LOS ANGELES – Sultan McCullough had the busiest day of any Southern California tailback in the last 15 years, and he didn’t mind a bit.
“Somebody’s got to carry the load. It was me and I’m grateful,” McCullough said after rushing 39 times for 176 yards as the 20th-ranked Trojans rallied to beat California 30-28 Saturday.
“I got tired, but the coaches had been saying all week, ‘Finish, finish, finish.’ And that’s what I had to do,” he said.
Golden Bears linebacker Marcus Daniels was impressed by McCullough, a former Pac-10 champion in the 100 meters.
“Sultan is a heck of a back. He reads and cuts well,” Daniels said.
McCullough’s 2-yard touchdown run with 8:38 left in the third quarter gave the Trojans a 24-21 lead after they fell behind 21-3 early in the second quarter.
Carson Palmer completed 25 of 39 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns for the Trojans (4-2, 2-1 Pac-10).
Ryan Killeen, who missed two field goals and a critical extra point in USC’s loss to Washington State last week, kicked field goals of 34, 32 and 18 yards and was perfect on PATs.
He did miss a 38-yarder in the third quarter, but his two field goals in the fourth proved to be the difference because the Bears came back to score a touchdown with 35 seconds left.
Before that, the Trojans had shut down Cal (4-3, 1-2) since the Bears scored their third TD three minutes into the second quarter.
“They dominated the second half,” first-year Cal coach Jeff Tedford said after the Bears lost to the Trojans in Los Angeles for the first time since 1994, a span of five games. “The way we win games is to get turnovers and capitalize. Today, we gave the ball away twice and had key penalties.”
The 39 carries by McCullough, who won the conference 100-meter title with a 10.18-second clocking as a freshman in 1999, were the most for a Trojans tailback since Steve Webster had 40 in a game in 1987.
The school record of 51 carries was set by Ricky Bell in 1976.
Cal’s Kyle Boller went 20-of-30 for 211 yards, with two touchdowns. But he was just 6-of-19 for 87 yards in the second half. He threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Tom Swoboda with 35 seconds left, but the Trojans recovered the onside kick.
McCullough’s 2-yard TD run gave the Trojans their first lead. He rushed eight times for 38 of the 68 yards USC covered on that third-quarter drive.
The Trojans trimmed the deficit to 21-17 by halftime on a pair of scoring throws by Palmer, the first of which appeared to be a phantom touchdown.
On third-and-goal from the Bears’ 6, Kareem Kelly made a diving catch in the back of the end zone, but the ball appeared to immediately slip from his grasp and bounce back into his arms. It was ruled a touchdown rather than an incompletion, however.
“I’m still sticking with it was a good catch. Other than that, I have no comment,” Palmer said.
Kelly explained: “I had the ball. The ground helped me secure the ball. I rolled over and the ref had his hands up.”
That score at 5:29 of the second quarter came after Boller dropped the ball while scrambling and Trojans linebacker Matt Grootegoed fell on it to halt a Bears’ drive at the USC 34.
On the Trojans’ next possession, Palmer engineered a 76-yard drive capped by his 21-yard pass to Mike Williams, who had six catches for 103 yards.
Cal built its 21-3 lead on first-quarter touchdown runs by Joe Igber and Terrell Williams, and Boller’s 15-yard scoring strike to Jonathan Makonnen in the second quarter.