play. The offense had 43 points early in the fourth quarter.

But USC’s defense came up with some critical stops after that and put the offense in a position where it could mount a comeback. No stop was bigger than the incompletion the defense forced on Cal’s two-point attempt to take the lead with 58 seconds remaining.

On the drives before that, the defense forced a critical incompletion on a fourth down, which allowed USC to take the lead. It also forced a critical punt and a fumble.

Is USC’s defense good enough? Undoubtedly not. It’s scary to think about what Oregon or Washington will do against this team. But it was good enough to keep USC’s title hopes intact for now. We’ll see how much more shelf life those aspirations have after the schedule enters its toughest stretch.

The offensive rally

USC started fast on offense with 17 first-quarter points. It’s slowed down a bit in the second and third quarters and was stuck at 29 points early in the fourth quarter.

Thanks to some big plays from running MarShawn Lloyd, the Trojans exploded for 21 points in the fourth. Lloyd had catches or runs of 16, 53 and 56 yards in that final period.

He finished with 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns and three receptions for 72 yards. He was the most critical piece of the Trojans’ rally.

Pac-12 refs

USC faced a fourth-and-11 from the Cal 45 with 12 seconds left in the first half. Caleb Williams scrambled around, which took plenty of time off the clock. Eventually, he found tight end Lake McRee for a 29-yard gain down to the Cal 16. When McRee was tackled, it looked as though time had expired.

The refs seemed to agree and both teams ran into the locker room. But USC coach Lincoln Riley remained on the field and discussed the situation with the officials. Cal coach Justin Wilcox eventually ran out of the locker room and clearly was not pleased with the developments.

The Cal band was on the field when the official verdict came in: After halftime was over, USC would get the ball at the Cal 16 with one second left in the second quarter. It was another egregious mistake from a Pac-12 crew.

USC kicker Denis Lynch lined up for the 33-yard field goal attempt when both teams reconvened some 20 minutes later … then Wilcox called a timeout.

Lynch finally attempted the kick and missed.

Just an incredibly sloppy situation on so many levels.

What’s next?

USC’s final three games of the season are vs. Washington, at Oregon and vs. UCLA. Cal was supposed to be the Trojans’ easiest remaining opponent, and it obviously turned out to be a struggle.

Through six games, the Trojans were 6-0 and ranked 10th nationally. A loss at Cal would’ve made it fair to wonder whether they’d win another game. It’s still very plausible they finish the season with three straight losses.

USC displayed good resolve to come back and win this game. Just like it did to come back and nearly win against Utah. It’ll need more than good resolve in the coming weeks.

(Photo of Caleb Williams: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

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