It was supposed to be USC’s toughest game of the year. Instead, the Trojans made it look easy.
The No. 7 Trojans breezed past No. 24 Cal 30-3 Saturday at Memorial Stadium in a game in which the Trojans dominated every aspect and put together their best all-around performance of the season in front of 71,799.
After a rocky three-week stretch that saw the Trojans squeak past Ohio State, get upset by Washington, then underperform against Washington State, everything seemed to come together for USC on offense, defense and special teams.
“I am really fired up about a lot of good things that are happening,” USC coach Pete Carroll said. “This is a win we take a lot of pride in. We are just going to keep on pushing.”
Cal looked like it would put up a fight when it marched down the field with ease on its first possession to the Trojans’ 6-yard line. But all the Golden Bears’ momentum vanished when quarterback Kevin Riley rolled out to the right side and threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by senior safety Taylor Mays in the end zone.
“We looked a little shaky [on the first drive] but the defense has always come through,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Chris Galippo said. “And we’ve been awesome with our backs against the wall this year.”
“They were driving and they were making a statement early in the game that they were ready to play,” Mays said.
Mays’ pick silenced Cal’s early statement and the USC offense took over from there. The Trojans moved the ball 80 yards in six plays, culminating in a highlight-reel 38-yard touchdown run by running back Joe McKnight in which the junior dove past two defenders and stretched out just enough to get the ball over the plain.
“It was a big tone-setter for everybody on the offense and plus for the whole team,” McKnight said.
Carroll said the immediate response by the USC offense carried even more weight than Mays’ interception.
“Even better than [the interception] was the drive after that, 80 yards down for the touchdown,” Carroll said.
After McKnight’s touchdown, the Trojans scored 13 more unanswered points to finish what was perhaps their best half of football this season. McKnight scored again in the fourth quarter to lead the Trojans with 121 yards on 20 carries.
USC’s first-half dominance was highlighted by redshirt junior receiver Damian Williams’ 66-yard punt return for a touchdown. Williams found a seam up the middle then tiptoed along the sideline before diving toward the pile-on for the score.
The junior, who took over fulltime punt returning duties this season, was pleased after his first career punt return for a touchdown.
“I caught the ball and all 10 guys in front of me made great blocks,” Williams said. “It started with Garrett Green. He made pretty much the springing block in front of me and I only had to beat one person, and that was the punter.”
Although he did not throw a touchdown, freshman quarterback Matt Barkley had his most consistent performance of his career, going 20-of-35 for 283 yards with one interception. The offensive playbook seemed to fully open up for the first time this season, allowing Barkley to take shots down the field.
“I think they’ve had that faith [in me] this whole time, we just decided to it open up now,” Barkley said. “I’m confident that the coaches believe in me and they do.”
While the Trojans were racking up points, Cal’s offense failed to get going after Riley’s interception. The USC defense limited Cal running back Jahvid Best to 49 yards on 14 carries.
“We felt like we had control at some points in the game, but it just wasn’t happening for us,” Best said.
With the Heisman-hopeful unable to get into a rhythm, Cal became one-dimensional, and the onus was on Riley to beat the Trojans throwing. But the pass defense held as well, holding Riley to 14-of-40 passing with 199 yards and one interception.
“We were zero-dimensional today, because we couldn’t run it and we couldn’t throw it,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said.
Cal avoided the shutout when kicker Vince D’Amato’s 29-yard field goal in the fourth quarter gave Cal its only points of the game.
“The consistency of our defense is just great,” Carroll said of the squad that held Cal to 285 yards in total offense. “We love the guys [on defense] that left [to the NFL], but the guys that are here are playing really good football.”
Not to be forgotten in the Trojans’ dominating win was injured senior running back Stafon Johnson. Multiple Trojans wrote the number 13 or “S. Johnson” on their eye-paint to honor their teammate who is recovering from emergency surgery to repair his voice box after a freak weightlifting accident.
“I’m happy that we could play this game for Stafon,” Barkley said. “He was in our hearts the whole time and you could really tell. [It was a] great victory for us and for him.”