It was a one-point game, USC trailing California in the final minutes of a Coliseum homecoming turned on its head, and many of the announced 56,721 alumni and fans already were heading for the exits.
A Trojans win was still very much in play, but they seemed to know better.
With 3:28 left, Iman Marshall proved them right. USC had stopped the Golden Bears on third down and was set to get the ball back with a chance to win the game. But Marshall had more to say than what he and his teammates had said with their performance over four quarters in limiting Cal to 207 total yards. He approached the opposing sideline and jawed at the Golden Bears. A flag flew, unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Our guys are sportsmen,” USC coach Clay Helton would say later, after Marshall’s penalty had given the Golden Bears a fresh set of downs and, eventually, the game, by a score of 15-14.
“They believe in being first class,” Helton continued, in defense of his players and the culture he has built in three years at the helm of the program. “They are competitive people, and one player did not lose the football game tonight. Biggie Marshall went out there on a hurt ankle tonight and fought for his brothers all the way to the end. We had a call go against us. I know he’s sick about it. That one play did not lose the football game.”
Yes, USC made countless losing plays in the second half, blowing a 14-0 lead that felt more like 40-0 given the lack of explosiveness in Cal’s offense and how competent the Trojan offense appeared in the first half. Marshall’s big-talking penalty was just the last one, the one that tipped the scale for good. They all combined to keep USC from winning its 15th-straight game against the Golden Bears.
At this point in a lost season, USC (5-5, 4-4 Pac-12) is running out of positive streaks to tout.
After this latest debacle for Helton and the Trojans, there will be no more talk of remote possibilities for a Pac-12 championship game trip they simply haven’t earned.
The USC defense clamps down on Cal running back Patrick Laird in the fourth quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Cal running back Patrick Laird gets a first down against USC in the third quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Cal defensive back Traveon Beck (22) celebrates after intercepting a pass by USC quarterback TJ Daniels in the third quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown fights for extra yardage against California in the second quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC wide receiver TYkler Vaughs makes a catch against Cal defensive back Camryn Bynum in the third quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC defensive tackle Jacob Lichtenstein goes up to knock down a pass by California quarterback Chase Garbers in the second quarter on Saturday at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback JT Daniels throws downfield against California in the first half on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC defenders Iman Marshall, left, and Marvell Tell III bring down California running back Christopher Brown Jr. in the first quarter on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC defenders Camron Smith, left, and Marvell Tell III bring down California running back Patrick Laird in the first quarter on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC defensive lineman Liam Jimmons flushes California quarterback Chase Garbers out of the pocket in the second quarter on Saturday at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC defensive lineman Marlon Tuliapupu sacks California quarterback Chase Garbers in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Aca’Cedric Ware takes the ball down to the California six-yard line to set up USC"s first score in the first half on Saturday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
There will be talk of two big rivalry games and a chance to salvage something. Beat UCLA or Notre Dame and there would be a bowl game. None of it would heal the heartache and frustration this fall has brought the loyal legions of Troy.
“I’m sorry for the 5-5 season right now,” Helton said, “but better days are here to come. I’ve seen programs across the country have a Rose Bowl, a Pac-12 championship, and then have an off season, and then come right back. Matter of fact, we’re going to compete against one of them [Notre Dame] in about two weeks. Sometimes you have a season that it just doesn’t go your way, but I believe in this coaching staff, I believe in the leadership, I believe in our players most of all.”
Saturday night should have been a USC win. If you can believe it, the Trojans had a chance to put California away late in the second quarter.
They were on the move, looking to put the finishing touches on their best offensive half of the season. On third and five from the California 15, USC quarterback JT Daniels found Amon-ra St. Brown for what would have been a first down, but St. Brown fumbled the ball back to the Golden Bears while fighting for extra ground. It was hard to blame him for fighting, and it was hard to think it would matter with the Trojan defense giving nothing easy to Cal.
USC would regret it, of course.
As promising as the first half was, with USC leading 14-0 and Daniels having completed 15 of 20 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns, the opening moments of the third quarter put the Homecoming crowd solidly back into reality.
Another bad Toa Lobendahn snap flew wildly over Daniels’ right shoulder, and Daniels was lucky to corral it for a safety.
On the ensuing California drive, Chase Garbers found Vic Wharton III for a 29-yard touchdown pass. Daniels promptly threw an interception into the hands of California cornerback Traveon Beck, who read the freshman’s eyes like a pro.
A few minutes later, Garbers toted the ball into the end zone for a five-yard touchdown run.
With 6:13 left in the third quarter, the Golden Bears led 15-14.
Again, USC should have won. The Trojans checked enough key boxes Saturday: Aca’Cedric Ware rushed for 103 yards in 16 carries, leading a consistent running game for the second straight week. Tyler Vaughns stepped up in the absence of the injured Michael Pittman Jr. with eight catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Cal had 207 yards of offense, averaging just 3.6 yards per play.
It was a winning formula for most teams in the midst of most seasons. But there were too many brutal errors, some that could have been avoided. Take Lobendahn’s bad snap. The senior center has been struggling with inaccurate snaps all season, but Helton has refused to move the versatile Lobendahn somewhere else on the line and insert redshirt freshman center Brett Neilon into the lineup.
It bit the Trojans on Saturday, even though it was just one of many plays that went wrong. Cal had no momentum until it gave the Golden Bears their first two points and flipped the field position against USC’s defense.
“Toa Lobendahn is a man of honor and a great football player,” Helton said. “I am sorry the snap went over our head. I know he has worked tirelessly on it. He’s our best center. He’s our best man at that position. It’s something that has plagued us through the year. There were 74 snaps tonight and 73 of them were perfect. We had one that went over our head. Toa is one of the loves of my life. He will be our center.”
UP NEXT >>> With a 31-28 loss at Arizona State on Saturday, the Bruins fell to 2-8 in Chip Kelly’s first season. Anything can happen in this rivalry, though, and Helton can’t afford his first loss to UCLA to come this season.
7:55 a.m.: This article was updated with additional information.
This article was originally published at 11:15 p.m.