Looking back on 2006: The USC game

(Note to readers: Today we continue in our look back at the games in the 2006 season with USC.  Here are links to our past look backs: Tennessee, Minnesota, Portland State, Arizona State, Oregon State, Oregon, Washington State, Washington, UCLA and Arizona).

The storyline:
A superior USC team ended Cal’s bid at their first Rose Bowl in nearly 50 years in a dominating performance.  USC’s physical defense prevented Cal from getting their offense rolling while the USC offense continued in their successful ways.

The reality:
This was a VERY close game until the 4th quarter and just about every pundit who thinks that USC won this game convincingly either didn’t see the game or has forgotten the game they watched.  The story of this game was three-fold.  One, turnovers killed a couple of sustained drives early for Cal.  Two, USC showed both patience and aggressiveness in their 4th quarter play calling.  Three, Cal got desperate when USC went ahead 16-9 in the early 4th quarter.  What was most surprising in contrast to the popular opinion of this game was just how effective both Cal’s running game and Cal’s middle depth passing game were in the first 3 quarters of the game.  Unfortunately for Cal, everything turned on them when they were unable to convert on a crucial 2nd/3rd and 1 late in the 3rd quarter that forced them to punt on a 3 and out.  The defense was clearly tired on the ensuing possession, allowing USC their first TD of the game setup by a long run play that should have been stopped far earlier.  On the ensuing Cal possession, it was clear despite the fact that Cal was only down by 7 with 13 minutes left in the game, that panic had set in.  Despite having success running the ball on their proceeding possessions, Cal threw the ball on their next 7 non-punting downs, spanning 3 possessions including 2, 3 and outs.  Showing their effectiveness in the running game, on the 8th play, Lynch ran for 9 yards.  In the end, it was the over-predictability of Cal’s offense in the 4th quarter, both by always running in obvious running situations and passing when trailing, that sunk them.

The forgotten:
Forgotten in this game was that there was that on USC’s 1st possession of the game, Cal ran back a would-be fumble for a touchdown.  The would-be fumble was ruled an incomplete pass that was not over-turned by the replay booth despite some evidence that Dwayne Jarrett had cradled the ball for a full two steps.  While the call was marginal and could have gone either way, it would have proven to be a big boost for Cal and would have completely changed the tempo and momentum of the game.  Also forgotten was the two turnovers by Cal in USC territory on back-to-back possession in the 1st quarter.  These put the brakes on a Cal offense that was moving the ball.  Considering that the USC defense always gets better as the game wears on, these lost early opportunities were similarly crucial.  Finally, although Bear fans will remember this, pundits seem to have forgotten that the Bears led at halftime 9-6 and the game was tied going into the 4th quarter.  Even with all of Cal’s mistakes, the game hinged on a very precise TD pass by Booty and a gutsy 4th and 2 call by USC that went for a TD, both in the 4th quarter.  Otherwise the game was very evenly played.

The 2006 learnings:
This was the first game that Offensive Coordinator Dunbar was put on the hot-seat.  To some degree, the criticism was built up from the shaky Washington game and the Arizona loss and therefore the criticism reflected the frustrations from that game.  In many ways that criticism was misplaced in this game.  Cal was able to effectively run the ball, something lost in the criticism of the hybrid spread.  If anything, it was Cal’s reliance on the run that was problematic.  The lone touchdown was the result of a drive that emphasized getting the ball to the WR’s in the middle passing game.  (As a side note, it seemed the USC safeties played soft and the corners played tight, an unusual combination that made both short and long passes troubling, but opened a number of 15-20 yard passing opportunities.)  The point at which criticism of the game plan was valid was not until the 4th quarter when the Bears trailed, when it did seem that Dunbar’s play-calling relied too heavily on passing the ball.  The learning for this game would be that Cal is vulnerable to panic based play-calling when trailing.

The 2007 learnings:
This was yet another game when Syd’Quan Thompson shined.  In many ways, although Hughes showed a great ability to sniff out interception opportunities, he also was prone to taking unnecessary risks.  It should be noted that the corner who got burned on the 4th and 2 TD play was Hughes, not Thompson.  Watching the play carefully, Hughes was clearly following his instinct to stop a run play and didn’t properly cover his receiver until it was too late to not get caught in traffic by a crossing receiver and covering linebacker.  Syd, on the other hand, had a solid game all the way around.  While he’s not the interception magnet that Hughes is, he is a solid corner.  On the other side, this is a game that should make Forsett fans nervous.  Lynch did a great job making 5-8 yard gains dragging defenders with him.  Had we had the more nimble, yet more easily tackled Forsett in his place, the run game may have been far worse.  Additionally, this game should be the prototype in 2007 for teams looking to punt away from DeSean.  USC was able to both contain DeSean with directional punting and also keep a fairly good punting average.  Finally, looking forward to the USC game in Berkeley this fall, there is no reason to doubt that Cal can win this game, particularly late in the season when the defensive replacements for Hughes, Bishop and Mebane will all have the majority of a season under their belt.

The Conclusion:
In many ways, the 4th quarter of this game was a mini-replay of the Tennessee game.  Cal’s opponent was able to score and the wheels fell off of Cal’s bus for a while.  By the time they had regained their composure, the game was sewn up.  In the end this game should be viewed as both an example of how good the 2006 Bears were (USC was the consensus number 2 team in the country after all) and as a missed opportunity to get to the Rose Bowl.

5 Responses to “Looking back on 2006: The USC game”

  1. HydroTech Says:

    You are definitely right that you would have to watch the game to see how close it was. Most east coasters who didn’t catch it probably looked it up on espn for two seconds and just thought it to be another easy $C win. We played them tight for 50 minutes. The first 50 minutes. As JT stressed throughout last season, we need to play hard and perform well for four quarters.

  2. HydroTech Says:

    And although I found the game too painful to watch and break down Dunbar’s playcalling, I do recall my thoughts at the time that the playcalling was very aggressive and desperate after we were behind in the 4th. It almost seemed like Dunbar was panicking, and like you said, our offense got pretty pass happy. I suppose this makes sense though. What do most people do when they are down and almost out? They revert to what they know best. Dunbar reverted to shotgun plays and aggressive playcalling that he’s used to calling. And while I’ve been sticking up for Dunbar over on The Golden Blogs, I will be the first to support your statement that his 4th quarter play calling in this game was poor.

  3. Ken Crawford Says:

    After watching the season, my opinion of Dunbar softened dramatically. I guess I got caught up in the “hype”. However, looking over the season, this was the one game (really one quarter) where I looked at it and said “jeez that was bad play-calling”. I can forgive a man one quarter of bad play-calling though.

  4. Ragnarok Says:

    It’s interesting to read your recap of the game, because as terrible as my seats were, I really missed a lot, and after the game, I really couldn’t bring myself to watch highlights. My impression from that day was that, despite how close the score was (until late), I felt like Cal was lucky to be hanging in there, and any moment, USC should blow by us (which they eventually did). Maybe I just felt like Cal never got into a rhythm. Also, you’re spot-on about the 4th-quarter panic. Anyway, it’s good to hear that you’re optimistic for the rematch this year; I don’t think I can take *another* close loss to USC.

  5. Ken Crawford Says:

    Yeah, the bad seats that USC gave the Cal Ticket office were completely unacceptable. I had the privilege of watching the game from the press box, so my fortunes were far better, viewing wise. If it makes you feel any better, it was as crummy a view as was possible from a press box. Not only was there a pole obstructing a portion of my view, but although I could see the entire field, not much more including not having any scoreboards in view. The Cal press box, like Memorial stadium as a whole, is a far superior place to watch a game.