All About The Coaching: Cal’s improbable 15-14 upset win over USC rooted in strategy and adjustments

By Morris Phillips

How to end a 14-game losing streak in 60 easy steps. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is.

What isn’t complicated is this: Normally stoic Cal head coach Justin Wilcox richly deserved to cut it all the way loose with his emphatic gesturing as his Bears put the finishing touches on their improbable comeback win at USC Saturday night.

And USC coach Clay Helton might want to skip listening to sports radio on his lengthier than usual drive home after the game.

Wilcox’s Bears ended their 14-game losing streak to USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum with a performance that was literally all over the place. But regardless of the methods, Wilcox predicted it, scripted it and willed it, giving creedence to his mandate that his football team win at least six games this season and go bowling for the first time since 2015.

“I appreciate what it means to be bowl-eligible. It’s hard to win in this conference and it’s hard to win at USC,” Wilcox said. “It’s a big deal for all the Cal Bears out there.”

To make it happen, Cal played dead in the first half, came roaring back into the game in the third quarter, and stay focused–if not productive–to seal the deal in the fourth.

Firstly, kick returner Ashtyn Davis flubbed the opening kickoff, briefly losing the ball, only to recover it at the three-yard line with a knee on the turf where he was ruled down. On the first play from scrimmage, Patrick Laird was dropped after a 2-yard gain, and Chase Garbers threw a pair of incomplete passes, forcing Cal to punt.

Inauspicious start for the Bears? Yes. It would continue.

Confident that it could key on Laird, and stop the Cal receivers in their tracks, the Trojans defense shined in the first half, limiting the Bears to three first downs and 60 yards in total offense. Meanwhile, USC would recover from failing to capitalize on excellent field position afforded by Cal’s poor first position. After seeing a fake field goal turned pass to the kicker blow up in playcaller Helton’s face, the Trojans stayed patient, scoring touchdowns on two of their four second quarter possessions to lead 14-0 at the half.

Helton, who assumed play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin following back-to-back losses in the final two games in October, dialed up a pair of touchdowns that overcame the absences of reveiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Stephen Carr. With quarterback J.T. Daniels back from missing a game due to a concussion, the Trojans functioned admirally. After Daniels 23-yard pass to Tyler Vaughns for a touchdown, USC led 14-0 with more than half of the second quarter to go.

But things would change dramatically in the third quarter when a snap over Daniels’ head would result in a safety with Aca’Cedric Ware recovering the ball in the end zone with a pair of Cal defenders in proximity for a possible touchdown. The Bears trailed 14-2 at that point.

But superior field position would set up Cal’s first touchdown, and Traveon Beck’s interception would set up Cal’s second touchdown. After Garbers scampered in from five yards out, the Bears led 15-14 with time remaining in the third.

Over Cal’s next three possessions–all in the fourth quarter–Cal would run just 12 plays and gain 36 yards, jeopardizing their lightning rally in the third. But Cal’s defense made it work, coming up with a pair of sacks and timely pass breakups to keep the Trojans sinking in mud. As soon as USC reached midfield and approaching position for a lead-changing field goal try, Evan Weaver would come up with a sack of Daniels to force a punt.

Weaver would record a game-best 12 tackles and a second sack on USC’s previous possession.

With Cal needing first downs to bleed out the clock, they did just that, running 10 plays that evaporated the game’s final 4:50, and setting off a wild celebration on the Cal sideline while the majority of the Coliseum fell silent.

The Bears improved to 6-4 with games at home against Stanford and Colorado remaining that could turn Cal’s season from encouraging to extraordinary.

Meanwhile, the Trojans again blew a lead, falling to 5-5, and increasing the chatter across Southern California that Helton should be fired. If the Trojans can’t beat UCLA next week and/or Notre Dame after Thanksgiving, the rumblings will grow even louder.

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