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USC defeats California, 30-20, to improve to 4-0

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The No. 5 Trojans (4-0) outscored the Golden Bears (3-1) by 17 points during a four-minute stretch early in the third quarter to secure the Pac-12 Conference victory at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.

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Slide show: Photos from the USC-Cal game

USC receiver Deontay Burnett can't make the catch in the end zone against the defense of Cal cornerback Derrick Clark. To see more images from the game, click on the photo above.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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USC rallies early in fourth quarter, thanks to defense, to defeat Cal 30-20

USC linebacker Cameron Smith recovers a Cal fumble.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

USC outplayed Cal in a 30-20 win on Saturday, but not by a lot. It was just for 3 minutes 59 seconds, to be exact. But USC made the most of that time.

With the score tied entering halftime, USC’s offense looked lurchy. Its third-down effeciency on offense was mediocre. Its red-zone offense was worse. At the beginning of the third quarter, the Trojans fizzled out and settled for a 46-yard Chase McGrath field goal. There were 14 minutes 5 seconds remaining.

So USC’s defense gave the offense a hand. On the very next play, defensive tackle Josh Fatu rumbled into quarterback Ross Bowers, bumping the ball loose and into the hands of outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu.

USC had the ball on Cal’s three-yard line and needed two Stephen Carr runs to punch it in.

Two plays later, Bowers heaved a pass into heavy coverage. Ykili Ross called off safety Chris Hawkins to make the interception, and he returned it 49 yards to Cal’s 33. Six plays later, USC scored on Sam Darnold’s four-yard pass to Deontay Burnett.

USC outscored Cal in the four-minute stretch by 17 points to avoid a hairy ending, even though Cal outgained USC 416 yards to 356. USC can thank its defense, which forced six turnovers.

The Trojans have won 13 games in a row, its longest since winning 34 in a row from 2003 to 2005. They have won 14 in a row over Cal. The Trojans are 4-0 on the season but have confounded for much of that span. USC dominated Stanford but eked out victories over Western Michigan, Texas and Cal. Its play has been imperfect, but its record has not.

Cal (3-1) took the first loss of new coach Justin Wilcox’s career in front of 46,747 fans at California Memorial Stadium. Wilcox, a former USC defensive coordinator, made Darnold uncomfortable at times. Cal sacked Darnold only once, but its blitzes kept him uncomfortable in the pocket, and the Bears kept a tight lid of USC’s receivers, limiting Darnold’s long passing game.

Darnold finished 26 of 38 for 223 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

With starter Ronald Jones II injured and left in Los Angeles, Carr rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown in 20 rushes. He also caught six passes for 47 yards.

Cal dominated the trenches for much of the first half. The teams exchanged field goals in the first quarter, then the Bears drove 60 yards for a score, all but eight of them on the ground. Vic Enwere punched in the final yard on a fourth down.

USC came back with quick, efficient response, capped by a 16-yard Darnold throw to tight end Tyler Petite.

The teams went into halftime with the score tied at 13.

It remained that way after the third, too.

Then the game changed in a flash.

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Cal adds a late score

The Bears cut into USC’s deficit with an eight-yard fade to Jordan Veasy.

USC still leads, 30-20, with 1:53 left.

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Another turnover sets up another USC score to break the game open

Another possession, another turnover forced by USC’s defense and another Trojans touchdown.

Ross Bowers heaved a pass into blanket coverage, and Ykili Ross called off teammates to make the interception. He returned it 49 yards to Cal’s 33-yard line, and USC needed six plays to convert it into a score. Deontay Burnett capped it with a four-yard touchdown reception.

USC has scored 17 points in four minutes to take a commanding 30-13 lead with 10:56 remaining in the game.

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USC converts a Cal turnover for a touchdown and leads 23-13

USC’s defense came up with the biggest play of the game so far. For the second game in a row, it has forced a fumble at a critical moment.

Defensive tackle Josh Fatu sacked quarterback Ross Bowers, and the ball fell into the arms of linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. USC took over on Cal’s three-yard line and punched in a touchdown with two Stephen Carr runs.

USC now leads 23-13 with 13:11 remaining in the game.

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USC takes a lead in the fourth quarter, 16-13

USC had to settle for another field goal after getting good field position, but this one gave the Trojans a fourth-quarter lead. USC went just 30 yards in 10 plays, Chase McGrath made the longest field goal of his young career, a 46-yarder that gave USC a 16-13 lead with 14:05 remaining in the game.

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Cal ties the score 13-13 before halftime

USC defensive lineman Christian Rector forces Cal quarterback Ross Bowers to a fumble during the second quarter.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Cal went 71 yards in 10 plays by running the two-minute drill but stalled near the goal line. The Bears settled for a 21-yard field goal as the half expired. The teams head into the break with the score tied at 13-13.

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USC takes the lead 13-10

USC again benefited from good field position but had to settle for a field goal. The Trojans went 35 yards in nine plays, and Chase McGrath made a 34-yard field goal to give USC the lead 13-10 with 1:59 left in the half.

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USC answers to tie the score at 10-10

USC responded quickly with a 74-yard drive in eight plays, capped by a 16-yard pass to Tyler Petite. USC sparked the drive by feeding Stephen Carr, who carried twice in a row for 18 yards and caught a pass on the next play for 12 more.

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Cal takes the lead, 10-3

Cal faced a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line, and Justin Wilcox decided to go for it. Vic Enwere rewarded him by taking a handoff and nudging into the end zone. Cal went 60 yards in 12 plays after a long kickoff return by Ashtyn Davis, and the Bears lead 10-3 with 14:31 left in the first half.

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USC uses turnover to tie the score 3-3

The defense gave USC good field position with an interception by Jack Jones on a tip by defensive tackle Josh Fatu. USC’s offense stalled and settled for a 37-yard Chase McGrath field goal. The score is tied at 3 with 4:39 reamining in the first quarter.

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Cal scores first and leads 3-0

Cal struck first thanks mainly to a 22-yard pass reception by Vic Wharton III. After a dropped pas on fourth down, Mat Anderson made a 36-yard field goal. Cal went 43 yards in 10 plays and now leads 3-0 with 10:46 remaining in the first quarter.

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USC starts with the ball

Cal won the coin toss and deferred. USC will start with the ball after a touchback.

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No Ronald Jones II or Steven Mitchell Jr. for USC in warmups

USC running back Ronald Jones II eludes the tackle of Western Michigan cornerback Darius Phillips during the first quarter of their game.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The big pregame development for USC is the absence of two of its best offensive players, at least in warmups: running back Ronald Jones II and receiver Steven Mitchell Jr.

Jones, who has a thigh contusion, has not practiced this week. If he is a scratch, expect heavy doses of freshman Stephen Carr.

If Mitchell, who also has missed this week of practice because of a groin injury, is out, the situation at receiver is more complicated. Tyler Vaughns played significantly more time than starter Jalen Greene in the second half of last weekend’s game, and both could end up starting.

Michael Pittman Jr., who hasn’t played this season because of an ankle sprain, could see his first action too. Freshman Joseph Lewis IV was another candidate to see more time, but he also appears to be out because of a muscle strain in his chest.

Right tackle Chuma Edoga (wrist sprain) is warming up with a soft cast.

On the defense, cornerback Ajene Harris (knee hyperextension), linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (elbow hyperextension and knee sprain), end Rasheem Green (ankle sprain) and tackle Marlon Tuipulotu are in uniform and participating in warmups.

Outside linebacker Porter Gustin (biceps tear and broken toe) is not in uniform.

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Justin Wilcox’s confounding return to the Pac-12 as Cal’s coach

Cal coach Justin Wilcox stands on the sidelines during the Bears' game against Mississippi.
( (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images))

Justin Wilcox has become more meme than coach for a subsection of USC fans. When the Trojans defense performs poorly enough to make one want to scream profanities over and over again, that is a Justin Wilcox game.

In other words, Wilcox’s last contest as USC’s defensive coordinator — a 41-22 loss to Stanford in the 2015 Pac-12 championship game, in which Christian McCaffrey accounted for 461 all-purpose yards — left a lasting impression. One juicy detail in particular. Reporters in the press box could hear a voice in the coaches’ booth continually yell a four-letter obscenity. The voice belonged to Wilcox. Coach Clay Helton fired him and three other assistants the following day.

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USC’s screen plays are again substituting for their runs

USC receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. (4) runs for an 11-yard gain against Texas.
( (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times))

There were many reasons why Lane Kiffin did not last at USC, but the thing that turned the fans against him was clear. It was all those bubble screens.

The screens so agonized the Coliseum crowd during a loss to Washington State in September 2013 that after every timid pass behind the line of scrimmage — and there were a lot — the fans booed and chanted, “Fire Kiffin.”

Eventually USC did fire Kiffin. The screen game mostly subsided to its normal, ancillary, role in the offense.

That is, until USC revived it last weekend against Texas. The strange part? It worked.

USC’s screen game was the most efficient part of its offense. USC gained 12 yards per attempt on screens. Downfield passes averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. The running game eked out 1.9 yards per attempt. In fact, USC began using screens as substitutes for runs.

“We consider it a run,” coach Clay Helton said. “If you’re averaging 12 yards a run, you’re happy.”

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Trojans look to get back to the fundamentals of catching the football

USC wide receiver Deontay Burnett, left, catches a pass for a touchdown as Texas defensive back Kris Boyd defends during overtime on Saturday
( (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press))

Tee Martin stood in a far corner of USC’s practice field this week and acted like a toddler begging for attention. This was intentional, part of a drill. Trojan receivers caught passes from a JUGS machine as Martin swatted at the players, smacked them with foam pads, grabbed their arms, nagged, pushed and prodded.

Practice had ended. The rest of USC’s players had left the field. Eventually, coach Clay Helton did too. The sun was setting and the lights were off when Martin and the last of the receivers walked off the field, finally finished with remedial catching class.

“We needed it,” said Martin, USC’s offensive coordinator and receivers coach. “We’ve got to get back to fundamentals and focus, really.”

USC’s receivers dropped either six or seven passes last week against Texas, depending on who was counting. Either way, it was a continuation of a malady that began in Week 1, disappeared in Week 2 and in Week 3, was enough to torpedo several drives and keep USC’s scoring down.

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USC vs. California: How the Trojans and Golden Bears match up for Saturday’s game

California running back Patrick Laird jumps over Weber State safety Trey Hoskins on Sept. 9.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

It’s a battle of 3-0 teams when No. 5-ranked USC travels to Berkeley to play California.

Game time is 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ABC as well as 710 AM radio.

Marquee matchup

Tee Martin vs. Justin Wilcox and Tim DeRuyter: Martin, USC’s offensive coordinator, had maybe his best game against Stanford two weeks ago. Last Saturday, when USC was six of 21 on third and fourth downs against Texas, may have been among his worst, though Martin didn’t see it that way. “No, Alabama was really hard,” he said. Wilcox and DeRuyter’s defense shut out high-octane Mississippi in the second half last week but has given up plenty of yards.

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