After the USC victory over Cal on Saturday, Trojan head coach Clay Helton said this is the most strong-willed, failure is not an option team he has ever been around.
It remains to be seen how that kind of statement will play out for the remainder of the season but through four games the Trojans have had plenty of opportunities to put the theory to the test, and the Cal game was exception.
We knew coming into the game that Cal was playing better than they had been in recent years with a renewed energy in the program under Justin Wilcox, and once the game started the Bears certainly brought it from a physical standpoint. It was evident from the first play when a Cal defender came in for a quick sack on Sam Darnold. Then it was Cal going for it on 4th down and 1 at the USC 1-yard line, and they were able to punch it in. In fact, the Bears converted their first three 4th down attempts, and 4 of 6 on the game. At halftime it was tied 13-13 with stats that were pretty even, and that score was unchanged as the teams entered the fourth quarter.
Fortunately, the Trojans were able to put the game away in the fourth quarter thanks largely to a USC defense that pressured the Cal offense into a series of turnovers that the USC offense was able to turn into points.
After Chase McGrath had opened the final quarter with a 46-yard field goal to give the Trojans a 16-13 lead it was four straight turnovers on the next four Cal possessions. First it was Josh Fatu getting a strong rush and swiping at Cal QB Ross Bowers, the ball popped in the air and landed in the arms of Uchenna Nwosu, which gave the Trojans the ball at the Cal four-yard line. A pair of carries from true freshman Stephen Carr got the ball in the end zone, with Carr meeting Cal star linebacker Devante Downs head up on the TD run and powering his way for the score. Impressive run Mr. Carr. The next three Cal possessions saw interceptions from Ykili Ross, Jack Jones (his 2nd of the day) and Chris Hawkins, and that stopped any thoughts Cal had of pulling the upset.
So the good news is that the Trojans are now 4-0 after finding a way to overcome adversity once again, but there is also the opportunity to look at why they faced that adversity in the first place.
It was certainly surprising to see Cal match the physical level of the Trojans for much of the game, that’s not something we’re used to seeing. The Trojan run game, while there was a lot to like about what Carr did in place of the injured Ronald Jones, never got into a consistent flow within the offense, and the passing game didn’t have any downfield success to help loosen up the Cal defense. And if the Trojan secondary is giving up over 300 yards passing to Bowers, what is on deck next Friday when USC faces a veteran QB like Luke Falk with Mike Leach calling the plays?
Those issues will have the focus of the coaches and players as teachable moments moving forward but it’s also important to note the factors that helped the Trojans to get the win.
Darnold, even though it wasn’t a great day by his standards, continues to find ways to win. The TV broadcasters made a lot about his competitive nature on the field combined with his laid back nature off the field, and there’s no doubt the Trojans take their emotional cue from their leader. No matter what might go right or wrong during a game, Sam is unflappable in his ability to focus on the next play, to do whatever it takes to get the win. That’s a great trait to have, as is his chemistry with Deontay Burnett.
The performance by Carr isn’t a surprise to USC fans who have watched this young man so far. To me, one of the best parts of watching Carr was to see the way he responded to his fumble, he took it hard but he didn’t let it impact him, and instead he ended the day with 20 rushes for 82 yards and 6 catches for 47 yards. But it was that touchdown run that really stood out, when the true freshman took on the best player on Cal’s team, a talented senior linebacker, and won the physical battle. It was the kind of run that earns a freshman a lot of respect in his own locker room.
And kudos to the USC defensive line for the impact they had in bringing the game home. Josh Fatu had his best game as a Trojan with a sack, a forced fumble, and a tipped ball that led to an interception. Christian Rector had an impact for the second week in a row while filling in for an injured teammate, this time with 2 sacks, 2 hurries and a forced fumble, while Uchenna Nwosu added a fumble recovery and a PBU as well.
And then there was McGrath, he of the game-winning kick against Texas, who followed that up with a trio of field goals in this game, including the pressure of the 46-yard kick that broke the tie to open the fourth quarter.
The result, as it has been for 13 straight games, is that the Trojans came out on top as far as the scoreboard is concerned and, in the end, that’s all that really matters. 4-0 and moving on to Washington State, I’ll take it.