By Morris Phillips
Coach Sonny Dykes turned 44 Saturday, but admitted during this time of the year, football coaches don’t celebrate anniversaries, holidays or birthdays. So when asked, Cal’s coach said his team’s dismal showing on the field didn’t add to or subtract from the occasion.
Jackson Bouza played his last game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, and despite the 62-28 loss to USC and his Bears’ 1-9 record, he remained resolute: he wouldn’t change anything about his four years at Cal.
And Jared Goff—as best as he can—is moving on after throwing for the least impactful 255 yards and three touchdowns one can imagine. With equally-hapless Colorado up next on the schedule, Goff said he’ll be ready, regardless of what transpired with the Trojans.
What normally is a big game with USC was anything but on Saturday for Cal. Instead, it was hard to watch, hard to play in, and even harder to explain afterwards. The Bears snuck back into the game briefly at 21-14 in the second quarter, only to experience an avalanche of USC points that left them trailing 55-14 midway through the third quarter and well on their way to an eighth straight loss.
Given that backdrop, Dykes, Bouza and Goff deserve all the credit for attempting to put a hopeful spin on their dire situation. But that they did in the postgame interview room with all three steadfastly maintaining that better days are ahead for Cal football.
“In a weird sort of way, the experience they have gotten this year and the hard luck will help our team respond faster,” Dykes said. “We are going to get this thing right, I don’t have a doubt in my mind. I feel more strongly about that right now than I did December 5th when I was hired.”
But before the Bears can prepare for a feast, they might have to—even privately–come to grips with how they got so hungry in the first place.
The Bears haven’t won a game against a Divison I opponent in over a year. They’ve lost all but one game this season by at least 14 points, and have routinely fallen behind from the start. On Saturday, USC’s Javorius Allen blew through the Cal defense for 43-yard touchdown run, and the Trojans had a 21-0 lead over Cal before the first quarter had expired.
Injuries and inexperience are hurting Cal more than anything. That continued on Saturday when middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson was felled by a foot injury. Nickerson, himself just a redshirt freshmen, had been counted on to call the defensive signals and get the Cal defenders in the right alignment pre-snap. Without him, that job fell to true freshman Chad Whitener, and the Bears’ defense suffered as USC averaged nearly nine yards per carry, and saw maligned quarterback Cody Kessler have an error-free game.
“We missed a lot of checks, and rolled the coverage the wrong way several times,” Dykes said when asked about Nickerson’s early exit. “We got out of position as a result, and when you get out of position, you are trying to recover, and when you are trying to recover, you are diving a people’s legs and it looks bad.”
For Cal, with injuries and inexperience commonplace—Dykes reminded everyone that only three seniors have places among Cal’s top 44 players—capable special teams are still supposed to be a given. That’s one of Dykes’ hallmarks along with his high-octane pass attack. Dykes explained that his Louisiana Tech teams always excelled on punt and kickoff coverage, and here at Cal, he starts several practices each week with special teams’ drills.
Ah, special teams can save the day. Just not on Saturday.
First the Bears allowed Nelson Agholor to return a punt 75 yards for a score less than two minutes into the game. Then USC’s Soma Vainuku blocked a punt in the second quarter that teammate Josh Shaw returned 14 yards for a 35-14 Trojans’ lead. Just a couple minutes after that, Agholor struck again, this time with a 93-yard punt return.
Goff gamely attempted to keep his team in the game, and got a big assist from emerging freshman receiver Kenny Lawler, who has caught five touchdown passes in two games. But Goff plays in a high risk, high reward system that so far hasn’t reaped many rewards. Once again, the Bears couldn’t strike deep, and Goff had to look short. So while Goff chucked it downfield 52 times, he only had 255 yards passing. When the turnovers and sacks are factored in (and on Saturday the Bears had just one sack, and no interceptions) Goff’s five-yard average per pass attempt just isn’t high rewards enough for a major college team to have success.
With the loss, the Bears haven’t beaten USC since the epic triple-overtime win in 2003. The Bears hadn’t surrendered as many as 62 points to the Trojans since the 1930’s. And yes, three punt return touchdowns for USC ties an NCAA record and equals a Pac-12 conference record that stood unmatched since 1954.
Next week, the Bears travel to Boulder to face Colorado, which probably will be Cal’s last opportunity for a win this season with No. 4 Stanford after that in the season finale.