Golden Bearly: California rallies after early deficit, but comes up short in 38-30 loss to USC

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LOS ANGELES — California might be one of the most improved teams in college football, though that progress has been capped by a pass defense that ranks last in the FBS in passing yards allowed.

Those limitations were back on display Thursday night to deny the Golden Bears another dramatic late-game escape.

Nelson Agholor caught a career-high 16 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns, and Cody Kessler passed for 371 yards and four scores as Southern California held on for a 38-30 victory.

Agholor and Kessler shredded Cal's porous secondary while USC (7-3, 6-2 Pac-12) jumped to an early 31-2 lead en route to its fourth win in five games.

Agholor had another spectacular night under the Coliseum lights, becoming the first receiver in USC's storied history to post back-to-back, 200-yard games. The Trojans' lower-key successor to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee had nine catches for 139 yards after the first snap of the second quarter.

"We knew he was going to be good," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "We knew it wasn't a great matchup. He's a good football player. They did a good job of getting him the ball."

George Farmer and Randall Telfer also caught TD passes for the Trojans, who beat their upstate rivals for the 11th straight time.

"We felt that the passing game has been a positive and would be a strength for us," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "We have taken advantage of it and Cody is playing at a high level."

It looked as if Cal would allow the Pac-12 single-game record for receptions to fall for good after allowing Colorado wide receiver Nelson Spruce to tie the mark with 19 receptions in the Golden Bears' 59-56 double-overtime win in September. But Agholor had just three catches after halftime, falling one catch short of Woods' school-record 17 receptions.

Jared Goff passed for 279 yards and three touchdowns for the Golden Bears (5-5, 3-5), whose fourth loss in five games prevented them from clinching bowl eligibility. Cal hasn't won at the Coliseum since 2000, and the Bears couldn't overcome their huge early deficit.

Stephen Anderson caught a 29-yard TD pass from Goff with 1:36 to play, but Darreus Rogers easily recovered the onside kick.

"We were so close there at the end," Goff said. "Knowing that we had so many mistakes there early on that could have allowed us to have a chance to beat them there at the end, it's just kind of frustrating. We'll learn from it, move on, and try to be more disciplined next time."

Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs caught TD passes for the Bears, and Daniel Lasco rushed for a score. Cal still hasn't beaten a team that currently has a winning record this season.

USC also had three touchdowns and a fumble recovery wiped out by penalties on another busy night for Pac-12 officials. This crew threw 25 flags for a combined 276 yards in penalties against both teams, but the Trojans persevered where Cal could not.

"A lot of penalties for both teams, but the penalties we got seemed to really have an impact on us," Dykes said. "It was not a real clean game. It was pretty chippy out there. We've got to not get involved in all that."

A holding penalty wiped out Kessler's 42-yard TD pass to Adoree Jackson early in the second quarter, but Agholor made his second TD catch moments later. Cal finally got Harper's TD catch 9 seconds before halftime, reducing USC's lead to 31-9.

That 60-yard drive nearly doubled Cal's offensive output in the first half, after struggling early on against the man-to-man pass defense USC unexpectedly employed.

Cal was 1 for 8 on third down in the first half and saw a pass by punter Cole Leininger go comically awry. The Bears finished the game 3 for 15 on third down, but converted each of their four fourth-down tries after the half.

"If you play against a good football team, you have to play cleaner football than we played tonight," Dykes said. "Credit our guys, we played really hard and never gave up. I thought we played hard for 60 minutes but did not play well enough to beat a good football team."

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