Linebacker Eric Gentry deflected Fernando Mendoza’s pass in the end zone on a two-point conversion try with 58 seconds remaining, and No. 24 USC ended a two-game losing streak with a 50-49 win over California on Saturday.
The Trojans (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) rallied after trailing by 11 at halftime. USC scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and went ahead 50-43 on Austin Jones’ 7-yard touchdown run with 3:33 remaining.
Mendoza then drove the Bears 79 yards in nine plays, connecting with Jaivian Thomas on a 13-yard swing pass on third-and-9. With no shot at the conference title, the Bears (3-5, 1-4) chose to go for the win rather than an extra point to tie.
Mendoza dropped back and scanned the field before lofting a short throw toward wide receiver Brian Hightower near the back of the end zone. The 6-foot-6-inch Gentry leaped to knock the ball away and the Trojans celebrated.
It was the biggest play by USC’s defense, which gave up 527 yards but forced four turnovers.
Caleb Williams passed for 369 yards and two touchdowns for the Trojans, and MarShawn Lloyd rushed for 115 yards and two TDs.
USC’s offense looked much more crisp than it had during back-to-back losses to ranked foes Utah and Notre Dame.
Against the Trojans’ suspect defense, Cal’s offense was nearly as good.
Mendoza, a redshirt freshman, ran for two touchdowns and passed for another. Jaydn Ott matched his career high with three touchdowns and rushed for 153 yards in what could be the final game between the longtime rivals. USC is headed to the Big Ten next year while Cal is going to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Mendoza passed for 299 yards with an interception.
Both teams piled up more than 300 yards of offense during a wild first half.
Williams and the Trojans scored on their first three drives. USC converted two fourth downs on its opening possession, and Williams completed 10 of his first 12 pass attempts including a 6-yard touchdown to Jones that pushed the Trojans’ lead to 17-7.
The first half appeared to end after a long completion from Williams to Lake McRee put USC at the Cal 16-yard line. Officials initially ruled that time had run out, and both teams left the field. After consulting during halftime, referees announced that 1 second still remained on the clock, and Cal coach Justin Wilcox reacted angrily. When both teams returned, Denis Lynch missed a 33-yard field-goal attempt.
The start of the game was delayed for several moments after a group of about 15 fans sat near midfield at Memorial Stadium in protest. It wasn’t immediately clear what the fans were protesting as they sat back to back in the middle of the Cal logo. Police and security guards approached the group as players from both teams stood and watched. The fans were eventually placed in handcuffs and escorted away.
The Trojans were staggering coming into the game and down at the half before rallying. Coach Lincoln Riley’s team could have folded but showed a lot of heart to remain in contention for the conference title.
The Bears played maybe their most complete game of the year and still came up short. The defense held up in the first half but couldn’t sustain the momentum in the second half.
USC returns home to begin a three-game stretch against ranked teams, starting with No. 5 Washington on Nov. 4. After that, the Trojans play No. 8 Oregon and No. 23 UCLA.
California travels to face No. 8 Oregon on Nov. 4.
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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