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BERKELEY

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.

Asked whether he considered a quarterback change during Saturday’s game, Wilcox said, “Ross is the quarterback. And he’s gonna learn to grow from this.”

He’ll have to do it quickly. The Golden Bears’ next three games are against Oregon, Washington and Washington State, all of them ranked in the top 25 before Saturday’s slate of action.

“Ross will bounce back,” Wilcox said. “Ross is a tough guy. He plays with guts. He is going to have a lot to learn like a lot of the other players on the team. He’ll learn from that and grow from it. I am not worried about Ross.”

Laird, the running back, expressed a similar sentiment. “Everyone on our offense, I feel like, has been consistent emotionally throughout our first four games. And that includes Ross,” he said. “He’s always nicely locked in. I still haven’t seen him flinch.”

Wide receiver Vic Wharton III had the strongest take on Bowers. Wharton had a productive game, with six catches for 86 yards, but it could have been so much better than that. Twice he got a step on a defender and Bowers launched it just a shade too deep; Wharton wound up getting a hand on each of them, but nothing more. Another time, Wharton ran a go route and Bowers’ pass was on the money, but the receiver had to adjust a little at the last minute and let the ball slip away.

Wharton, a transfer from Tennessee, made it clear how he felt about his quarterback.

“I think Ross is the toughest person on the team,” he said. “Both touchdowns he’s thrown me this year, he’s gotten de-cleated. That’s what you want from a quarterback, just to see that he’s gonna continue to fight for us. And he did that. Even when he had those two turnovers right there, back to back. At no time did I ever doubt Ross or think that he wasn’t gonna be able to come back and get back into the groove.”

Sure enough, neither Bowers nor his offense stopped fighting. Down 30-13, opportunity slipping away, he directed an eight-play, 62-yard drive that included a well-placed ball that Kanawai Noa turned into a 38-yard gain and a crisp pass to Jordan Veasy for 16 on a slant route. Bowers and Veasy finished it with a touchdown on a fade pass, cutting the Trojans’ lead to 30-20 with 1:53 left.

It wasn’t enough to truly make a difference, but it gave the Bears a small boost as they move forward.

Bowers has yet to prove he’s the man to lead this offense, but he doesn’t strike me as a guy who will wither in the heat of the position.

In a story that ran in the Daily Californian, Cal’s student newspaper, a week before the game, he practically presaged this moment.

“I’d never experienced anything like the adversity of football and really having to overcome not just your opponent but yourself,” Bowers, who is deeply religious, said in that feature. “That’s something I really enjoy because I love that internal battle. That’s what separates the good from the great, like how can you really quiet your mind or overcome adversity?”

Bowers has six days to quiet his mind before Cal plays in Eugene. There were probably a lot of voices in there right after Saturday’s game. Some reminding the quarterback of the mistakes he had made. Others pointing out that his team had taken a tie into the fourth quarter against one of the dominant programs in the country.

“This is gonna be our motivation,” Bowers said. “When you’re not wanting to work, or you want to take a break — I’m gonna remember this one for a long, long time.”

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