The regular season concludes on championship week for Southern California and Cal, though not in a conference-title matchup.
The schools will complete losing seasons when they face off Saturday in Berkeley, Calif., for a rescheduled Pac-12 Conference game.
The Trojans (4-7, 3-5 Pac-12) and Golden Bears (4-7, 3-5) were originally set to meet on Nov. 13, but COVID-19 testing protocols in the Cal program left it without enough players to compete.
Both teams were eliminated from postseason contention with losses last week. USC rallied from down two touchdowns in the second half to take a late lead over then-No. 13 BYU, but the Cougars scored a touchdown with 3:57 remaining to earn a 35-31 win.
About 14 miles away at the Rose Bowl, Cal was outscored 25-0 in the second half of its 42-14 loss to UCLA.
With bowl berths no longer at stake, Saturday offers an opportunity to send out departing seniors on a high note.
“These guys are top-notch human beings and I’ll miss them,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said this week. Because of NCAA regulations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Wilcox noted some of the Golden Bears seniors will have the opportunity to return for 2022.
“There’s still a few guys who have decisions to make, because there could be guys (graduating) who maybe end up playing another season for us. It’s too early to determine any of that yet.”
Regardless the status of any Cal players for next season, the 2021 campaign ends with an opportunity to beat USC in Berkeley for the first time since 2003.
USC has dominated the series with Cal in the years since, winning 14 straight from 2004 through 2017 and taking 15 of the past 16 matchups. The only Golden Bears win in that stretch came in 2018 at Los Angeles, a 15-14 contest that set the Trojans on a three-game losing streak to end their last sub-.500 season prior to this year.
USC comes into the Saturday meeting on another three-game losing skid and guaranteed just its second sub-.500 finish in 20 years. The Trojans have dropped five of their past six.
Despite the lackluster closing stretch to 2021, USC ends the season on a high no matter Saturday’s result. University athletic administrators officially introduced Lincoln Riley as the program’s next head coach on Monday.
Riley went 55-10 with four Big 12 Conference championships and three College Football Playoff appearances in five seasons at Oklahoma.
Riley was tabbed to replace Clay Helton, fired after the second game of this season. Interim coach Donte Williams congratulated Riley during his Tuesday media session.
“I always told you guys the administration at USC would do the right thing and they made a splash hire. Bright, bright future for USC going ahead,” Williams said. “But right now our focus is about Cal. We still do have a game this week.”
The Trojans head to Cal a week removed from their most encouraging offensive performance since losing standout wide receiver Drake London to a fractured ankle on Oct. 30. Their 31 points against BYU marked a high since scoring 41 against Arizona a month earlier.
In his second career start, freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart completed 23 of 35 passes for 248 yards with a touchdown, and he rushed for another score. Running back Vavae Malepeai amassed 99 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
Dart faces a Cal defense holding opposing quarterbacks to a 58.4 percent completion rate. The Golden Bears have 13 interceptions, led by Daniel Scott, Elijah Hicks and Nate Rutchena each with three.
–Field Level Media