Skip to main content

Cal Football: USC Game Provides Last Chance for Bears in a Disappointing 2021 Season

Goals weren't met but Justin Wilcox admires the way his players handled hard times.

Without a bowl game in their future, Cal’s players would like to end their season by “putting a cherry on top” with a victory over USC on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

COVID-19 wiped scrubbed USC from Cal's schedule a year ago, the first time the rivals did not play since 1925.

It's been even longer -- 103 years -- since the Bears and Trojans played in the season finale. Yes, it was 1918 -- the last time we had a pandemic.

The Bears and Trojans arrive this year with identical records of 4-7 overall 3-5 in Pac-12 play. This is the end of the line for both teams.

USC’s reward for its disappointing season is a new coach, with ex-Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley coming on board immediately after this game. Interim coach Donte Williams, who replaced Clay Helton two games into the season, will continue to wear a headset on the sidelines Saturday.

Valentino Daltoso, Cal’s senior right tackle, is ready to close out a career in which he played at least 10 games at every offensive line position except center. Cal believes he may be the only player in the country with that distinction.

Reflecting on a season with severe highs and lows, Daltoso, in the video above, said just a few moments might have changed the arc of things.

“It’s always easy to say if we had this or did this better in this one certain spot during that 1-5 start . . . we’re talking about plays that could have changed outcomes of games and probably how we’re feeling about the early part of the season, and probably the season as a whole,” he said. “But we can’t change that kind of stuff.”

Senior safety Elijah Hicks, who has started all 53 possible games in his career, said that 1-5 start seems like a long time ago.

"Going into the season, we were planning on going to a Pac-12 championship — we didn’t reach those goals, obviously. We wanted to go to a bowl game — we didn’t do that, either,” he said.

Coach Justin Wilcox conceded the 2021 campaign hasn’t turned out the way the Bears envisioned.

“We expected to play better than we have at times. Especially early in the season it seemed like we were literally a play away on one side of the ball,” he said, alluding to losses by seven points or fewer to Nevada, TCU, Washington and Oregon.

“Didn’t quite get it put together as fast as we would like in terms of playing complementary offense, defense and special teams. That led to some difficult and very close losses.”

Read More

Of course, last Saturday’s trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena did not produce one of those close defeats. UCLA handed the Bears a 42-14 defeat, their worst loss of the year when they needed a victory to keep alive their bowl aspirations.

“Very disappointing, as you can imagine,” said Wilcox, who talks in depth about the Bears’ performance against UCLA in the video above.

But Cal’s players and coaches have dug bright moments from the rubble of this season.

“I think the defining part of our team is how stepped through a lot this year, and I think we’ve improved,” Daltoso said. “Coming from our first game against Nevada and seeing us go against Oregon State and Stanford, that’s a whole different team.

“At points it’s frustrating. But I like to look at a more positive light in that I’ve had a really fun time and love playing with these guys and I think everyone’s really excited for this week.”

Hicks said he’s proud of the development of young players on the Cal defense, especially in the secondary.

And Wilcox appreciates how his team never gave up on itself when that might have been easy.

“Even through that (1-5) stretch, the guys never broke stride. There wasn’t negativity permeating throughout the locker room or at practice,” he said. “That’s a result of the guys on the team and how they approach things and their character. That’s probably the thing we’re most proud of, is just the resilience the guys showed through some difficult moments.”

Hicks wants the Bears to enjoy one more big moment.

“It’s always good to get a win, especially against those guys,” he said of the Trojans. “We didn’t get to play them last year. It’s going to feel good to be able to end it on a win, especially at home on Senior Night. We definitely turn it up, ready to whoop on them.”

Cover photo of Valentino Daltoso wearing a Joe Roth Game uniform courtesy of Cal Athletics

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo