For a split second, California quarterback Zach Maynard almost made it close.
With the Golden Bears trailing USC 20-0 late in the second quarter, Maynard completed three straight passes, moving the ball down to the USC 10-yard line. On the next play, however, the junior signal caller’s pass was intercepted by freshman linebacker Dion Bailey, preserving the Trojans’ near three-touchdown lead heading into halftime.
“We had to come out and show everybody we’re not as bad a defense as everybody says we are,” Bailey said.
The Trojans’ defense forced five turnovers at California (3-3, 0-3), edging the host Golden Bears 30-9 in front of a crowd of 44,043 at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Before Thursday night’s contest, USC (5-1, 3-1) had forced just four turnovers in five games.
“If I was going to pick a way to win a game, I would rather win it this way because it instills confidence in our defense,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said.
The defense had appeared out of sync in recent weeks.
In the Trojans’ last two games, they allowed a combined 84 points. Against Cal, they surrendered just 329 total yards and one touchdown for a season-low nine points. It marked the first time since Nov. 28, 2009 — a 28-7 win over UCLA — that the Trojans held a team to less than 10 points in a game.
Though the Golden Bears’ oft-heralded receiving duo of Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones combined for 19 receptions for 249 yards, but bother were unable to haul in a touchdown pass.
“They’re a heck of a team coming in and we were nervous about their two receivers,” senior linebacker Chris Galippo said. “But we did a good job. If you turn the ball over that much, it’s really hard to win games.”
Cal did make a late third-quarter run similar to other second-half defensive struggles for USC against Arizona State and Arizona, where the Trojans were outscored in the final two quarters. Opening the third quarter with a 23-yard field goal from freshman kicker Andre Heidari, which ballooned its lead to 23 points, USC watched Cal respond with a field goal of its own followed by a three-yard touchdown run from Maynard.
Heidari connected on all three field attempts from 39 yards, 29 yards and 23 yards.
Despite cutting the Trojans’ lead to just two possessions, Maynard would watch Bailey intercept another pass midway through the fourth quarter. The turnover would set up a two-yard touchdown run from junior tailback Curtis McNeal that put the game largely out of reach.
“He’s playing really well,” Kiffin said of McNeal, who led the team in rushing on the night with 86 yards on 17 carries.
Collectively, however, USC’s offense looked much less potent than it did Oct. 1 at home against Arizona. Barkley, who broke the school single-game record for passing yards with 468 against the Wildcats, threw for just 195 yards Thursday and was not picked off.
“I played all right,” Barkley said of his performance. “Not good enough to win big games, but always something to improve upon.”
The junior signal caller — though throwing two touchdown passes — completed just 54 percent of his passes, his lowest completion percentage of any game of the season thus far.
“Just the little things were off,” he said. “I either put too much air under it or not enough.”
The Trojans, even while jumping out to an early lead, finished with just 313 yards of total offense and were outgained by Cal, which finished with 329 yards of total offense.
Yet, it was the third fewest yards the defense has given up this season — it gave up 302 against Minnesota and 319 against Utah.
“We’re not happy with how the game went, but we’re 5-1, so you have to remember that too,” Kiffin said.
The Trojans, who travel to South Bend, Ind., this weekend to face Notre Dame, winner of four straight since opening the season 0-2, remain content — at least somewhat — with five wins halfway through the season.
“It’s huge,” Barkley said. “You kind of feel bad because of our performance today, but when you look at the scores, you’ll see we won by three scores, the defense played awesome and that we are 5-1.”
Coupled with Arizona State’s 41-27 loss at Oregon on Saturday night, the Trojans, at 3-1 in conference play, are tied for first in the Pac-12 South with the Sun Devils.