By Morris Phillips
The not-so carefully orchestrated clash of athletics and academics heaped upon the Cal Bears at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday created a not-so pretty result.
The Bears–preoccupied by mid-term exams and overwhelmed by the Trojans—suffered through a rough evening under the microscope of national television, losing 45-24 to USC.
Just six days after the Bears set an FBS record by running 118 offensive plays in their double overtime win over Oregon, they weren’t anywhere near where they needed to be to deal with resurgent USC and their redshirt freshman quarterback, Sam Darnold. The tight scheduling irked Coach Sonny Dykes, and Darnold brought Dykes’ fears to life, leading the Trojans to an early, 21-0 lead from which they wouldn’t look back.
“We tried to get them as fresh as we possibly could,” Coach Sonny Dykes explained, noting that the Bears practiced in pads just once in preparation for the Trojans, but conceded that while it may have made his team fresher physically, they were far less rehearsed than he would have preferred.
In addition, Cal players had to take and prepare for midterms this week, after missing class last week in preparation for Oregon, and again this week for their trip to Los Angeles.
Add injuries (41 Cal players reportedly missed at least one practice this week) including the absence of standout receiver Chad Hansen, limited practice time, and the fact that USC had eight more days of preparation time than Cal, and you start to understand how the Bears appeared so flat in the early stages of the game.
According to San Jose Mercury News reporter Jon Wilner, there had never been a meeting of Pac-12 football teams where one team had eight more days of prep time than their opponent. When asked Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said that while Cal’s consecutive weekday games were unusual, they did fit into the parameters for scheduling agreed upon by the member schools’ athletic directors before the season. But Scott also said, Cal’s situation would cause the conference to revisit the subject.
While Dykes continued his criticism of the Pac-12 in his postgame press conference, quarterback Davis Webb did not. Webb refused to jump on questions regarding preparation time, and he declined to throw receiver Demetris Robertson under the bus, whose first quarter drop of a deep pass that likely would have resulted in a touchdown had it been caught, contributed to Cal’s early, three-touchdown deficit.
“We moved some receivers around this week on a short week,” Webb said. “That’s the thing we had to deal with because of our injuries. That’s the cards we got dealt. We didn’t play very well with it tonight. It starts with me.”
Webb finished 33 of 53 for 333 yards and two touchdowns, and briefly had the Bears in a competitive spot, down 28-17 early in the third quarter. But USC’s offense was granted way too many favors by Cal’s leaky run defense that surrendered 223 yards and two touchdowns to Ronald Jones II alone.
Jones got started early with his 61-yard scamper that set up USC’s second, first quarter touchdown. And Jones’ big runs were littered across all four of the Trojans’ first half scoring drives. After Jones gashed Cal early, Aca’Cedric Ware took it from there, finishing with 120 yards rushing himself.
In all, USC rushed for 398 yards, eclipsing the numbers Texas and Oregon State put up in their turns against Cal’s porous run defense.
We’ve got to tackle better,” Dykes said. “It’s up to us to teach your guys how to tackle. If we don’t play well, then we didn’t coach well.”
Darnold ate Cal up through the air as well as the young quarterback appears to be a star in the making for the Trojans with his size, ability to throw, and decision making. Juju Smith-Schuster was a favorite target of Darnold, compiling 66 yards receiving and 25 yards rushing.
The Bears got 89 yards rushing from Khalfani Muhammad, and Robertson recovered from his early drop to grab nine passes for 92 yards. Hansen missed his second straight game, but the Bears are expecting their biggest threat to return for the Washington game on November 5.
The Bears are the only team in FBS to not win—or lose—two consecutive games this season. At 4-4, Cal’s biggest opportunity comes against Washington, the undefeated leader in the Pac-12 North race to the conference championship game.