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IMHO Sunday: Rushing to victory

By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think.

The evaluation: Under interim head coach Clay Helton (above photo), the USC Trojans (5-3 overall, 3-2 Pac-12 South) took another step in returning to physical football by not only beating the Cal Bears on the scoreboard, 27-21, but reaching back to their heritage to salt the game away with a physical rushing attack, coupled with a “Fight On” determination in the fourth quarter to close the game out.

 The evaluation – Part 2: Offensively, the Trojans pounded the ball (185 yds.) with all three tailbacks (Justin Davis, Tre Madden, Robert Jones ll) showcasing their own unique style of running. Quarterback Cody Kessler (186 yds. passing) was expert at managing the offense and scrambling out of trouble to complete critical first downs. The receivers were money on receptions, and the offensive line played with gusto, physicality, and purpose, although some of the center snaps were uncomfortably inconsistent. And give credit to junior field goal kicker Alex Wood for connecting on a must-have, career long 43-yard field goal late in the third quarter and a 22-yarder in the second quarter.

The evaluation – Part 3: Defensively, the Trojans managed to pick off two critical Jared Goff passes in the second half. Both interceptions were essential to the game’s outcome. Obviously Adoree’ Jackson’s 46-yard TD pick in the third quarter was paramount to give the Trojans some cushion against the Bears, and Kevon Seymour’s fourth quarter PI was a major takeaway. While the Trojans pass rush was spotty at best with no sacks, it did come up with enough pressure to keep Goff moving. While tackling was an issue early, the Trojans defensive seemed to find a groove as the game progressed. The Trojans defense held the Bears to just 117 yards rushing and 272 in the air.

The bottom line: This game is best summed up by saying that the Trojans were able to avoid a letdown at Cal and continue to improve after the previous week’s victory over nationally ranked Utah. It shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise by the closeness of Saturday’s game in Berkeley because the Trojans held on last season, 38-30, in the Coliseum. You don’t have to be John McKay to see the slow evolution by Clay Helton of turning this team from a finesse group into a physical team on both sides of the ball. The big questions: Can the Men of Troy continue to improve, be physical on both sides of the ball, and play at a high level.

The Trojans perspective: After the game, Trojans interim head coach Clay Helton said, “What a great crowd and atmosphere that was. I cannot say enough about our defensive side of the ball in this game. We have a formula right now to run the ball, stop the run and don’t turn the ball over. If you look at the stats, to get 185 tough rushing yards, especially there at the end with really grown-man runs by No. 23 (Tre Madden) and No. 22 (Justin Davis).

“And then defensively the three turnovers and one pick-six with another huge play by No. 2 (Adoree’ Jackson), it was a tremendous team effort. We’re playing very consistent football right now. We’ll work to make sure that continues. We’re 2-0 in the second half of the season and we want to continue that.”

The California perspective: After the game, Bears head coach Sonny Dykes said, “I thought we played good defensively. They scored an offensive touchdown and we let them get out on a couple of screens, but USC has got some good players. I think that our defense played very hard, and I thought we played good enough defense to win without a doubt. I thought we ran it well early in the game. We needed to run the ball in order to give our quarterback enough time and be able to protect to throw the football. I thought we ran it ok, not as well as we needed to.”

The game changer(s): With 9:23 remaining in the third quarter and the USC up 17-7, Trojans sophomore corner Adoree’ Jackson executed an electrifying 46-yard touchdown interception off of standout Cal quarterback Jared Goff to increase the lead to 24-7. A close second to Jackson’s PI would be tailback Tre Madden’s 14-yard run on third-and-1 at the Trojans 42-yard line with just 2:58 remaining. Appearing stuffed by a wall of humanity, Madden bounced off the barrier of bodies and swept around the right side for a crucial first down.

Adoree’ speaks: Afterward, Trojans corner/wide receiver Adoree’ Jackson said, “We wanted to get pressure on the quarterback because he’s a great quarterback and if we can get pressure on him, us DBs don’t have to stick that long, and so we just wanted to do our job for each position whether it’s the D-line, linebackers, corners, or safeties.”

Adoree’ speaks – Part 2: On his critical 46-yard TD interception return off Cal quarterback Jared Goff, Jackson said, “When I first got it, my whole mind set was to take it to the house because that was my first one (career interception). As soon as I seen the ball up in the air, I knew I was going to go up in the air and try to grab it. So when I seen it, I was trying to point to everyone to block someone, and I seen the whole D and O-line and quarterback trace over to the right side, so I cut it back to the left. I tried to use Chris Hawkins, he got three good blocks for me so I could get it in the end zone. “

No helping hand: After the game, it was announced by Clay Helton that sensational sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith had suffered a fracture hand, an injury that occurred in the same hand before.

Kessler comments: After the game, Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler said, “We’re beat up. We have injuries. Our O-line is going through a lot. I could care less about stats. I really do want to win the game. Whether that’s me making one pass on a third down on a drive to keep it going, or having to tuck it and run, or us just running the ball the whole drive – I’m 100 percent OK with that.”

Offensive line praise: Regarding his offensive line, Cody Kessler said, “This game was won by our offensive line. Our defense did great, but on the offensive side of the ball, our offensive line won this game along with the running backs. I’m so proud of them. They did such a great job.”

The Goff course: On the loss, Cal quarterback Jared Goff said, “Today was a great chance to win. The offense played really well, defense played really well, but USC played really well and deserved to win.”

The offensive barometer: On Saturday, the Trojans scored 27 points against the Bears. The Trojans entered Saturday’s game averaging 38.9 points per game.

The defensive barometer: On Saturday, the Trojans defense gave up 21 points to the Irish. The Trojans entered Saturday’s game allowing 21.7 points per game.

Yards marker: The Trojans won the battle of total offense over Cal 405-389.

Tackling the issue: Leading tackler for the Trojans against the Bears was defensive back Chris Hawkins (8) followed by linebacker Su’a Cravens and defensive lineman Delvon Simmons with five apiece.

TOP: On Saturday, the Trojans dominated the time of possession against the Bears 35:08 – 24:52.

 From the press box…

Tarmac celebration: For the short return flight to L.A., it was reported that the Trojans team plane was stranded on the tarmac of Oakland International because of mechanical issues. Reportedly players were having a good time eating, celebrating, and watching television. Of course, when you win, being stranded on a tarmac can still produce a party.

Lefty speaks: Analyzing the Trojans victory over Cal, former Trojans Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Matt Leinart said, “The thing about USC is now they’re getting back to running the football, and when they run the football first and they set up the pass, that’s why they’re finding success.”

Lefty speaks – Part 2: Leinart added, “Last week against Utah, 45 rush attempts, today against Cal 50 (rushing attempts). They’re dominating the time of possession. They have the speed, they have the playmakers, but they’re being physical up front and that’s allowing those big holes for those talented running backs to run through (the holes). Again, early in the season, sometimes they get too cute with the passing game, the stats with the quarterback, featuring the wide receivers. Right now, they’re running the football to win, and that’s what we’ve seen the last two weeks.”

IMHO: I get that in tough yardage situations and because of their experience there is no reason not to use either running backs Tre Madden or Justin Davis; however, there has to be more carries for true freshman tailback Ronald Jones ll, who again led the Trojans in rushing (80 yds./11 carries) and is a home run threat as demonstrated with his 13-yard touchdown run up the middle in the second quarter.

Keeping count: Memorial Stadium attendance from Saturday’s game was announced as 52,060. Listed capacity is 63,000.

Bay Area Temp: Temperature at kickoff in Memorial Stadium was 72 degrees and sunny.

The post-game show…

Calling it quits: It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that USC Athletic Director Pat Haden – who was not at Saturday’s game in Berkeley -relinquished his duties on the College Football Playoff committee on advice from his doctors. If Haden’s health issues are as tenuous as reported, this was a no-brainer. The question is will his health issues also become a reason at some point for relinquishing his role as athletic director? Thus far, Haden has been given thumbs-up by doctors to continue his role as USC AD.

Change of direction: With Clay Helton now in charge, there has been hints of philosophical differences from his predecessor. As it pertains to the fullback, senior fullback Soma Vainuku says, “He loves us fullbacks and he loves doing stuff like that on the goal line.” On Saturday, the fullbacks made some of the key lead blocks for the running backs.

Worth mentioning: The perception that the Trojans defensive line play has picked up somewhat can be traced by to interim head coach Clay Helton’s presence in taking an active interest in defensive line drills during practice. How much can be debated, but there has been improvement at some level.

Worth mentioning – Part 2: If you think that all Clay Helton knows is offense and not defense, prior to the Cal game the coach said, “Being an offensive coordinator and an offensive line coach’s son, you pick things up. I just want them (the defensive line) to feel the intensity and passion I have for that group. For us to win a championship, it’s going to be won in the trenches.”

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Still the one: The Trojans drawing power for television rating remains high. For the USC-Utah game, according to Fox, the telecast drew 3.3 million television viewers and was the most-watched college football game on the network this season.

The last word: The Trojans return to the Coliseum for Homecoming next Saturday evening (7:30 p.m. PT/ESPN) against the Arizona Wildcats, a shocking 49-3 loser at Washington on Saturday. Last season in Tucson, the Trojans barely escaped the Wildcats, 28-26, on a UofA missed 36-yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds left to play.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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