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Not a Great Cal Performance, But Beating USC in Finale Is Worth a Lot

Bears finish with a better conference record than the Trojans for the first time in 30 years

Cal's 24-14 win over USC Saturday night wasn't elegant. It wasn't decisive. It wasn't without qualification since the Bears' opponent had some significant personnel issues.  It wasn't the kind of performance that would make you optimistic about Cal if it had happened midway through the season. You could even claim Cal was outplayed in many aspects. And it was, quite simply, a meaningless game in terms of rankings, standings, bowls and other things fans covet.

But two things about Cal's victory in Berkeley Saturday night allow you to dispose of any caveats:

---1. It was against USC, and any Cal win over USC is an accomplishment worth celebrating, regardless of the circumstances. It was only Cal's second win in its last 17 games against the Trojans, and its first win over USC in Berkeley since 2003. 

And here's the best reason for a victory parade: By winning, Cal (5-7, 4-5 Pac-12) finished with a better conference record than USC (4-8, 3-6 Pac-12) for the first time since 1991. That's 30 years, folks. And Cal fans probably take delight in the fact that USC's overall mark represents its worst season since the Trojans finished 3-8 in 1991.

---2. It was the final game of the season, and the result in the finale tends to color the entire season. Suddenly 5-7 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-12 does not seem so bad since it ended with a win over USC and allowed Cal to go 4-2 over its final six games. A loss would have left a nasty taste in everyone's mouth, partly because it would have been the first time since 2013 that Cal suffered eight losses or more in a season. Instead Cal left us with a hint of optimism, because the result of the final game always leaves a more lasting impression than it should.

We will know in a few weeks whether a number of seniors eligible to return to Cal next year will actually do so. Cal quarterback Chase Garbers is one of those seniors who must decide soon whether he will enter the NFL Draft or come back in 2022 to become a rare commodity in 2022 -- a fifth-year starting quarterback.

"That's a decision a couple weeks away," said Garbers, who is from Newport Beach, Calif. "I was so excited to get a win, to beat a team like SC that I don't really like at all being from SoCal."

It didn't really matter that USC outgained Cal 409-265 or that USC had 25 first downs to Cal's 13 or that USC ran 79 offensive plays to Cal's 52. It didn't matter that USC's Vavae Malepeai was the game's leading rusher with 107 yards. It didn't matter that USC had fewer penalty yards assessed against it than Cal: 53-39.

And it didn't really matter that USC was not playing with a full deck. The Trojans played without a number of starters, including wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr., running back Keaontay Ingram, outside linebacker Drake Jackson and three starting defensive backs.

Then the Trojans starting quarterback, Jaxson Dart, was knocked out of the game in the third quarter, and with Kedon Slovis sidelined with an injury, Dart was replaced by true freshman Miller Moss, who had taken just one snap in his college career before Saturday.

Certainly those absences were factors in the outcome, but last month Cal had 24 players, including 10 starters, absent for a game against Arizona, and the Bears still got charged with a 10-3 loss that ruined their season to a large extent.

What should not be lost is that Cal held the Trojans to USC's lowest scoring output of the season, and that was with the Trojans scoring a meaningless touchdown with 1:36 left in the game.

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Ultimately what made the difference Saturday were two USC turnovers that changed the complexion of the game and Cal's ability to prevent the Trojans from getting into the end zone when they got close.

Garbers had an efficient, if not spectacular, performance. He was 18-for-21 for 177 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. But even he noted that the defense saved the day.

USC marched up and down the field, and it got inside the Cal 40-yard line seven times. But it recorded only one touchdown from those seven shots.

The biggest play was Trey Paster's 55-yard fumble return for a touchdown that put Cal ahead 17-7. Elijah Hicks' hit on Darwin Barlow caused the fumble, and Paster made it a game-changing play.

The second-biggest play was a Cal stop on a USC fourth-and-2 play from the Cal 3-yard line in the third quarter. USC helped Cal out with errant snap that somehow found its way to tight end USC tight end Erik Krommenhoek, who was stopped after 1-yard gain.

Then there was the play by Cal safety Daniel Scott, who sacked Moss and forced a fumble on a play that started at the Cal 15-yard line. The ball just sort of sat there for a few moments before anyone realized it was a fumble, then it got kicked around a bit before Cal's Lu-Magia Hearns III recovered it at the Cal 35-yard line.  

That initiated the best Cal drive of the day, ending was a 2-yard Christopher Brooks touchdown run that made it a 24-7 game with 5:37 left in the game.

And the victory over USC was assured.

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Cover photo of Nikko Remigio is by John Hefti, USA TODAY Sports

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Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53

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