BERKELEY — USC strong safety Cleveland Colter had a chokehold on the game ball as he walked off the field Saturday after the Trojans' 31-14 win over Cal at Memorial Stadium.
Colter, who earned the ball with a 94-yard touchdown interception return in the third period, didn't want to lose his trophy.
"I'm going to give this to my mom," Colter said, pointing to the ball. "This is the first time I've ever returned an interception for a touchdown."
Colter's big play was the key to the Trojans' Pacific 10 Conference opening win over the Golden Bears.
"It was a gigantic play," Cal rookie Coach Bruce Snyder said of Colter's interception. "That was a 10-point swing. We were setting up for a field goal, which would have made it 14-10 (USC), and he made it 21-7. That's a helluva shift."
Cal, which trailed, 14-7, at halftime, took the second-half kickoff and was driving toward a game-tying touchdown.
However, on third and 10 at the Trojan 21, Colter stepped in front of Cal wide receiver Brian Bedford at the six-yard line and picked off quarterback Troy Taylor's pass.
"It was nobody's fault," Taylor said of the play. "It was just an unfortunate mistake. It was just miscommunication on the play calling. We wound up with two guys in the same zone."
Colter said he anticipated Taylor's pass.
"The quarterback looked my way the whole time," Colter said. "I just did my job. I was either going to hit (Bedford) hard or pick it off."
Colter got a block from nose tackle Dan Owens at the Trojan 30 to spring him into the open down the left sideline.
Taylor had a chance to knock Colter out of bounds at the Cal 20, but USC linebacker Marcus Cotton ran interference, shielding Taylor out of the play.
Colter, who said he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, nearly ran out of gas and stumbled into the end zone.
"I died at the end," Colter said. "I was exhausted. I'm just glad I crossed the end line. I almost tripped."
Despite the interception, Colter said he didn't play that well.
"Overall, my game wasn't too good," he said. "I missed a couple of tackles I shouldn't have missed. But the interception made it better."
Said Chris Allen, USC's defensive coordinator: "The best part of Cleveland's interception was the run. It was a key play for us and it really hurt Cal."
USC's defense, which had allowed the first touchdown in their two previous games, started slowly once again.
Cal scored easily on its first possession of the game when Taylor hit Rob Bimson with a six-yard touchdown pass to cap a 52-yard, 9-play drive. Taylor completed his first three passes for 25 yards.
"It was like deja vu," USC cornerback Greg Coauette said of Cal's first series. "We've always been slow on that first series. And it's something we've got to change."
USC Coach Larry Smith lectured the defense after they came off the field.
Whatever Smith said must have worked because the Trojan defense shut down the Golden Bear offense for the rest of the game, intercepting three passes.
"(Smith) was telling us to keep our heads up," said USC linebacker Delmar Chesley, who had an interception and made six tackles. "He was saying that we had to create turnovers."
The Trojan defense also set up Rodney Peete's 23-yard, tie-breaking touchdown pass to Randy Tanner late in the second period.
With the score tied, 7-7, Coauette intercepted a pass from Taylor with 1:30 remaining. Peete hit Tanner in the end zone on the next play with 1:23 left in the half to give USC a 14-7 lead.
"The quarterback was getting pressure (from outside linebacker Bill Stokes) and he sort of lofted the ball for their fullback (Todd Powers)," Coauette said. "I was going to try to make a big hit on him (Powers), but I saw him turn and I picked it off.
"All I wanted to do was hold onto the ball. It was my first interception at USC. I've dropped three since I've been here and I wanted to make sure I caught it.
"The defensive line was on Taylor all day. He is a young kid and he got flustered."