Key mistakes haunt USC football in season finale loss to Cal

The Donte Williams era came to a close in the Trojans’ first loss in Berkeley since 2003.

A photo of a Cal defender in a gold helmet, blue jersey and gold pants diving to tackle USC running back Vavae Malepeai, wearing a cardinal helmet, white jersey and gold pants and carrying a football.

The final game of a tumultuous 2021 season for the USC Trojans football team ended in one last disappointing defeat. USC lost its season finale 24-14 to the California Golden Bears, its first loss to Cal in Berkeley since 2003, to finish the year with a record of 4-8.

While Cal held a lead as large as 17 points in the fourth quarter and a double-digit lead for the entirety of the second half, this game was not as lopsided as those scores would indicate. The Trojans outgained the Golden Bears offensively 409 to 265, recording almost 60 more rushing yards and almost 90 more passing yards than their opponents. This game was less competitive on the scoreboard due to a series of critical mistakes in key situations.

On Cal’s first drive of the evening, redshirt senior quarterback Chase Garbers drove his unit down into the red zone, only for the USC defense to stall the drive at the 8-yard line, leading to a field goal attempt. Redshirt junior kicker Dario Longhetto’s kick clanked off the right upright for an unsuccessful try, but freshman defensive tackle Max Gibbs jumped offsides before the snap. The penalty gave Cal another chance at a shorter field goal, which Longhetto drilled, putting the Trojans in an early 3-0 deficit.

Freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart responded in the second quarter, when he found sophomore receiver Kyle Ford while scrambling out of the pocket for a 45-yard score to give USC its only lead of the game. On the very next drive, Cal regained the lead with an eight-play, 79-yard scoring drive capped off by a one-yard touchdown run from senior running back Christopher Brooks.

The Trojans were again driving on their next possession, but sophomore running back Darwin Barlow coughed up the football at midfield, leading to a 55-yard scoop-and-score for senior safety Elijah Hicks. The fumble was the second mistake the team made that led directly to points for the Golden Bears in a game they then trailed by two scores.

“I’m unhappy with the result of the game,” head coach Donte Williams said postgame. “You come out here, you miss two field goals, you fumble twice, you don’t capitalize in the red zone. You just do little things that — which a team that is going to be well-coached like Cal is, and be disciplined and kind of grind you out — it’s way too many mistakes that lead to the outcome of that game, which is a loss.”

In one of its best performances of the season, USC’s defense kept the game in reach for most of the second half. Cal had only 30 yards of offense in the third quarter and punted the ball on its first three possessions after the halftime break. Late in the third, Dart again had his offense poised for a scoring drive, taking USC into the red zone for the first time all night. But Dart was knocked out of the game after taking a hard hit while scrambling for extra yardage, and freshman Miller Moss came in for his first prolonged action as USC’s signal-caller. Facing fourth-and-2 from the Cal 3-yard line, Williams aggressively decided to go for the touchdown down 10. Whatever play was called did not work out as intended, as the snap bounced off the leg of senior tight end Erik Krommenhoek, who was in motion, and the Trojans turned the ball over on downs.

USC later reached the red zone with one final opportunity to keep the game close, but Moss lost the ball on a strip sack from redshirt senior safety Daniel Scott to halt the drive once again.

Cal scored an insurance touchdown on another rushing touchdown from Brooks late in the fourth, and USC could not put points on the board again until the final two minutes of the game, when Moss connected with redshirt senior receiver K.D. Nixon for Moss’ first collegiate touchdown. Moss finished 8-for-13 for 74 yards, with that lost fumble.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Moss said. “You work so long and so hard for a certain moment, and sometimes you feel like that’s never gonna happen, so it was really good to be out there and there’s really nothing like being out there, so that was a good experience.”

Other than the defense, which allowed fewer than 20 points as a unit for just the fourth time this season, one positive for the Trojans was the rushing attack. Redshirt senior Vavae Malepeai averaged almost six yards per carry for a running game that churned out 144 yards on the ground. Freshman Brandon Campbell was another bright spot, averaging four yards per carry on nine attempts, including a 13-yard run, in his first significant game action this season.

While this game can be seen as an appropriate end to a year full of frustration for the storied program, it also represents the final game before major changes occur for the team as a whole. It was Donte Williams’ last game as the Trojans’ head coach, before Lincoln Riley takes over in preparation for 2022. At this point, Williams’ future at USC remains uncertain, although that future seemed to be the last thing on his mind in an emotional postgame press conference.

“To be honest, I haven’t even thought about that right now,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of people that are hurt. For me to talk about my future, that is selfish, and one thing I am not is a selfish person.”

However things may shake out this offseason, there will almost certainly be plenty of optimism about the program’s future as USC football closes the book on a tumultuous 2021 season.