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Cal Football: Three Big Plays by the Defense Tilted the Outcome Toward the Bears

Cal forces two USC fumbles and stops the Trojans on fourth down from the 3-yard line.

The statistics don’t suggest a Cal 24-14 victory over USC.

The Trojans outgained the Bears 409 yards to 265 on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. They had nearly twice as many first downs, 25 to 13. USC converted 11 of 19 third downs, Cal just 3 of 10.

USC crossed midfield on eight of its nine possessions and reached at least the Cal 35-yard line six times.

From all that opportunity, USC generated scores just twice — and one of those came with 96 seconds left when the outcome had been settled.

Three plays by the Cal defense rendered all those statistics meaningless. They made sure the Bears emerged with the win, despite an imperfect performance in the season finale.

In chronological order, here’s how they unfolded:

— Linebacker Trey Paster gave the Bears their second touchdown in a span of 58 seconds and a 17-7 lead in the second quarter when he scooped up a fumble by running back Darwin Barlow and raced 55 yards for a touchdown. Safety Elijah Hicks popped the ball loose and Paster did the rest.

— Late in the third quarter, Cal’s defense held on a strange fourth-and-2 play by the Trojans from the Bears’ 3-yard line. The snap landed at the feet of right end Erik Krommenhoek, who was in motion on the play. He picked it up but was immediately swarmed by the Bears for no gain, giving Cal possession and depriving USC of a possible touchdown.

— And with 9:47 left, on a third-and-6 play from the Cal 8, safety Daniel Scott flattened backup quarterback Miller Moss, who was in the game after starter and fellow freshman Jaxson Dart was injured. No one seemed to notice that Moss lost the ball until freshman cornerback Lu-Magia Hearns pounced on it back at the 32-yard line.

Add up those three moments and Cal created seven points and prevented 14 more.

“Huge plays . . . because they can move the ball. They’ve scored a lot of points on people this year,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox says in the video at the top of this story. “Those were the type of plays needed tonight by the defense.

“Just hats off to the defenders and the coaches for putting them in position to do that.”

The two defensive takeaways combined with no turnovers by the Cal offense gave the Bears a plus-10 turnover margin for the season, which ranks them among the top-10 nationally.

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Two other USC drives stalled in Cal territory, prompting long field attempts that missed.

Quarterback Chase Garbers was appreciative of what the defense delivered as the Bears closed out their season with a 5-7 record, 4-5 in Pac-12 play.

“The defense played lights out,” he said.

Paster, who only started because freshman linebacker Nate Rutchena was unable to go, describes in the video above how his play unfolded.

Senior cornerback Josh Drayden played in his 55th game for the Bears, extending his all-time career record for anyone in program history.

“After playing my last game, that’s a good title to have,” he said.

Despite Garbers’ praise, the Bears didn’t shut down the Trojans, even after Dart was forced to the sidelines, replaced by Moss, who had taken just one snap in a game all season.

“\No matter what is going on, they have great players and they came to play tonight,” says Drayden in the video above, adding that the Bears played a game of endurance and won.

“We actually go over this in practice. They could be at our 1-yard line or their 1-yard line, it doesn’t matter,” he said “We have to be able to outlast them and have that endurance.

“That’s just the attitude that we take out there and that’s what helped us tonight.”

Cover photo of Trey Paster sprinting toward the end zone by Al Sermeno, KLC fotos

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