Four takeaways from USC’s win against Cal

It wasn’t complacency. Travis Dye warned about this particular roadblock a few weeks ago. What the USC running back witnessed after USC’s unexpectedly narrow 41-35 win over California on Saturday was different.


“We’re just not playing to our full potential,” said Dye, who had 98 yards on ground and one touchdown to extend his winning streak to eight straight games. “And it’s there. We’re a hair away, a third away, a stopover away, a catch away from just blowing teams out.”

What seemed like a mismatch on paper became a one-ball game as USC’s offense faltered and its defense put in another uneven performance. The team, poised for a record-breaking turnaround at the start of the year under first-year coach Lincoln Riley, is now struggling through the mid-season crap.

Here are four takeaways from USC’s win:

Third down difference

USC linebackers Tuasivi Nomura and Shane Lee attempt to tackle a Cal player

USC linebacker Tuasivi Nomura (bottom), linebacker Shane Lee (center) and defenseman Bryson Shaw (left) pursue Cal running back Jaydn Ott at the Coliseum Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

USC (8-1, 6-1 Pac-12) came on as the second-best third-down offense in the country, converting 54.7% of third-down attempts, but it was Cal, one of the worst third-down Try. downed teams in the country who won the key fight on Saturday.

The Bears, who converted 34.8% of their third down tries before Saturday, kept the chains moving on eight of 15 third downs against USC, their highest conversion percentage of the season against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. Meanwhile, USC connected on just five of 12 third-down attempts.

Linebacker Shane Lee lamented that he allowed easy third-and-short situations, but it was Cal (3-6, 1-5) who had a longer third-down distance ahead of him than USC. Even with an average gain of 8.6 yards on third downs compared to USC’s 6.8, the Bears converted on three out of six tries for nine or more yards while USC closed the chains in just one out of four third-and-long situations moved. Cal quarterback Jack Plummer finished third on 12 of 13 passes and finished for 406 yards and three touchdowns on 35 of 49 passes.

Caleb Williams, who had 360 yards and four touchdowns with a rushing score, was just two to eight on the third down but used his legs to convert the most important try of the day. He rushed for 15 yards in third and fifth with a 2:11 in the fourth quarter to help USC time out.

Defense sluggish

The Bears celebrate as Cal receiver Monroe Young meets

The Bears react as Cal receiver Monroe Young scores a two-point conversion attempt against USC in the fourth quarter Saturday at the Coliseum.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

It would have had to be a favorable matchup for a reviled defense to get their swagger back, but after Cal rallied 469 yards and had his second-best shooting game of the season, USC’s defense is still looking for answers.

The Trojans gave up 500 yards in consecutive games for the first time since 2013 and flirted with a third straight 500-yard game against a team that averaged 23.4 points and 374.5 yards per game. USC showed promising flashes, recovering from an opening 76-yard touchdown drive and allowing just 88 yards for the rest of the first half.

But small mistakes — a blown cover, a missed tackle, an endzone penalty that nullified a third stop and led to a touchdown on the next game — piled up, allowing Cal to draw twice within a touchdown.

“When you give a team momentum like that, you’re kind of asking them to capitalize on it,” Riley said. “Then they did it.”

Special teams

USC coach Lincoln Riley checks his playing card during the Trojans' win over Cal

USC coach Lincoln Riley checks his playing card during the Trojans’ win over Cal at the Coliseum on Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

When asked about the performance of USC’s special teams on Saturday, Riley shrugged.

“Some good and some bad,” said the coach.

The good ones included a blocked extra point from Nick Figueroa and an Austin Jones tackle on the kickoff return that pinned Cal’s offense to his own eight-yard line. Riley noticed a recovered onside kick that eventually thwarted Cal’s comeback attempt.

But that moment of exhalation wouldn’t have been necessary if the Trojans hadn’t already botched an onside kick attempt that allowed Cal to steal momentum and move within possession. Riley said it looked like the Trojans were in position in the game but just didn’t recapture the ball, leaving the Bears, who had just completed a 92-yard touchdown drive, on the field. USC also had a bad snap in the first quarter with an extra point and Aadyn Sleep-Dalton punched five times without knocking down one inside the 20 yard line.

watch scoreboard

USC quarterback Caleb Williams holds the ball while surrounded by opponents.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams remains in the bag looking for an open receiver against Cal at the Coliseum on Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

USC didn’t need the clock to hit triple zeros to secure a win on Saturday night.

The Trojans got some help from Notre Dame and No. 10 Louisiana State, the No. 4 Clemson or No. 6 upset Alabama. With two losses, the defending champion Crimson Tide has practically been eliminated from the playoff picture. Clemson may remain in contention as a one-loss ACC champion, but a one-loss Pac-12 champion, whether it’s Oregon, USC or UCLA, may be more desirable.

After years of being eliminated from the playoffs, the Pac-12 had five teams in the first CFP rankings, the most of any conference with the SEC and ACC. But the Pac-12 has two teams — No. 8 Oregon and No. 9 USC — in the top 10 and four in the top 15 (UCLA at 12 and Utah at 14), compared to the ACC, which has four teams at 17 and 17 has lower.

Riley, who led Oklahoma to four playoff appearances, has experience surviving as a losing team.

“We know we need to improve, but if you can improve through wins, you’ll do it in the end,” Riley said. “My experience with these things, you get to the end and nobody remembers how.” Four takeaways from USC’s win against Cal

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