Cal’s showdown with USC moved into the fourth quarter Saturday, and Memorial Stadium stirred. Was this real? Were the Golden Bears really tied 13-13 with the No. 5 team in the nation? The team that had beaten them 14 straight times, hadn’t lost in the series since Cal was quarterbacked by a plucky sophomore named Aaron Rodgers?
It was all true.
But reality landed swiftly. The Trojans scored 17 points in the first 4 minutes and 4 seconds of the final period, bloating their lead to 30-13. The Bears kept clawing, but the gap was too big and USC left with a 30-20 win. Score one for the old guard.
Football games are complicated, but it’s safe to say the difference in this one was the six turnovers surrendered by Cal. No, check that. We can be more specific. The six turnovers were logged by quarterback Ross Bowers. All of them. The redshirt sophomore from Bothell, Washington, threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles.
The official tally: There was the pass that USC’s Josh Fatu tipped at the line, creating an easy interception for Jack Jones about midway through the first quarter; the strip-sack by Christian Rector in the second quarter that turned into a fumble recovery for Cameron Smith; the tap on the arm by Fatu that caused the ball to squirt out of Bowers’ hand, leading to Uchenna Nwosu’s recovery at the Cal 3; the deep throw into heavy traffic that became an interception and long runback by USC’s Ykili Ross; another pick by Jones when Bowers threw into the face of a blitz; and the final interception by Chris Hawkins.
Those last four mishaps came on consecutive Cal possessions in the fourth quarter. Before the first one of those, the Golden Bears trailed 16-13. After USC had punted following the last turnover, it was 30-13 with 3:50 left in the game.
When it was done, Bowers came to the interview room to face reporters. He was still wearing his eye black, the stripe under his right eye a little smudged.
“It’s hard to win when you keep giving the other team the ball — and that’s really all we have to say about that,” he said, his jaw tightening a little.
Well, Bowers did have a little more to say about it, but he let his fingers do the talking as he tapped out a little rhythm on the table. Thump, thumpity-thump-thump. An interjection that wouldn’t get anybody in trouble.
Let’s be honest, Bowers did some good things Saturday. And as Cal head coach Justin Wilcox noted, the quarterback had some help in the breakdowns. Both fumbles came in the pocket, forced by Trojans pass rushers who had beaten their blockers. And his receivers had some drops.
Still, the turnovers were charged to the QB, and they weren’t his first of the season. Bowers threw four interceptions in the first three games, even as Cal tallied wins against North Carolina, Weber State and Mississippi.
Bowers had earned the starting job after a wide-open competition with Chase Forrest, Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain. The race was so close that Wilcox and offensive Beau Baldwin didn’t name Bowers the starter until less than a week before the season opener at UNC.