Once again, the Trojans took a multi-score lead into the half. Once again, USC blew it in the remaining 30 minutes.
In a 15-14 loss to Cal on Saturday at the Coliseum, the tables turned after the Trojans allowed a safety following a high snap by senior center Toa Lobendahn at the 22-yard line. With the momentum in its favor, Cal posted 15 unanswered points to knock the Trojans out of Pac-12 championship contention.
“A center’s going to have a bad snap every now and then,” freshman quarterback JT Daniels said. “Toa would give his life for me, and I really love Toa to death.”
Head coach Clay Helton was still optimistic about the remainder of the season.
“I’m not going to get over-emotional and say the ship is sinking,” Helton said. “We’ve got two games left in the regular season with the opportunity to compete for the Victory Bell and the Shillelagh.”
The loss snapped the Trojans’ 14-game winning streak over the Bears, which dated back to 2003.
“We all hate losing, I hate losing,” freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “Not used to it, but we have to turn things around.”
Following the safety, Cal posted a three-play, 50-yard drive, capped off by a 29-yard touchdown pass to redshirt wide receiver Vic Wharton to shorten the Trojans lead to 14-9, just minutes after the Bears were trailing 14-0.
But Cal’s momentum didn’t stop there. On USC’s ensuing possession, the Bears’ defense came up with an 8-yard sack, which paved the way for an interception to once again grant Cal possession.
The Bears spent the next nine plays fighting for 40 yards to earn their third touchdown of the night and steal the lead from the Trojans.
USC’s first half performance was reminiscent of that against Oregon State.
“We were making some critical first downs in the first half,” Helton said. “[We] just didn’t make them in that third quarter especially.”
The Trojans drew first blood to close the first quarter following a 44-yard rush from senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware. It would take the Trojans three plays to score on a pass to redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns from point-blank.
Halfway through the second quarter, USC edged out a 14-0 lead. Cal redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Garbers kept the ball for 23 yards, but redshirt senior cornerback Ajene Harris negated the gain with a strip that put the ball back in the Trojans’ hands. The fumble recovery set the Trojans up to overcome a fourth-and-6 situation to ultimately have freshman quarterback JT Daniels find Vaughns for his second touchdown of the night.
The Trojans took the two-score-lead into the half, but that was the last they would see of it.
“We just got to come out of the second half with a little bit more fire,” senior linebacker Cam Smith said. “Not be complacent and content with where we’re at. We’ve got to finish this game.”
With three minutes remaining, what appeared to be a defensive stop on third down by USC wound up being a Cal first down after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on senior cornerback Iman Marshall.
The Bears notched the final first down on a handoff to redshirt senior running back Patrick Laird to finish the game.
The Trojans’ loss eliminated the team from Pac-12 championship contention and drops their record to 5-5. USC will travel to Pasadena to face crosstown rival UCLA next week in the Trojans’ final Pac-12 matchup of the season.