BERKELEY, Calif. — USC students made their way back from Northern California fully satisfied as the No. 7 Trojans breezed past No. 24 Cal 30-3 Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
USC made it look easy in a game that was supposed to be its most difficult test of the season. The Trojans dominated every aspect and put together their best all-around performance of the season in front of a crowd of 71,799.
After a rocky three-week stretch that saw the Trojans squeak past Ohio State, get upset by Washington and 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.”
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, capped by a highlight reel-worthy 38-yard touchdown run by running back Joe McKnight where the junior dove past two defenders and stretched out just enough to get the ball across the plane for a score.
“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 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 redshirt junior, who took over full-time 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 with his arm. 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.”