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USC football: A fan's look back at the Cal game

October 4, 2009 |  4:25 pm


It may have taken longer than expected, but USC has its swagger back.

In their dominating 30-3 victory over California at Berkeley on Saturday, the Trojans looked like ... the Trojans of old. The Trojans who rule the Pac-10, who make a push for the Bowl Championship Series title game, and who finish the season playing as well if not better than any other team in the nation.

Are they as good as past Pete Carroll teams? Not yet, but they’re getting there. And they know it.

“We’re very solid right now,” the coach said after Saturday’s win.

What’s not to like about a 27-point win on the road over the team picked by some in the summer to be the one to end USC’s conference run? The Golden Bears have looked like Gummy Bears (to borrow a line from colleague Chris Dufresne) the last two weeks, but that doesn’t take away from USC’s effort Saturday.

Taylor Mays turned the game around on the first series when he intercepted a pass by Cal’s Kevin Riley in the end zone. Instead of Cal getting a touchdown, or even a field goal, it got nothing. Cal was done after that.

USC’s first two offensive plays resulted in only one yard, but then Matt Barkley connected with tight end Anthony McCoy for a 31-yard gain. A great block by Rhett Ellison allowed McCoy to reach the Cal 48. Three plays later, Joe McKnight scored on a 38-yard run in which he impressively dived the final five yards to beat two defenders. McKnight might be one of the Trojans’ most improved players this season. He’s much more than a finesse runner this season. He’s running more aggressively and with more confidence. With Stafon Johnson out for the season, he is clearly the No. 1 back and should become USC’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush and LenDale White in 2005.

Barkley had another solid game, completing 20 passes to seven receivers. He missed on some passes in the red zone, and USC still had a lot of trouble getting touchdowns when inside the 10. But the bottom line is Barkley, a true freshman, is 4-0 as a starter with road wins at Ohio State and Cal.

Barkley is the starter, of course, because Mark Sanchez left after his junior season for the NFL. When Sanchez departed, I thought the player who would feel it the most would be receiver Damian Williams. Sanchez and Williams tore Penn State apart in the Rose Bowl, Williams catching 10 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown. With no experienced quarterback to get him the ball, I figured Williams’ numbers would fall off, at least initially.

In the season’s first four games, Williams had 16 catches for 258 yards.

On Saturday, he caught eight passes for 101 yards. Expect the Barkley-to-Williams combo to get better and better.

Williams also accounted for USC’s second touchdown on a 66-yard punt return. The junior replaced McKnight as the punt returner this season because of his sure hands.

I’ve lost count how many times he has cleanly fielded a punt deep in USC territory.

Go back to the Ohio State game. Williams had two fair catches at the 20, three at the 14 and one at the 10. If he loses the ball once, USC probably loses that game.

Williams set up two touchdowns against Washington State with long returns, and his touchdown against the Bears came when he tight-roped the final 10 yards, diving in from the four.

Williams’ touchdown made it 17-0 and there was no way Cal was going to get back into the game. Not with USC’s defense playing another outstanding game. Jahvid Best may be the best tailback in the nation, but he wasn’t the best No. 4 on Saturday. That honor belonged to McKnight. Best had 47 yards on 14 carries, a slight improvement from his 13-carry, 30-yard effort against USC last season.

Is it even an issue anymore that USC had eight players off last year’s defense drafted by the NFL?

In five games, the Trojans have given up 43 points and three touchdowns.

The defense will get its most difficult test to date in USC’s next game, at South Bend in two weeks.

Notre Dame, like USC, is 4-1. Jimmy Clausen has become one of the best quarterbacks in college football. The Fighting Irish average 32.6 points a game. They also give up 23.8 points a game.

USC has won seven in a row against the Irish, and last season Notre Dame didn’t get a first down until the last play of the third quarter in a 38-3 USC win.

Both teams have next week off, so there will be two weeks’ worth of hype for the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football. Lou Holtz will predict a Notre Dame victory over “Southern Cal” for the eighth year in a row. Beano Cook will predict that Clausen, a junior, will win the first of four straight Heisman Trophies.

I can hardly wait.

-- Hans Tesselaar

Photo: USC wide receiver Damian Williams runs with the ball during the first quarter. Credit: Kyle Terada / U.S. Presswire